Rebranding the YMCA: Neoliberalism, Youth and Faith-Based Development

Ross Wignall // Anthropology // 13th March // 1-2pm // Arts C 133


This paper seeks to understand the role of global faith-based development in the 21st century through a cross-cultural comparison of two analogous youth projects at the YMCA, the largest youth NGO in the world. As a tutor on a sports leadership course, I explore YMCA operations at Sussex Central YMCA in the UK before examining the implementation of the course in Banjul, in The Gambia in West Africa, trying to understand how YMCA international ideas mesh with local franchises. Using 18 months of ethnographic research, this paper raises searching questions about the personal nature of development today, seeking new avenues for the future direction of development, especially in its dealing with vulnerable young people.Through the stories of young people and YMCA staff, I demonstrate the way YMCA corporate identity is being reconfigured due to the demands of modern day development, changing the way the YMCA sees itself and its relationship to the world. I show how complex networks of trust, friendship and faith inform development practice in both locations, germinating locally before articulating in the global public sphere. By discussing these issues with young people on the programmes, I also place the YMCA’s genre of transformation in its cultural context, discussing the way it interacts with different cultural versions of transformation, self-definition and masculinity. Ultimately, I ask whether development at home can strengthen our understanding of development abroad and whether the unusual YMCA model can help us conceive new modes of development practice to cope with the specific demands of the global 21st century.

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