(originally posted on The CIHA Blog, where I am an editorial assistant)
The CIHA Blog frequently draws on the concept of the “White Savior Industrial Complex,” articulated by Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, in its critiques of the work that NGOs and celebrity activists often do in Africa: well-meaning but short-sighted, perhaps more about the doer than it is about the intended recipients. Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, edited by Alex de Waal, extends this argument by demonstrating how it actually works in concrete cases in Africa, but also in Asia and Latin America. In each of these contexts, Western non-governmental involvement has been central to local advocacy campaigns.
Much of Advocacy in Conflict delves into how narratives from every actor involved in a political issue or event can both complement and contradict each other. In some cases—Burma, for example, described in chapter 3 by Maung Zarni and Trisha Taneja—local actors simplify their own narratives in order to draw Western attention (and funds). In the vast majority of cases selected for the book, however, Western celebrities and transnational NGOs eliminate nuance in order to advance their own line of advocacy, whether to boost a public profile, advocate for particular policy goals, or push for what they believe is “right.” These are tales of what can happen despite local involvement.
To situate the book within academic debates on humanitarianism and activism, de Waal’s chapter 2, “Genealogies of Transnational Activism,” explores the history of Western advocacy framed through three impulses: personal salvation or self-fulfillment of the activist, protection of the social order through charity, and solidarity in support of radical political change. These three impulses are often in tension, and he details three models of transnational activism that have developed historically to deal with this tension. The merry-go-round of policy attention in response to some transnational activism sustains the “white savior industrial complex,” and de Waal also points out that that this work “is not a phenomenon that easily lends itself to placement on a left–right political spectrum: it can be progressive at home and regressive abroad” (19).
Many of the most prominent cases of transnational activism, particularly in Africa—the KONY2012 campaign, conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Sudan–South Sudan split—are covered in Advocacy in Conflict, not surprisingly, as it is the public attention to these issues and the policies that resulted (or didn’t result) from them that are being analyzed. These cases are considered alongside wider advocacy movements such as disability rights, the arms trade, and land grabs, though these issues are still contextualized within national and regional politics as well as Western intervention in Africa.
Several chapters focus on how the simplicity of the narrative is important to the uptake of the issue by external advocates yet simultaneously risks a simplistic solution put forth by the advocates and then by policymakers. Complexity does not make for an easy social media or celebrity campaign, but solutions that ignore it are nearly guaranteed to be inadequate and, at times, harmful.
An example of the creation of a tidy narrative is Laura Seay’s chapter on conflict minerals in the DRC, subtitled “The Consequences of Oversimplification.” She writes that through the rise of media campaigns linking sexualized violence and conflict minerals in the country, the drivers of violent behavior, the political roots of the violence, and the responsibility of the international actors for continuing the conflict were all but ignored in international advocacy. In what could be the theme for the entire volume, Seay asks, “How can advocates account for the need to make a message simple enough that anyone can understand but complex enough not to obfuscate the real challenges that need to be addressed to solve a crisis” (119)?
One of the greatest strengths of this book is the selection of a diverse range of advocacy campaigns that illustrates so many of the problems and that academics, practitioners, and policymakers can draw their own lessons from. The book shies away from prescription, not intending to be a “lessons learned project,” but each case study highlights successes and failures of the various advocacy campaigns.
For instance, the chapter on African disability rights activism by Chataika, Berghs, Mateta, and Shava argues that the intersectionality of (dis)abilism with other campaigns coming from the global South that combat neocolonialism, racism, and sexism challenge both these activists as well as disability activists from the global North who are pushing for disability rights globally. Because disability activism is lesser known than many of the other social justice campaigns, this exploration upends neocolonial and neoliberal approaches to human rights and development debates and pushes against “empowerment” narratives that come from all sides.
The book endeavors to show how international activism can compromise local efforts, though in many cases the international activism is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition to bring about a solution. Because the media attention does stimulate international political attention, it can also generate local and national political attention for an issue that might have otherwise been ignored. Most of the authors and editors acknowledge this and refrain from calling for an end to Western and/or celebrity advocacy. The conclusion puts forth four themes pulled from the chapters in service of “reclaiming activism,” pushing for “empowerment of the people as the basis for transformational change” (271) that can be adapted to a particular context: empowering local actors, recognizing complexity of issues, including a wide range of actors, and accepting diversity while rejecting a singular narrative.
Ultimately, this book highlights the need for legitimacy and accountability in international advocacy campaigns. As it stands for most internationally dominated advocacy programs, the accountability only operates in one direction, from the assisted population toward the donors; many large agencies require monitoring and evaluation processes as part of their donations. However, as Advocacy in Conflict argues, accountability should also, perhaps more importantly, point in the other direction, toward local advocates and local populations. Defining an issue locally and retaining ownership of the campaign with the help of international activists and, yes, media and celebrities, is key to tackling the issue and developing a solution.
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.