The globalisation of aid rituals-MDG summit and twittering about peace in Darfur

The current hype around the MDG summit in New York reminded me of a very insightful ethnography by Frank Lechner and John Boli who had a closer look at UN summits/world conferences. Their key observation in their chapter ‘Constructing world culture-UN meetings as global ritual’ is that conferences tend to follow some ritualised processes and it seemed to be truer than ever:

‘Somewhat defensively, a UN document asserts that the series of UN conferences is more than an “extravagant talk-fest” (UN 1999). They have had a “long-term impact,” it says, in mobilizing organizations, serving as a forum, stimulating government commitments, and setting international standards. As a public relations effort, such self-congratulation may not be persuasive enough to assure the future of summits, but it contains a kernel of truth. As peak events in a broader process, world conferences have served as a kind of global ritual. Not only the women's conferences have been effective at sacralization; so have many others. In fact, by recycling themes and reaffirming principles from one meeting to the next, the meetings reinforce their collective messages. The whole of the ritual apparatus is more than the sum of conference texts. UN world conferences have functioned as secular ritual by periodically focusing world attention on selected topics through events in a particular format that lead to the affirmation and promulgation of knowledge and principles guiding global action. As part of a larger whole, they have helped to make a culture that transcends regional traditions. Enshrining certain ideas and symbols as “totems” of world society, they have contributed to defining a global reality. In these events, we thus recognize some of the power the sociologist Emile Durkheim attributed to religious ritual, namely to express and reinforce a society's sacred beliefs.’
(Lechner and Boli 2005: 102 [Lechner, Frank J., and John Boli. “Constructing world culture.” World culture - origins and consequences. Ed. Frank J. Lechner, and Boli, John. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 81-108]).

The most interesting paradox for me is that why many commentators have started to talk about the local or regional meaning of the MDG targets according to Lechner and Boli a world conference achieves exactly the opposite: They help to create or maintain ‘totems’ that will convince the ‘world society’ that somehow ‘progress’ is being made and the rituals in New York will ensure that the ‘insiders’ will pat themselves on the back. It may be worthwhile to travel a bit back in time to engage with a very interesting definition of ritual that David Wright and Robert Snow published in 1980:
‘The power of a ritual to effect belief and practice depends in large measure on how thoroughly the participants have internalised its central or root metaphors, the transforming agents (or “active ingredients”) of rituals. In short, metaphor translates metaphysics into action through ritual, transforming through perceptual and social control. (...) Rituals involve metaphorical strategies which, through the process of identification and internalisation, transform the individual from a weak outsider to an accepted, often powerful, member of the community.'

(Wright and Snow 1980: 328 [Wright, David E., Snow, Robert E. "Consumption as Ritual in the High Technology Society." Rituals and ceremonies in popular culture. Ed. Ray B. Browne. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1980. 326-337]).

In short, world conferences are important events to ‘produce’ or confirm ‘insiders’ and that ensure that the core metaphor of ‘MDGs’ will be internalised by those who are fortunate enough to call themselves ‘insiders’.

What has changed since the days of Wright and Lechner, though, is that the notion of ‘text’ has undergone some significant changes: Blog posts and Twitter messages seemed to have gained more importance, although policy papers or other classical forms of writing are still going strong-there is just more ‘noise’ than there was ever before.

One example I found quite interesting in the way old and new ‘writing’ rituals interact was the live twittering from an event at the United States Institute for Peace. ‘Civil Society in Darfur: The Missing Peace’ was probably a very insightful event, but the new ritual that you need to include your global audience ‘as it happens’ by Twitter only produced very general insights such as:
Tubiana @USIP "Civ. soc. in theory is everything btwn state, family & market- largely apolitical. In #Darfur it is impossible to divide"

Murphy: "We need to make judgement about local legitimacy of civil society orgs when selecting those to engage" #Darfur @USIP #peace

Tubiana: "Engaging women in #Darfur is not so simple- many are elites that represent v. select interests" @USIP #peace

Murphy: "The civ. soc engagement process is big and messy- but important. Don't throw the baby out w/ bathwater" #Darfur @USIP
So the MDG summit (and the fact that is takes place in a ‘global aid city’ like NYC where many academics, bloggers, organisations and ideas are based) definitely is a fascinating example of how powerful international aid rituals work and how they get updated with new communication tools and outputs, but essentially remain trapped in ritualism whether or not the audience appears now more global and diverse as ever.

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