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.
Yes, I was in Abidjan for the elections on October 25. It was very, very quiet. An expat friend who had lived in Abidjan during the last election was a bit nervous about the outcome (unnecessarily, in my opinion) and asked a few of us to spend the weekend at her house for fun and because the city would be mostly shut down. So, because I'm not a journalist and had been told by the least-security-minded people that staying in Abidjan would be best rather than leaving to do work outside the city.
So I have absolutely nothing of my own to report, other than election rallies all over the city and outside that were only for the incumbent, Ouattara (ADO), and that had the huge balloons and tents so that they looked like American car dealerships on the weekends. I am advocating for the noodle men as campaigners in the next election in 2020.
I'm glad it was calm, as it was generally anticipated to be. Most of those who have any knowledge about Ivorian elections (all 15 of us) believe that the true results of Cote d'Ivoire's justice and peacebuilding efforts will be seen in 2020, when Ouattara will not be running.
Here's a roundup of mostly solid articles in English about the elections:
African Arguments, 19 October
Washington Post, 19 October
Washington Post, 20 October
Mail & Guardian, 21 October
BBC, 24 October
Reuters, 28 October
(update) Washington Post, 26 November
Little by little, more is being written about Cote d'Ivoire's recent trials and its economic transformation, all viewed through a lens of the upcoming October elections (exact date TBD). French-language media is generally a better source, but English-language analysis is slowly catching up.
"Court decision deepens Ivory Coast opposition rift" for Reuters, by Joe Bavier
"Côte d’Ivoire’s victor’s Justice? ICC, the Gbagbos and the Mega-Trial" for African Arguments, by Giulia Piccolino
(seriously excellent overview of the set of trials set in political context)
"Investigations against pro-Ouattara camp to begin mid-2015, says ICC chief prosecutor" for The Interview, France 24
(the first time the ICC has explicitly addressed the criticisms of both the Ivorian opposition and human rights observers that the national and international justice mechanisms have been one-sided)
"Deja vu: And if the cocoa price dropped?" by John James on his blog Drogba's Country
(examination of the possible second round of CIV's "economic miracle" that could be based, once again, on high global cocoa prices; what could happen if prices plunge?)
I fell in love with Ouagadougou. It's West Africa, but the pace is slower than in Abidjan, the people are nicer, the streets are straighter, the weather is drier. I described it as the Midwest of West Africa, which means it felt like home.
The thing I REALLY wish I had gotten a photo of is the number of women on scooters. Old women, young women, women in both modern and traditional clothing, women going to work or market. My favorite was on my taxi ride from the airport I saw two women on a scooter, each of which had a baby strapped to their backs, West African-style. I loved it.
I don't know if it was the dry heat, the calm, the hours and hours of movies, the fact that there's fewer foreigners there so I got bothered less, but I would move there if I ever found a reason to.
Also, Burkinabés have a sense of humor, when it comes to their politics:
Went to the U.S. embassy yesterday to meet some people, for my security briefing, and to get the badge that allows me to check for mail, use the gym, and hang out at general events. I'm officially a Fulbrighter now.
There was nothing too remarkable about it, just the usual multiple layers of security plus vast bureaucracy and promotion of certain forms of power. While the machinery and larger global politics is certainly ripe for criticism (and which has been done so many times before), everyone I met there, both the Americans and the Ivorian national staff, were all helpful and welcoming. My fellowship is paid for by the U.S. government for international cultural exchange, and I am quite aware of the privileges that I personally have and that I also am able to exercise because of my citizenship.
But again, though my research focus is not health care, it's that topic that seems to attract my attention. I was given a health packet from the embassy clinic, mostly so I could know the recommended local doctors and hospitals (and the French versions of medications was a bonus). Much of the packet is devoted toward preventative medicine, and the HIV & Sexually Transmitted Diseases section is a disaster – I don't know if it was developed locally or copied from similar packets in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, but the language is so problematic when talking about local populations.
"Cote d'Ivoire, like the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, is a hotbed of HIV infections; 3.9% adult HIV prevalence." Hotbed? While this rate is higher than the U.S., it's not anywhere close to the prevalence in a number of other countries in southern Africa. The date for this statistic is 2008, and the current UNAIDS estimate is lower, at 2.7%, both of which are down even further from 7% in 2003 and 13% prior to the first war. And the "hotbed" language simply serves to reinforce the "othering" of Africa as a diseased place.
"The HIV prevalence among local prostitutes, and presumably amongst promiscuous natives [emphasis mine] who frequent late-night clubs, is 50%. That means there is a 1 out of 2 chance that the person you 'pick-up' in a bar is infected with HIV!" Wut? Let's allow that the 50% figure is accurate for prostitution (I couldn't find a recent source but note previous stats), how on earth can it be extrapolated to "promiscuous natives"? So much sex-shaming and racial/national segregation and repeated othering language used in a public health message. And the cute little exclamation point at the end, that you really only have yourself to blame.
I would encourage a great deal more sensitivity and less fear-mongering toward the local populations. Give the stats, give the health precautions (as done for malaria and diarrhea), but keep the ugly, moralizing, whiff-of-superiority tone out of it.
In an inauguration of my new site and blog and in preparation for the fieldwork to come, a few of my favorite photos from last summer in Dakar:
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!