The Humanity editorial collective asked Kenneth Harrow and Janet Roitman to join us in posing some questions to Gregory Mann on the publication of his new book From Empire to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality (Cambridge, 2015). The transcript of the discussion follows.
Humanity: Could you briefly lay out the topic of the book?
Gregory Mann: The book asks what “government” has meant in a part of the world where its meaning was particularly dynamic, slippery, and contentious in the period from the 1940s through the late 1970s. In the Sahel—the strip of arable land just south of the Sahara, and more broadly the community of states that claim it—the practice of governing careened from broadly ambitious forms of state socialism and centralization to the small-bore interventions of international NGOs since the 1970s. The aggregate effect of such interventions has been a widening gap between the functions of “government” in its broadest sense and the state itself. I get at this story via histories of anticolonial solidarity, postcolonial migration, famine relief, and human rights campaigns. The narrative I offer is not a straightforward one by any means, and I don’t claim it’s the whole story. Still, it seems to me imperative that historians begin to sketch out in more meaningful ways the kinds of political transformations that Africa has experienced over the last several decades, before the period we now comfortably call “neoliberal.”