Book Review of ‘Advocacy in Conflict’ – a big attack on politics and impact of global campaigns

May 8, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

[Oops. This was supposed to go up next Thursday when the book is published, but I hit the wrong button and posted it by mistake – blame the UK elections for keeping me up all night…..]

If you work in advocacy, especially the international sort, this is a necessary but painful read – it’s hard finding yourself the brunt of a 300 page sustained critique, but you need to hear it. Based on a series of chapter case studies, covering Burma, Guatemala, Gaza, the DRC, South Sudan and of course the infamous Kony 2012 campaign, as well as thematic chapters on disability rights, the arms trade and land rights, Advocacy in Conflict brilliantly explores the contradictory pressures on transnational advocacy: northern campaigners’ need to simplify, grab headlines and declare victory v the messy reality of achieving long term structural change in the complex social and political environments of countries wracked by conflict.

The authors explore ‘the extent to which recent trends in transnational advocacy have deviated from core principles of responsible activism’, and focuses on the work of ‘professionalized Western advocacy concerned with particular conflicts.’

‘Our central argument is that the development of these specific forms of activism, in which advocates have shaped strategies to fit the requirements of marketing their cause to Western publics, and adapted them to score tactical successes with Western governments (especially that of the USA) has led to the weakening or even abandonment of key principles, including receptivity to the perspectives of affected people and their diverse narratives and attention to deeper, underlying causes and therefore a focus on strategic change rather than superficial victories’.

And it’s hard to get more superficial than Invisible Children and Kony2012 – a campaign that purported to urge the US government to do something it was in fact already doing, went viral, crashed and was then followed by its originators, Invisible Children, which announced this year that it is closing down. The campaign rang all sorts of alarm bells, for example by calling for military intervention by the US. The book draws comparisons with the ‘hashtag activism’ of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, that achieved precisely zip in Nigeria, but made a lot of activists feel good about themselves everywhere else.

The tone is pretty jaundiced. Alex de Waal, who edited the book, frames activism as driven by ‘three abiding impulses: the personal salvation of fulfilment of the activist her- or himself; protection of the social order through charitable assistance to those in need, who might otherwise be subversive of that order; and an ethic of solidarity in support of radical social change.’ Oh well, at least we get one out of three that is not a total putdown.

The country chapters are fascinating: the book argues that both Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela were elevated to prominence over their respective movements by the needs of Western campaigners. The difference was that Mandela was clear about using the profile for the collective purposes of the ANC, whereas ASSK lost touch with Myanmar’s grassroots movements.

In her chapter on conflict minerals in the Congo, Laura Seay argues that the ‘Enough Project’ campaign pressuring international companies that purchase minerals from eastern DRC to certify that their minerals are ‘conflict free’ has damaged both the country’s economy and politics. There are echoes here of the infamous unintended consequences of trying to ban child labour in Bangladeshi garment exports – thousands of kids being expelled from the factories into far worse ways of earning a living, while the campaigners celebrated their success.

On South Sudan, Alex de Waal argues that DC lobbyists needed to keep it simple for US politicians, so anointed the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) as the Robin Hood figure, explaining away or justifying human rights abuses, corruption and other unsavoury details.

There’s plenty more, but I’ll skip to the conclusions. The book argues for a ‘reclaimed activism’ which is the antithesis of Kony2012: ‘activism that prioritizes the empowerment of people as the basis for transformational change over media impact, and that is accountable to the people most affected by an issue.’

It identifies four common themes that should guide would be reclaimers:

‘1. Empower local actors to define and lead any efforts on their behalf, including identifying the advocacy targets, methods, narratives and definitions of success

2. Avoid activism that addresses only specific occurrences or news events without addressing the underlying structural problems

3. Accept a wide swathe of actors and encourage them to participate in campaigns and movements

4. Accept and promote diverse voices and understandings of an issue. Activism should reject singular narratives.’

From a wonk perspective, this all seems sensible, even obvious. But put yourselves in the shoes of one of the reviled ‘transnational activists’ and it makes you want to slit your wrists. ‘Reject singular narratives’ – look forward to reading that press release….. I guess the upshot is that they are calling for smaller, better campaigns rather than big hits which end up going nowhere.

But there’s also a big missing piece, at least in relation to Oxfam – what if you are involved in both advocacy and on the ground emergency responses? If you’re running refugee camps for the victims of conflict, there’s a whole new swathe of complications. What if criticising the government (however justified) gets you chucked out of the country and the camps closed down? In Oxfam at least, being operational is a double-edged sword for advocates – it confers legitimacy and genuine first-hand knowledge on which to base advocacy messages, but significantly constrains what we can/can’t say.

What do you think?