In This Review

A Fraught Embrace: The Romance and Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa
A Fraught Embrace: The Romance and Reality of AIDS Altruism in Africa
By Ann Swidler and Susan Cotts Watkins
304 pp, Princeton University Press, 2017

Swidler and Watkins spent the better part of two decades studying foreign aid programs in Malawi, especially those addressing the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis. They have produced a savvy and insightful book that focuses on the actors involved and the culture in which they operate and, refreshingly, pays remarkably little attention to policies and organizational charts, which are the usual focus of such studies. Through detailed ethnographic observation of the workshops, training sessions, and monitoring and evaluation exercises in which foreign aid personnel interact with aid recipients, the authors reveal how miscommunication bedevils people who make good-faith efforts to work together but who have different interests and values and face many constraints. Swidler and Watkins zero in on the importance of the local brokers who inevitably emerge as intermediaries between donor officials and recipient communities. The brokers’ effectiveness and commitment help determine the success of aid projects, but donors too often misunderstand, neglect, or antagonize them. This is a deeply empathetic book that explains the failures of foreign aid even as it celebrates the idealism, generosity, and courage of those who deliver it.