Negotiating Old Age, Mediation, and Elder Advocacy in the Social Life of Helping: NGO Pilot Projects in Ghana, the United States, and the Politics of Global Intervention Work

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University of Michigan, 2007 - 331 pages
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The social life of helping is an analytic method for examining how helping work can be more and less than altruistic problem solving. Adapting Arjun Appadurai's concept of the social life of things, this form of helping is practiced through organized efforts to identify social problems and implement interventions. It is argued that social problems, interventions, and solutions become commodities as they are exchanged through networks of governments, nonprofit organizations (NGOs), and for profit businesses trying to "do good." While paths may stabilize commodified forms, diversions lead to creative and contested adaptations. People become involved as funders, helpers, technical and academic experts, and targeted beneficiaries (helpees). Based on sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork, this study examines a social problem first identified with the global North and an intervention commonly found in the global South. The paths of old age as social problem and mediation as intervention tool were followed through a pilot project in an elder advocacy organization in the United States and one in Ghana. The goal of both projects was to use the U.S. facilitative problem-solving mediation model to resolve interpersonal and family conflicts involving older adults. This dissertation examines connections and disconnections between performance of these projects as commodified exchange and as applied practice. Results can be partially explained by the politics of global helping as funders, helpers, and helpees negotiated within unequal relationships. Problem solving was just one of many possible forms of exchange in the social life of helping.

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