Mark Dawson commented on his Facebook page about attending the International Studies Association meetings in New Orleans this year, and promises to write something for this blog later this week. This brought back memories to me. I attended the ISA meetings about ten years ago in the hope that they would be interested in my research about the nature of NGOs and refugee assistance in Africa. I was interested in what were the best ways to deliver refugee aid in a fashion which was efficient, effective, and culturally appropriate. Sociology, which is where my Ph.D. is from, was nominally my platform; however, sociology has never done particularly with international in general, and Africa in particular. As a result I was open to other approaches at the time, which is why I went to the ISA meetings first in Washington, D.C. (1999), and later in New Orleans (2002).
Wobbly about being a sociologist, I though that International Relations or maybe even anthropology, might suit me better. The ISA meetings disabused me of my pretensions that that might be the field for me, as described here. At the ISA, I found very few sessions interested in my brand of culturally appropriate NGO refugee assistance work. Instead, there was emphasis on things like monetary policy, trade balances, military alliances, diplomacy, nuclear deterrence, and the uses of rational choice theory. Few of them addressed issues of culture in a fashion reflecting my experiences in Tanzania. Instead, culture seemed to be included simply as one of several quantified independent variables in a regression equation, or as a condition frustrating attempts at social engineering. In other words, the conference addressed issues of International Relations, which I guess is fair enough given the nature of the International Studies Association. Most sessions seemed to use some form of higher mathematics, and few dealt with NGOs, or culture as an interesting phenomenon for its own sake. Many of the talks were about how to achieve foreign policy goals.
The highlight of my two ISA conferences was an invite to a side-meeting about the Nigerian elections of 1999 in Washington DC. I had met a visitor from the Congressional Hunger Center in 1996 while working as a field worker with refugees in Tanzania. I ran into him at the conference, and he asked me to come to a meeting about the coming elections in Nigeria which was being held at Congressional Hunger Center; there was concern in the US government that a humanitarian operation would be needed later that year to alleviate any suffering resulting from potential election violence. I like the idea of such contingency planning, and agreed to come. He asked me to come as a “representative” of NGOs, of whom there were to be few there.
The meeting was chaired by a former ambassador of some sort, who asked us to introduce ourselves. There were twenty or so of us in the room and, as it turned out only two of us from NGOs, myself formerly of Lutheran World Federation where I was pretty low on the totem pole, and a Vice President of some sort from World Vision. The rest were from US government agencies of various kinds, including the Defense Department, USAID, National Security Agency, Congress, Department of State, and so forth. The other NGO guy and I were the only ones there not in suit and tie. We were also the only ones not dropping names of White House contacts, or mumbling about how we had such-and-such a security clearance from the US government buyt didn’t know what was happening in Nigeria. I didn’t drop such information because I hadn’t known before that day known such things existed. The main complaint from all the government guys was that despite their high level security clearances, they did not know what was happening in Nigeria.
The only useful purpose I served was when one of the suits with a high security clearance asked me how I would find out what was going on in Nigeria. I told him that I would ask a missionary, Peace Corps Volunteer, NGO worker, or someone living in the area. There was then a long discussion about how US aid should be tied to requirements that NGOs, etc., be required to provide information to the spooks in the field. I told them that many NGO-types would communicate such information to no one other than their bosses within the NGO. And that anyway, most of us liked to avoid being thought of as branches of the US government. (I didn’t use the word “spies” but thought it).
Anyway, I never heard again from the Congressional Hunger Committee, or other such agency. I guess that I was just not their type of guy. I also stopped going to the ISA mainly because I realized that there wasn’t a focus on the way I saw the world, so why bother? That doesn’t mean that I always see eye to eye with sociological or anthropological meetings, or journals. But at least there are plenty of sessions exploring questions using a similar world view. I guess that is why I am a sociologist who writes on an anthropology blog.