Volume 9, Issue 4
Fall 2007

Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights and the African Poor. Harri Englund. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. 260 pp.

Harri Englund seeks to engage with what he deems “one of the most obvious features of the new era, the unprecedented public interest in human rights” (p. 5) by examining how the rhetoric of human rights gets translated as practice in Malawi . Englund provides an insightful and strong critique of neoliberal freedoms and human rights activism. Based on extensive field research from Malawi as well as comparative sources in Zambia , Englund addresses how human rights narrowly defined can hamper struggles against injustice. Freedoms, based on abstract concepts of individualism, can actually undermine democratization rather than promote liberation. His original and compelling argument adds a critical dimension to both the intellectual debates and practical applications of democracy and human rights.

The central argument in Prisoners of Freedom contends that equating human rights with political freedoms serves to undermine struggles against poverty and injustice. Englund attempts to move beyond empirical debates about human rights in order to explore how things actually function in practice on the ground. To address how Malawians encountered human rights policies, Englund examines four major themes: the politics of translation, the effect of civic education projects, the limitations of legal aid, and the “moral panic” of the poor as a collective response to new policies. In his multi-lingual analysis, he argues that in many cases human rights documents are not only inaccurately translated into various languages, but that the translations are in fact detrimental to human rights. Further, he believes civic education projects — designed to empower the “grassroots” — actually serve to create a further distinction between the teachers of rights and those presumed to be in need of instruction rather than to promote change. Legal aid, particularly aid granted from international sources, is hampered by its focus on individual claims rather than structural problems. Finally, he explores the “moral panic” of 2003 in Lilongwe as an example of how the poor expressed their frustrations over their virtues, needs, and expectations not being met.

While each of Englund's eight chapters is compelling and effectively argued, his third chapter illustrates the best in thorough, well-argued scholarship. He brilliantly brings to life the intricacies of civic education in Malawi and questions whether such programs have succeeded in either alleviating poverty or creating room for debate about how best to do so. Englund's strength lies not only in his demonstrated deep knowledge of, and passion for, his study, but also in his ability to weave together vast and complex field data into an organized, thoughtful framework that keeps readers focused and engaged. He succeeds in both linking and drawing distinctions between universal concepts and local realities. Englund demonstrates that “the very idea of human rights may, despite its universalist pretensions, assume a highly particular content” (p. 146) to argue for alternative forms of democracy, ones that are more flexible in their approach to human rights and take into account the realities of peoples' lives and needs.

If Englund seeks to expand the definition of human rights and examine how injustice is experienced by the poor, his argument could be further strengthened if he included more in-depth analysis about gender. In his discussion about the balance between rights and responsibilities, Englund uses the debate about “too much freedom” to illustrate how youth and women were blamed for social subversion rather than seen as victims of structural inequality. While he points out that “the potential in the translated human rights discourse to incite subversion became apparent in generational and gendered tensions” (p. 66), he does not draw out what these inequalities are or how his perspective could effectively address them. Further, in another section where he outlines Malawian fears about the safety of schoolchildren, he mentions that the fears were heightened by the mutilated bodies of women and a schoolgirl, but provides no analysis of this gendered violence.

While critics may argue that Englund does not give enough credit to local, national, and international attempts to improve the conditions of Malawians, a careful reading of his work reveals an analysis that encourages increased collaboration rather than a dismantling of programs. Englund sets out to expand the definition of democracy of human rights, and provides vast data to argue that what “freedom” means for the poor often does not correspond to limited notions of individual political freedoms.

Overall, Englund is convincing and effective in his fresh and critical questioning of how limited notions of freedom and democracy serve the poor. Prisoners of Freedom is an bold and important addition to scholarship about human rights because it traces how philosophical notions are put into practice. Further, the book is exceptionally well-structured and researched. Englund's work will be of interest to activists and international aid workers as well as scholars of African history, economics, and politics. Although well-written and argued, Prisoners of Freedom as a classroom text is dense in parts and would be best used in upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses. This excellent book ultimately demonstrates that the practice of human rights is more important in the implementation of justice than mere abstractions about individual political freedoms.

Emily Musil
University of California, Los Angeles