Community Engagement in an Economy of Harms: Reflections From an LGBTI-rights NGO in Malawi


Drawing on our experiences as an anthropologist and a researcher-activist working with a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights NGO in Malawi, this paper presents reflections on the ethics of engaging LGBTI-identified Malawians in research and other projects. While community engagement is normatively discussed as a tactic for creating meaningful dialogue and collaboration between researchers and the researched, this paper advocates a broadening of the term research' to encompass NGO work and activities with LGBTI persons in order to complicate normative discussions of harm - rooted in biomedical research or clinical trial contexts - that cast it primarily as visible bodily or mental suffering that befalls research participants. First, we discuss some less obvious risks faced by LGBTI-identified volunteer peer educators as they go about their work, and, second, we show how seemingly minor benefits such as provision of per diems for attending workshops generate patron/client relations and mostly unfulfilled expectations for future financial or other support that might be construed as a form of harm. Throughout, we emphasize how LGBTI people learn to navigate an economy of harms,' a network of social relations that hinge on transactions and obligations that are simultaneously risky and potentially profitable. A more capacious interpretation of harms and benefits - from the perspective of those on the front lines of projects - that arise through modes of engagement can nuance our thinking about the ethics of engagement with key populations living in impoverished and rights-constrained settings such as Malawi.


Taylor & Francis

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Critical Public Health



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