Studies in Comparative International Development

, Volume 50, Issue 4, pp 519–538 | Cite as

Sexy Orphans and Sugar Daddies: the Sexual and Moral Politics of Aid for AIDS in Botswana

  • Bianca DahlEmail author


As the specter of HIV looms in the background, Botswana’s industry of orphan-focused aid interventions reflects deep-seated anxieties about girls’ bodies, health, sexuality, and morality. As foreign NGO staff lament “patriarchal” norms that supposedly leave orphaned girls culturally and economically ill-equipped to refuse advances from older men, these organizations seek new ways to liberate orphans from underage sexual relationships. I trace how one NGO attempted to render sugar daddies unnecessary by directly giving girls the gifts a boyfriend would provide, drawing on human rights and empowerment discourses. However, many orphans began to appropriate these NGO resources in order to attract even wealthier boyfriends, aggressively pursuing age-unequal relationships using the very tools the NGO provided to fight them. While tales of failed intervention are commonly represented in development studies as evidence of either “culture clash” between foreign aid and local customs, or as the “unintended consequences” of aid, this article argues that such explanations fail to address the competing and coalescing moralities that motivated the girls’ behavior. By recognizing their actions as efforts to manipulate multiple moral codes that are at play during the HIV epidemic, I suggest that we may reach a better grasp of the inner lives of aid’s targets and gain fresh perspectives on the intimate sociopolitical effects of intervention.


HIV/AIDS Orphans Sexuality Morality Foreign aid Botswana 



For their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper, I would like to thank participants in the Workshop on Anthropology and Population convened through the Population Association of America in 2014, and participants in the Workshop on International Intervention at McMaster University in 2013, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. The paper also benefitted from feedback by Ellen Block, Jennifer Cole, Paja Faudree, Andrew Gilbert, Jesse Grayman, Saida Hodzic, Jennifer Johnson-Hanks, Jessaca Leinaweaver, Ramah McKay, Becky Schulthies, Daniel Jordan Smith, Rania Sweis, Miriam Ticktin, and two anonymous reviewers. The research was generously supported by grants from the Social Science Research Council, Fulbright-Hays and the U.S. Department of Education, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and the National Science Foundation.


  1. Agamben G. Homo sacer: sovereign power and bare life. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press. 1998.Google Scholar
  2. BAIS III (Botswana Aids Impact Survey III). Stats brief: preliminary results from the Botswana AIDS impact survey III, 2008. Gaborone: Botswana Government. 2009.Google Scholar
  3. Biehl J. Vita: life in a zone of social abandonment. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2005.Google Scholar
  4. Bornstein E. Child sponsorship, evangelism, and belonging in the work of world vision Zimbabwe. Am Ethnol. 2001;28(3):595–622.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bornstein E, Redfield P, editors. Forces of compassion: humanitarianism between ethics and politics. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press. 2011.Google Scholar
  6. Cole J. Sex and salvation: imagining the future in Madagascar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2010.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cole J, Thomas L, editors. Love in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2009.Google Scholar
  8. Dahl B. ‘Too fat to be an orphan’: the moral semiotics of food aid in Botswana. Cult Anth. 2014;29(4):626–47. doi: 10.14506/ca29.4.03.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. de Waal A. Famine crimes: politics & the disaster relief industry in Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1997.Google Scholar
  10. Durham D. Youth and the social imagination in Africa: introduction to parts one and two. Anth Quart. 2000;73(3):113–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Durham D. Soliciting gifts and negotiating agency: the spirit of asking in Botswana. J Royal Anth Inst. 1995;1(1):111–12.Google Scholar
  12. Fassin D. Humanitarian reason: a moral history of the present. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2011.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Feldman I, Ticktin M, editors. In the name of humanity: the government of threat and care. Durham: Duke University Press. 2010.Google Scholar
  14. Ferguson J. Global shadows: Africa in the neoliberal world order. Durham: Duke University Press. 2006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Heady P. What can anthropological methods contribute to demography—and how? Demog Res. 2007;16:555–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hunter M. Love in the time of AIDS: inequality, gender, and rights in South Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2010.Google Scholar
  17. James E. Democratic insecurities: violence, trauma, and intervention in Haiti. Durham: Duke University Press. 2010.Google Scholar
  18. Kleinman A, Das V, Lock M, editors. Social suffering. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1997.Google Scholar
  19. Kristof N, WuDunn S. Half the sky: turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. 2009.Google Scholar
  20. Leclerc-Madlala S. Transactional sex and the pursuit of modernity. Soc Dyn J Af Stud. 2003;29(2):213–33.Google Scholar
  21. Leclerc-Madlala S. Age-disparate and intergenerational sex in Southern Africa: the dynamics of hypervulnerability. AIDS. 2008;22:S17–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Malkki LH. Children, humanity, and the infantilization of peace. In: Feldman I, Ticktin M, editors. In the name of humanity: the government of threat and care. Durham: Duke University Press. 2010. p. 58–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Mamdani M. Beyond settler and native as political identities: overcoming the political legacy of colonialism. Comp Stud Soc Hist. 2001;43(4):651–64.Google Scholar
  24. Mbembe A. On the postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2001.Google Scholar
  25. Nguyen VK. The republic of therapy: triage and sovereignty in West Africa’s Time of AIDS. Durham: Duke University Press. 2010.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Nussbaum M, Glover J, editors. Women, culture, and development: a study of human capabilities. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1996.Google Scholar
  27. Parikh S. Sugar daddies and sexual citizenship: rethinking third wave feminism. Renaiss Noire. 2004;6(1):82–107.Google Scholar
  28. Redfield P. Doctors, borders, and life in crisis. Cult Anth. 2005;20(3):328–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Redfield P. Life in crisis: the ethical journey of doctors without borders. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2013.Google Scholar
  30. Richey LA, Ponte S. Better (Red)™ than dead? Celebrities, consumption and international aid. Third World Quart. 2008;29(4):711–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Robbins J. Beyond the suffering subject: toward an anthropology of the good. J Royal Anth Inst. 2013;19:447–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Robins S. Humanitarian aid beyond “Bare survival”: social movement responses to xenophobic violence in South Africa. Am Ethnol. 2010;36(4):637–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Schech S, Haggis J. Culture and development: a critical introduction. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell; 2000.Google Scholar
  34. Smith DJ. AIDS doesn’t show its face: inequality and morality in Nigeria. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2014.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Suggs DN. Female status and role transition in the Tswana life cycle. Ethnol. 1987;26(2):107–120.Google Scholar
  36. Ticktin M. Casualties of care: humanitarianism and the politics of immigration in France. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2011.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. UNAIDS. Progress report of the national response to the 2001 declaration of commitment on HIV and AIDS: Botswana country report. Gaborone: National AIDS Coordinating Agency. Online publication: (2010).

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

Personalised recommendations