Reflections from an LGBTI rights NGO in Malawi
On a chilly July morning, three young people mill about the lobby of Malawi’s LGBTI rights NGO, Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP), located in the capital, Lilongwe. They wait to drop off forms documenting the number of men who have sex with men (MSM) that they reached with condoms, lubricants, and safer-sex messages this week. They will also report the number of human rights violations cases referred to victim support units or Malawi’s Human Rights Commission. These peer educators gripe among themselves about delays in receiving their small monthly stipends, claiming they should be paid more for the work they do everyday in the “field.”
Peer educators (PEs) are central to efforts to mitigate the spread of HIV in “rights-constrained” environments like Malawi. As skilled and compassionate advocates, conduits for information, and role models, they also mobilize peers to attend workshops or training sessions. From the “same group” as their clients, PEs are assumed to “empathize and understand the emotions, thoughts, feelings, language of the participants, and therefore, relate better,” as an internal manual put it. Yet their status as volunteers amid lack of funds for salaries obscures the fundamental work PEs contribute to research, health interventions, and advocacy. Further, whereas significant effort is put into protecting confidentiality and ensuring high ethical standards are met for research participants or target populations (PEs’ clients), less attention is paid to ethical issues faced by LGBTI-identified volunteers who implement project objectives touted in a donor report for “maintaining high retention and increasing the knowledge of and access to HIV information and justice services for underserved MSM” in Malawi.
CEDEP’s budget, wholly funded by donors, rarely includes budget lines for salaries or protections to improve the security of PEs working in homophobic contexts. For example, while CEDEP experienced pressure from a donor to collect data about an MSM HIV prevention program, the donor was reluctant to supply CEDEP staff and PEs with vehicles that would help achieve targets for data collection and provide personnel security against violence and attacks they experience on foot. One CEDEP PE is regularly beaten as he walks along a main path near the town center in his home district. While these beatings have gone on for a long time, he said he feels his regular attendance of workshops and trainings on “gay issues” has made him a “marked man.”
While ethical guidelines for compensation for participation (e.g., surrendering data to research projects via survey responses or blood tests) in research studies are clearly spelled out, there is less clarity about how to compensate individuals who make projects work, such as PEs. The same logics around undue inducement—that compensation for research participation should not be so large as to be coercive—obtain in discussions about volunteers. A recent consultant’s report on CEDEP’s peer education program, for example, suggested that CEDEP focus on recruiting PEs who are “not just…there for the money and not results oriented.” Such findings affirm connotations of altruism and generosity carried by the term “volunteer,” but obscure the fact that PEs rely on the salary they collect for doing what they themselves, without recourse to formal jobs, explicitly name as work.
While LGBTI persons in Malawi appreciate the HIV care and testing, antiretroviral therapy (ART), trainings, condoms, and lubes they gain access to through engagement with CEDEP, their other most acutely felt need is economic support, loans or jobs. Items they receive from CEDEP stoke their hopes, and call upon them to become certain kinds of people so they might benefit from the NGO’s largesse in the future. Volunteering, then, is inherently a social form whose content is motivated and informed by economic desires and an imagined better future, even as dominant sentimental discourse hesitates to frame care as a commodity or to acknowledge that volunteering could ever be incentivized. By valorizing an ideal-type volunteer who eschews greed and self-interest, donors, researchers and consultants delegitimize PEs’ claims that they deserve more for their risky labor.
The figure of the LGBTI-identified peer educator invites us to critically consider the unpredictable consequences and social relations that arise in infrastructures of engagement. Their experiences teach us that even as community engagement might build social networks and trust, it also generates an “economy of harms”: a network of social relations that hinge on transactions that are simultaneously risky and potentially profitable, that takes shape amid circuits of global health and human rights resource distribution in Africa. A more capacious interpretation of “harm” makes visible a plethora of negotiations and daily challenges often framed as mere side effects to larger projects. An anthropological lens that centers the experiences of actors in between donors and key populations sheds light on how LGBTI people ambivalently navigate a network of social relations that hinges on transactions that are simultaneously risky and potentially profitable.
Crystal Biruk is assistant professor of anthropology at Oberlin College and Gift Trapence is the executive director of CEDEP in Malawi.
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Cite as: Biruk, Crystal and Gift Trapence. 2017. “‘Gay for Pay’ in an Economy of Harm.” Anthropology News website, April 14, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.405