In two words: it sucks. After nearly two years of adventure, of traveling and trying to figure things out in new places, in multiple languages (most of which I don’t speak), meeting people, and learning tons and tons of new things, the time has arrived (since January, in fact) to sort out what I have learned, to make sense of it all.
BUT THAT'S NOT NEARLY AS MUCH FUN AS HAVING FUN WITH NEW PEOPLE IN NEW PLACES!
I did write a chapter last summer, and I have lots of notes and a few presentations, so it’s not like I was starting from complete scratch. But putting your data to your ideas, even though you’ve been thinking about the connections for years, is nigh impossible some days. It’s exciting when something comes together, but those days don’t come often.
However, I am finding some joy in the little things, like revisiting interviews and realizing the little connections between what an Ivorian woman has told me and a theoretical concept. And when I can take a few moments to step back and look at what I'm doing, I can see a bigger picture, pinpoint where my tiny contribution fits in, and feel a bit proud of myself.
This drag will end soon, inshallah, as soon as I take care of a bit of conference travel. (I did not fly for more than two months, which is some kind of record for me recently!) As I type, I’m on my way to Lund, Sweden, for the Feminist Peace Research Network workshop, then next week to Long Island for the Berkshire Conference, then the European Conference on Politics and Gender in Geneva, a short stop in Berlin for fun, and finally Brighton, UK, for the British International Studies Association. Several of these are places I’ve never been, and between the travel and the productive conversations, I’ll be looking forward to wrapping up this long slog of writing and moving on …
I've recently learned that I have been awarded a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation. What this means is that I get to do more fieldwork!
I'm headed to Conakry, Guinea, in about two weeks until mid-June and then Bamako, Mali, from September sometime to December sometime. This research will be focused on the same international agenda that I researched in Cote d'Ivoire, but I won't be doing strictly comparative research.
What I'm really excited about (in the research sense, not in the human citizen sense) is learning the differences in context with these three countries. Guinea has reported a number of new Ebola cases in the past week, and the security situation in Mali is somewhat unstable at the moment. My project is not explicitly focused on either of these threats/events, but they of course inform the context that my research partners operate in and impact the response of the international community (and lots of others), which in turn changes women's strategies and the attention given to women's issues in these countries.
I'm not certain I'm able to express how much I'm beginning to love West Africa as a sometime-resident and as a politics-art-society–watcher. But I'm so thrilled to be heading back.
This past Sunday, 18 people were killed in the French colonial capital–turned beach resort of Grand-Bassam, about 25 miles outside Abidjan. Here's a reconstruction of the events by my friend Robbie Corey-Boulet, along with Carley Petesch.
Fellow Fulbrighter and UC political science grad student Justine Davis and I wrote an article for The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, "6 things you need to know about Côte d'Ivoire in the wake of Sunday's attack." It's almost a primer on current events there and integrates our preliminary research. You should read it.
(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.
(originally posted on The CIHA Blog, where I am an editorial assistant)
(Just before this post went live, the UN envoy to the Central African Republic was forced to resign because of the sexual abuse allegations.)
Recent reports documenting sexual abuse committed by United Nations peacekeeping troops in Haiti, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Mali and Central African Republic underscore the long history of sexual misconduct committed by peacekeepers around the world. With the recent spate of such reports and the UN peacekeepers’ obvious abuse of power, it becomes essential to examine critically the manner in which the UN responds to the accusations as well as the way the media presents these events.
In the recent article, “Could Peacekeeping Wives Deter Sexual Abuse in UN Overseas Operations?”, following reports documenting widespread abuses by peacekeepers, Thalif Deen asks, “As a preventive measure, would it help if peacekeepers and U.N. staffers are sent on overseas missions along with their wives, partners and families?” The article explores the notion of allowing spouses to join deployed peacekeepers, specifically male peacekeepers, as a viable solution to halt sexual abuse. Similarly, in a separate article, “Sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers remains ‘significantly under-reported‘” the author quotes the new UN report, which states, “Staff with long mission experience state that was a ‘general view that people should have romantic rights’ and raised the issue of sexuality as a human right.”
These articles’ failure to mention the United Nations’ efforts to incorporate a gender perspective into all organizational policies – gender mainstreaming – as prevention of sexual abuse and exploitations in the UN’s peace operations highlights the ineffectiveness of UN efforts. Gender mainstreaming has resulted in women making up 13 percent of those deployed in UN peacekeeping missions; however, the first article’s proposed solution does not mention this, perhaps because women are not the ones committing sexual abuse.
Instead, the proposed solution perpetuates the idea that men, to some extent, lack the ability to control their sexual urges. Moreover, it deflects the blame from UN peacekeepers perpetrating these atrocious acts by suggesting the absence of a sexual partner drives men to sexually abuse and exploit the people they are sent to protect. Yet the age of many of the victims undermines the argument for “romantic rights,” with 36 percent of the victims reported to be minors and with evidence that minors were targeted for sexual assault even after previous reports drew public outrage. For the staffers claiming that peacekeepers should have better access to appropriate sexual partners in order to attain their romantic or sexual rights, this objective is at odds with addressing the power imbalances inherent in UN missions, which are tasked with ensuring the basic human right of physical security of the local population.
While certainly the majority of peacekeepers are law-abiding, acts of sexual abuse and exploitation continue to be reported, as peacekeeping troops continue to be deployed. Images of UN peacekeepers raping and abusing the very people they are sent to protect further complicate the neocolonial narrative put forward by opponents of peacekeeping forces, highlighting the UN’s work and response to the allegations as also gendered. Meanwhile, narratives that portray African men as violent and sexually aggressive persist.
A new narrative is needed, one that takes into account the intersecting power relations of sex, nationality and economic position, both in the UN’s work and in the media accounts that cover world affairs.
I've been spending a bit of time over the past few weeks at a couple of maquis because fellow PhD polisci student Marion is in town. She's the only other PhD student that I know here (and I'm making the distinction between PhD and master's student, of which there are a number – from SAIS, Geneva, Oxford – doing their international development fieldwork).
So we've been discussing our dissertation (and advisor) troubles over beers, poulet braisé, alloco, and frites, just like the maquis gods intended.
Wartime Hymns just posted a description and political context of Abidjan's maquis, though I admit to not really staying late enough to experience the dancing. Even without the music and dancing, I love the general culture of sitting outside, though not under the sun, drinking a bit with friends or colleagues, people watching, eating, more drinking, more eating, and more people watching – and on the cheap. I think maquis will be one of the things I miss the most when I leave Abidjan.
Why yes, Morocco is beautiful. Why do you ask?
My friend and cohort-mate, Kelsey, has been conducting her own fieldwork in Morocco, and as Casablanca is a direct flight from Abidjan (and no travel visa needed), I spent a week with her, touring a bit of the country.
The photos above are from Chefchaouen, in the mountains south of Tangier. Many of the buildings in the media are painted blue, making it lovely and peaceful and cool. So lovely. Blue city, in the mountains – possible future writing retreat.
Between us, Kelsey and I spoke four languages, which was such an asset in Morocco, where the Moroccan version of Arabic is mixed with legacies of Spanish and French colonialism (and tourism), so we could communicate with just about anyone we came across.
We also visited Casablanca, where the Hassan II mosque (pictures below) is located, as well as Rabat and Tangier, taking the train and bus everywhere.
We also exercised our passport privilege by hopping on a boat to Spain, where we stayed in Granada for a few days, exploring the Arab/Moorish/Muslim influence on southern Spain and compiling a "best of" tapas restaurants in the city.
As part of a UCI workshop for women in academia, couple of women in my program and I developed a guide to survive graduate school (mostly in political/social science), though it is fairly general. This will likely become part of an APSA Women's Caucus resource, but feel free to use for your own resources (with a link or credit).
When entering graduate school, women can face a number of challenges that might not be apparent to men. Many of the suggestions below can benefit grad students in general, both men and women, but they are particularly relevant for people in any number of underrepresented categories – women, LGBTQ, students of color, etc. The key is to recognize the strengths that you bring to your study, even if they are not traditionally valued by your discipline, and seek out avenues of support.
Seek out a mentor
Sexual harassment still happens
Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower
UCI’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity
UCI’s Childbirth Accommodation and Child Care Reimbursement
UC Student Association’s annual Students of Color Conference (SOCC)
UC Office of the President diversity policies and goals
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.