An Interview with Gregory Mann

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.”

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About Gregory Mann

Gregory Mann is Professor of History at Columbia University. His most recent book, From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality (Cambridge University Press, 2015), analyzes the historical relationship between non-governmental organizations and sovereign power. His previous work, Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century (Duke University Press, 2006), won the David Pinkney prize for French history. The author of a score of articles, he is currently writing a book-length synthetic work on Africa and France since the mid-nineteenth century. Mann has conducted research in Mali since 1996.

About Janet Roitman

is associate professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research in New York. She is the author of Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa (Princeton University Press, 2005), an analysis of unregulated commerce in the Chad Basin, which gives insight into transformations in the nature of economic regulation and citizenship. Her most recent book, Anti-Crisis (Duke University Press, 2014), inquires into the status of the concept of crisis in social analysis, taking accounts of the subprime mortgage “crisis” of 2007–8 as a case in point.

About Kenneth Harrow

is Distinguished Professor of English at Michigan State University. His work focuses on African cinema and literature and on diaspora and postcolonial studies. He is the author of Thresholds of Change in African Literature (Heinemann, 1994), Less Than One and Double: A Feminist Reading of African Women’s Writing (Heinemann, 2002), and Postcolonial African Cinema: From Political Engagement to Postmodernism (Indiana University Press, 2007). His latest work, Trash! A Study of African Cinema Viewed from Below, was published by Indiana University Press in 2013. He has edited numerous collections on such topics as Islam and African literature, African cinema, and women in African literature and cinema.