Leiden Anthropology Blog

The Uncertainty of Help

The Uncertainty of Help Courtesy of Cambridge Journals Blog

What role do local institutions of mutual security play in managing the growing economic and political uncertainties in African communities today? How do people in everyday life manage these economic and political insecurities?

These are the questions addressed in a special section entitled “Mutuality in an Era of Uncertainty” of the current issue of Africa, the Cambrigde Journal journal devoted to the study of African societies and culture. The special section is guest edited by Daivi Rodima-Taylor and Erik Bähre, and you can read a preview of the special section below.

Alternative forms of distribution

“Mutuality in an Era of Uncertainty” argues that various voluntary associations, from informal economic networks and savings-credit groups to vigilante units and neighbourhood courts, have become central in regulating access to resources and defining patterns of association in Africa. These associations offer alternative forms of distribution that have become particularly relevant in the past decades of neoliberal deregulation reforms.

Through in-depth ethnographic accounts as well as comparative contributions from authors including Andrew Ainslie and Gustav Peebles, the authors uncover the role of mutual assistance organisations as important channels for new types of resources, values and freedoms. The studies highlight the relationship between mutuality and its organisational forms, drawing attention to the uneven and partial ‘informal’ formalisation of mutual help arrangements, and the importance of ritual and symbolic aspects in legitimising novel solidarities.

Against the erosion of mutualities

The studies demonstrate the ambiguous potential of social security networks. In some instances, forms of mutuality help to empower the marginal, but they can also contribute to social strife and political conflict. The ways in which uncertainty manifests itself lead to the emergence of specific and frequently novel forms of association.

Daivi Rodima-Taylor’s study on Tanzanian cooperative work and savings groups and Erik Bähre’s article about mutuality within South African taxi associations reveal how changing economic and political landscapes have led to new interdependencies and new forms of belonging, but also novel modes of exclusion and deprivation. The studies reveal that mutual help institutions can be central to the circulation of money at the interface of formal and informal and may reveal crucial reorientations of ontologies and identities.

Andrew Ainslie’s study discusses the central importance of ancestor rituals in mutual help activities in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province in the contexts of growing rural-urban mobility and chronic economic uncertainty, showing how ceremonies have become central for integrating money flows from formal redisributive sources of the state and informal reciprocal credit arrangements.

Gustav Peebles’ article examines boundary making within financial mutuals from a global policy perspective, exploring the strategies of mutuality that the ‘unbanked’ employ to counter their forced separation from the global economy.

Parker Shipton’s comparative contribution discusses trust, kinship and solidarity in Africa and beyond, calling for a broader and interdisciplinary analysis of mutuality.

Towards a reconfiguration of mutualities

The articles in this special section reveal that emerging forms of mutuality need to be analysed within their specific temporalities and localities, and as connected to the ways in which people are tied to the wider world through the processes of globalisation. They reveal how the environments of chronic uncertainty in Africa have sometimes impacted adversely on existing patterns of cooperation, but also facilitated new spaces for contesting and legitimising novel – and often more strongly institutionalised – forms of solidarity.

This blog is a cooperation of Daivi Rodima-Taylor and Erik Bähre that also features at the Cambridge Journals Blog. For the articles of the special section in Africa, go to the Cambridge Journals website on “Mutuality in an Era of Uncertainty”.

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