, Volume 93, Number 5

Emma-Louise Anderson and Amy S. Patterson
Based on 16 months of fieldwork conducted in Malawi and Zambia between 2005 and 2014, this article advances debates on North–South relations by providing an actor-oriented view of donor politics. Drawing upon 152 interviews, 104 focus group discussions and a series of observations, it demonstrates how local people instrumentalize the fuzziness of ‘empowerment’ discourses to gain resources, status and opportunities. Our analysis of how local people push back against top-down dictated policies and structures in international affairs is highly pertinent because of Africa’s extreme dependency on external resources for the AIDS response. We argue that the malleability of ‘empowerment’ in the AIDS enterprise has strategic advantages for seemingly dependent people living with HIV. Through ‘performances of compliance’ that mimic dominant ideologies, ‘extraversion’ that plays up recipients’ weakness in global structures, and silence and humour that extend beyond the limits of the spoken word, locals embrace the elasticity of ‘empowerment’ and show agency despite the constraints of poverty, aid dependence, hunger and unemployment. These actions close the space for actual transformation of local people’s lives because they create power imbalances within communities, privileging some while silencing and disadvantaging others.

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