The day that Angelina Jolie was appointed to LSE as a visiting professor at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security, it was all over my social media accounts, and several friends sent me messages asking if I had seen it. Even though I was in the middle of a few days of intense fieldwork, I knew I had things to say about this:
In the few days that have passed, several people on Twitter have given their takes, many of those thoughts well-considered.
I’m truly ambivalent about her appointment. I recognize that LSE has a status and a brand to maintain, and the university’s Centre for Women, Peace and Security and its MSc program will benefit from the exposure that Jolie brings. (I’ve participated in an LSE WPS Centre-sponsored workshop and hope to more in the future, but that is not censoring my thoughts here. I am also not addressing the lack of uproar over relative qualifications of former UK foreign secretary William Hague, a gendered response for sure.) These sorts of appointments happen often, especially from people who have been involved in policy practice. And it could have been worse:
My problems with her appointment come more from what work her celebrity activist position does in the WPS agenda, how it distorts priorities and politics already in the WPS resolutions.
Celebrities reinforce stratification and hierarchy that was present before. When UN Security Council Resolution 2106, which focused on sexual violence, was passed in June 2013, Jolie addressed the Security Council in the debate preceding the resolution. By contrast, the speaker who addressed the Security Council for Resolution 2122—which focuses on including women at all phases of conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding—in October 2013 was Brigitte Balipou, a lawyer and member of the Constitutional Court of Central African Republic. Balipou is prominent in international legal circles but is certainly no celebrity. In October 2015, Resolution 2242 was passed, also a broader discussion of gender in peace and security as well as countering violent extremism; the prior debate saw remarks from high-level policymakers and advocates but no celebrity activists.
The effect of using celebrity activism in urging the Security Council to pass a resolution addressing sexualized violence lends legitimacy to this resolution and its focus on sexualized violence as an issue that those who might not otherwise pay attention to the United Nations should care about, the “fetishization of sexual violence,” as Sara Meger has written. The discrepancy in the advocacy between these resolutions illustrates that enlisting a celebrity for policy work lends legitimacy as well as spurs donors, casual observers who might become involved in advocacy work, and governments to devote attention to the issue. In essence, because of Jolie’s advocacy, there is likely an unintended consequence of attempting to address sexual violence in conflict without addressing the underlying political and economic factors that contribute to it, both during conflict and before and after.
While there is, perhaps, some “academic snobbery” in criticizing Jolie’s new appointment, neither is her presence an unalloyed good. As Lauren Wolfe points out in a defense of Jolie from two years ago, “the attention economy for truly caring about suffering is tiny.” Yet it is this, allowing suffering to become part of an “economy” – making it a political problem to be debated, toward which to allocate resources that can be taken away in the next moment, that addressing suffering of any type is vulnerable to market forces is what is the problem with her attention.
Wolfe goes on: “Now we just need governments to take on the complex problems that lead to rape in war and the needs of survivors after the fact.” Herein lies the problem. This sentence is essentially an afterthought in her post, but it is the crux of remedying gender inequality and gender-based violence in both conflict and peacetime. Having policies on women’s issues (and broader gender issues) rest on activism, whether that is celebrity or grassroots, instead of spurring government action means that these issues will never receive sustained attention.
As one of my research participants told me recently, “Activism is exhausting, but we must keep doing it, or people will stop paying attention.” With policies for women relying on women’s activism, governments and policymakers can continue to use women as a tool when it is politically expedient.
Truly, Jolie’s attention to the rights of women, especially to combatting sexual violence in conflict, is genuine. But universities, especially centers devoted to the WPS agenda (and the career academics that are part of this center, who I know to be invested in women’s security and rights as a holistic endeavor), should be cautious about involving celebrities, even when it brings much-needed attention.
Though I had flown on a UNHAS flight from Conakry to Freetown, I returned by road, about a 5-hour drive. When we crossed the border, I expected to pull out my passport, but we just honked our way until a series of ropes dropped across the road. I barely paid attention when my French-speaking driver for the first half said, “Okay, now we’re in Guinea,” because I expected that someone would ask for our identification, even if we weren’t interrogated. When I turned to him a minute later and said, “Wait, now it’s Guinea? Why didn’t I have to show my passport?” he replied, “It’s because we’re in a diplomatic vehicle.” This was true – my driver was from another West African country’s mission based in Freetown, but I’m not a diplomat, especially one from West Africa, and it didn’t look like the border control was any stronger for any of the other cars going through.
Just over the border, I switched cars to make the trip through Guinea. This driver was one I had met before in Conakry, and he was a military officer who does something like diplomatic security. Because fuel prices are so much less expensive in Sierra Leone than in Guinea, we drove back across the border – where he had to surrender his gun that he had stowed in the center console of the car – got gas, then drove back across the border, where he retrieved his weapon, and we were on our way.
Funnily enough, neither driver spoke English, though they were both able to cope in Sierra Leone enough to get gas. I actually don’t think there was much of a shared language at all, even a local one, but this is more about the attitudes of West Africans to help facilitate basic communication, a big contrast with many Americans and Western Europeans, who are much more rigid about the level of language skill. There was a problem with payment, and I considered offering to translate, but it was quickly cleared up and we were on our way.
On the Sierra Leone side, this highway was fairly newly paved, with occasional signs that it was by the assistance of the European Union. Once into Guinea, however, the road was full of potholes and our journey was much slower. The better to see the landscape and villages and find a clean cooking pot from which we could have our lunch!
The night before I left Freetown, I had dinner with another friend of a friend who works in justice promotion as part of the larger development industry in Sierra Leone. We had a long discussion about whether development money is good for a country. I noted that there was public education for social issues, that Ebola had been at least acknowledged by the government, that there were paved roads with minimal potholes and about a quarter of the amount of trash on the streets as there is in Conakry. His point was that despite these modest improvements, there was still no economy to speak of and that all the development money was making people dependent on it so that when the money starts to go away (which it perhaps is nearly 15 years after the end of the civil war and about a year after the end of Ebola), the country will be in big, big trouble. The corrupt government can barely function on its own.
I don’t know what I think. Certainly I want the economies to grow on their own in their own way; however, smooth roads facilitate trade, even within a country or region. A population’s or government’s dependency on foreign skills and money will likely not contribute to any lasting “progress” or “development”; however, when basic services are nonexistent, it seems that it’s necessary to provide for them in some way.
This weekend I took a break from nonstop interviewing and did a bit of tourism with friends of friends.
Saturday, I went with a group to a chimpanzee park just outside of Freetown. In a national park with an incredibly beautiful virgin forest, the park protects rescued, orphaned, and abandoned chimpanzees and rehabilitates them to live in a chimpanzee society (though not outside the sanctuary because of their history of abuse and human contact). With my fear of the uncanny valley between animals and humans where monkeys and chimpanzees reside (and yes, I know they’re not the same thing), I was wary of the rock-throwing primates, though it was super interesting to see them play on the ropes and poles and with tires and doing their chimp thing.
Later that day, we hunted for a good beach and ended up at Bureh Beach, in the far east of the peninsula. It was breathtakingly gorgeous, with rain forest mountains that seem to come just to the beach. When swimming, instead of watching the waves that were coming in, I instead stared at the landscape, getting bowled over several times.
The following day I went with another group to River Number 2 Beach and then Sussex Beach. The former was somewhat more popular, but by no means crowded, and there was a current that was insistent on sweeping me away. Sussex Beach had an interesting sandbar formation, where low tide meant 500 meters of “dry” river before you got to the actual beach, and high tide meant that the water came up to the concrete edge of the restaurant where we were eating. I lost most of my photos from Sunday because of a technology malfunction, but this was my first time seeing mangrove forests in person, which was just thrilling.
Yes, it seems as if I go to the beach a good bit in West Africa, but there’s not a whole lot to do otherwise in the tourist or cultural sense in many of the cities where I work.
One of my interviewees in Guinea offered me an opportunity to travel to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to conduct research there; she said that the women’s activism there was quite strong compared to Guinea and that I might be interested in seeing what they had to say. So with her facilitation, I left Conakry for a week to Freetown.
What a difference in the two capital cities. While certainly poor, Freetown is swarming with development money – signs for NGOs big and small, international and local are everywhere, and so many white 4x4wd vehicles roam the streets. This is in stark contrast to Conakry, which has a few evident foreigners but not the mass of NGO-as-a-business as Freetown (or business-as-business like Abidjan).
Also remarkable was the number of public-service signs around the city – old billboards and murals educating about Ebola prevention and access to treatment, new posters urging girls to wait until they’re older to have babies, alongside others that calls violence against women a crime against state security. I have never seen such an amount of educational advertising as I did in the one week there. I’m supposing this is a positive thing, but it is just another sign of the amount of money pouring into projects there and makes me wonder to what extent it is having an effect.
I feel like I have so much more to say about Freetown than I do about Conakry, but I think it’s because I’m putting Guinea in context. So many people dislike Conakry that I’m disposed to like the place just to be contrary. But Freetown is seducing me with its cleanliness – not to mention its widespread English.
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts. And now ... Teaching!