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Cathy Buerger: Human Rights Participation and Political Identity in Ghana

BY Johanna Debari


Below, Cathy Buerger, Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology and recipient of the Human Rights Institute 2015-2016 Dissertation Writing Fellowship, discusses her research project on human rights participation and political identity in Ghana.

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[Cathy, observing a community youth group meeting]

“In the summer of 2008, I was living in Accra, Ghana, and working for a local human rights NGO. Part of the NGO’s work focused on providing legal services and capacity building education to a low-income slum community in Accra. One day, I asked a community organizer at the NGO whether he thought the presence of the organization had made an impact on residents in the community. The community organizer had grown up in the neighborhood and had therefore seen how it had changed over the years. He was quiet for a moment, and then responded:

“Many people do not think about human rights. They do not think about development. They just live. Then they begin to realize. Then there are strange and specific questions that are presented to lawyers. They are very interesting questions. They begin to realize that as citizens, they are supposed to be part and parcel of the government. Government is not some city over there anymore. Now they say “Oh! So it is our right! They are not being good. That is what they are supposed to be doing.”

After I left Ghana that summer, the phrase, “government is not some city over there anymore,” stuck with me. From the perspective of the community organizer, residents, who before felt very distant from the operations of government, now felt connected. From his perspective, government was no longer an altruistic entity, like so many other organizations that had made an appearance in the community over the years. Instead, government leaders were participants in a social contract. This altered notion of the relationship between person and state is particularly radical in a community that has long been categorized as a “slum.” Within the literature, slums are generally described as places that are governed, rather than places that participate in government. Therefore, if true, the claim made by the community organizer presented a potentially valuable new way to consider the impact of human rights participation from a local perspective.

When I returned to the US and later entered graduate school, I knew that I wanted to pursue research in Ghana on the relationship between human rights participation and political identity. Subsequent trips to Ghana to conduct preliminary research (funded in part through the Human Rights Institute), helped me distill my dissertation research agenda. When I finally returned in 2013 to begin my dissertation fieldwork, my goal was to investigate two primary questions: 1) does participation in human rights-based activities have an impact on individual beliefs about democracy and the state? And, 2) if so, how do these altered beliefs manifest themselves in changed social behavior, including the way that individuals advance claims and participate in local political processes? During my fieldwork, I attended meetings with local organizations that have received training from the NGO, and I interviewed the group’s members, human rights activists, and local and state authority figures involved in various community development projects. I employed a mixed-methods approach, including participant observation, semi-structured interviews, focus groups, community surveys (with both residents who have and who have not participated in human rights activities), as well as archival research. By using longitudinal ethnography, returning to the field over the course of several years, I was able to observe and document changes in the way that these activists talked about and engaged with the state.

Drawing together the literature on political anthropology and the anthropology of human rights, in my dissertation, I argue that participating in human rights activities has a long-lasting impact on the way that activists settle disputes, the frequency with which they contact government officials, and the way that they talk about the responsibilities of the state. Within “slum” communities, residents continue to be impacted by the legacies of colonial and post-colonial official plans and maps that rendered them “illegal.” My research illustrates the ways that local human rights education and mobilization activities attempt to counter these specific colonial histories and reposition residents as engaged citizens (with varying degrees of success). For many activists, however, human rights activities provide new avenues for community engagement that challenges the state and a new sense of entitlement with which to do so.

I am very grateful for both the financial and intellectual support provided by the UConn Human Rights Institute throughout my graduate career. The conversations that I have had at the HRI (both casually and as a part of groups like the ESRG and Teaching Human Rights) have challenged my thinking and helped shaped my research and teaching. During the fellowship period, I have focused my attention on writing my dissertation and preparing several journal manuscripts. I plan to defend my dissertation in the spring of 2016.”