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Accepted Paper:

'You don’t see when they go to shit!' Absurdity and rural public service in Ethiopia.  
Sarah Howard (Birkbeck, University of London)

Paper short abstract:

Rural public servants in Ethiopia are well-versed in the absurdities of meaningless governance. This paper will concentrate on how public servants made illogical - or 'illegible' - policies legible through their labour, and the consequences for perceptions of the state as embodied in them.

Paper long abstract:

Rural public servants in Ethiopia are well-versed in the absurdities of meaningless governance. From the fake latrines that stud the landscape to the promotion of infant feeding practices that ignore both questions of access and local norms, government health workers are aware that the policies they are responsible for enacting often do not accord with existing realities or priorities. While local people resist, subvert and performatively accept the development edicts they find absurd, state employees struggle to reconcile their status, aspirations, beliefs and duties with the materialities of rule. Based on long-term ethnographic research in Amhara Region under the Ethiopian People's Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) government, this paper will concentrate on how public servants made illogical - or 'illegible' - policies legible through their labour (Mathur 2016; Das 2004). This labour took place on and through paper, through audit techniques and production of documents, but also through the physical and sensory realms. In the case of latrine promotion, this involved their movement around the remote and inhospitable space of the local area, and into latrines, to see and smell peoples' shit. Their labour only sometimes resulted in the desired outcome of constructed and utilised latrines, but more importantly these 'materialities of rule' (Navaro-Yashin 2012) had socio-economic and affective consequences for government employees, and for perceptions of the state as embodied in them. Absurdity, then, is far from meaningless; rather, it is central to how state power is understood and enacted in particular contexts.

Panel P063a
States of the absurd I
  Session 1 Tuesday 26 July, 2022, -