Looking beyond face value: neoliberal practices in a cleft lip and palate NGO




Ho, Hilary

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There has been a rise non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as part of a global health system that seeks to treat children with cleft lip and palate (CLP) in resource-poor countries. As a craniofacial abnormality, CLP affects a child’s ability to communicate and consume food, and the stigma associated with the condition leads to both social and physiological suffering. International NGOs use an apolitical humanitarian rhetoric to justify the need to provide this life-saving surgery. This thesis assesses CLP interventions by applying a critique of neoliberalism to explore the ways economic rationalities are extended to the domain of humanitarianism. By employing an ethnographic approach of “studying up,” this thesis critiques a North American NGO, referred to as Mission Smile. To reveal how neoliberal rationalities are embedded within the organization, this research draws on data from media analysis, participant observation, and interviews with medical volunteers and employees at Mission Smile. This thesis argues that neoliberal rationalities permeate throughout the organization. Economic calculus are not only embedded in the organization’s goal to provide surgery to “as many children as possible,” but also undergirds the distribution of humanitarian aid. Moreover, the surgery Mission Smile provides is described as an “investment in a child’s future” that enable children with CLP to become a contributing member of society. While this study reveals how neoliberal rationalities can converge with values of humanitarianism, it also shows that the extension of neoliberal rationalities into new domains is not a cohesive process. Volunteers describe an emergence of communitas, a feeling of bubbling joy and a shared humanity, and a development of a moral relationship with their recipients that lies partially outside the domain of market rationalities.



Affect, Global Health, NGO, Cleft lip and Palate, Foucault, Charity, volunteer, humanitarianism, Neoliberalism, Neoliberal Rationalities, Studying Up