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The High Priests of Global Development: Capitalism, Religion and the Political Economy of Sacrifice in a Celebrity‐led Water Charity

Filippo Menga and Michael K. Goodman

Development and Change, 2022, vol. 53, issue 4, 705-735

Abstract: Throughout the world, 785 million people lack a basic drinking‐water service and at least 2 billion people consume contaminated drinking water. At the same time, numerous global water charities fronted by ‘caring’, politicized celebrity figures — dubbed the ‘high priests’ of global development by the authors of this article — have sought to ‘solve’ inequalities in access to clean water through market‐based solutions and charity donations. This article engages with the fields of critical social theory, political theology, political ecology and celebrity studies to analyse the interrelationship between capitalism and religion, to interrogate the drivers of international development, and to historically situate the work of celebrity‐led water charities and the growing role of these ‘high priests’. It takes the case of Matt Damon's Water.org to examine the increasingly religious nature of these neoliberalized charity processes, and outlines the main elements of what the authors term a contemporary political economy of sacrifice. They argue that this results in charities that, rather than reducing inequalities, actually reproduce, normalize and legitimize the very system and exploitative relations that are responsible for these inequalities and environmental problems in the first place, while scattered and localized fixes sustain the illusion that things are getting better.

Date: 2022
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