Snatching Activism from the Jaws of the Enough Project

de Waal and Prendergast

The Enough Project has been an important player in raising awareness with regards to genocide in Darfur, rape and conflict minerals in the DR Congo and the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and the LRA.

But Tufts University academic Alex de Waal is not a fan. The head of the World Peace Foundation sought to reclaim activism from the likes of the Enough Project and Invisible Children in a recent blog post.

The U.S. government didn’t need the Enough Project to know that bad things were happening in Darfur, that Joseph Kony is a villain, and that the war in eastern Congo is causing desperate suffering. But maybe it needs principled and brave people to tell it that the interventions in Somalia, Libya and Mali are deeply problematic, that its friends in power in Juba, Kampala and Kigali need to be more honest and less militaristic.

It’s no secret that de Wall and Enough Project head John Prendergast do not see eye to eye on activism. A debate between the two regarding Darfur in 2007 tipped away from substance and towards personal. Prendergast wrote:

Some of your writings (and no, I haven’t read all of them) tend to blame activists for things getting worse on the ground in Darfur, and for the failure of the Darfur Peace Agreemeent of 2006. At least that is what most activists perceive your intentions to be. And I understand that. It is hard to get published these days on Sudan, so an argument like that is very attractive to editors. The fact that it is not true is irrelevant, it appears.

The effort in Darfur caused more problems than it solved argued de Waal at the time.

Darfur is a pretty sorry mess today. No one should be patting themselves on the back for that. The Darfur Peace Agreement failed. The activist campaign hasn’t succeeded either. Did you stop any offensives in the last two years? I rather think that the SLA fighters in north Darfur did that. And be careful about proclaiming that protection is on its way.

An event a few months ago at Tufts University explored the very topic of activism. It opened with comments from de Waal who argued that current activism is problematic because it is carried out and led by people from places that are unaffected by a given problem. He pointed towards conflict minerals as an example of Western activists assigning a solution to a problem in the eastern DR Congo without Congolese serving in a leadership role.

The activism today is ‘designer activism’ meant to purely gain in popularity, said de Waal. Lawyer and blogger Amanda Taub said she agreed with the ideas set forth by de Wall when looking at Kony 2012 and the Save Darfur effort. In order to reach a large audience, campaigns must turn complex conflicts into simple stories that have small, achievable and palatable recommendations, explained Taub.

“There is a problem with always putting the US government as center of intervention,” said Taub. “We are a powerful country, but we don’t have magical powers.”

Such campaigns make it hard to build connections with the people affected. It becomes easier to place individual Americans at the center and talk about their power in affecting a given problem. Academic and blogger Laura Seay said that the issue of conflict minerals in the DR Congo is the perfect example of outsiders making determinants on behalf of Congolese. She said that the campaign and solutions were largely developed in Washington DC and London, not in the Congo.

“If you ask the people about the solutions to the conflict, nobody will say to shut down the mineral trade,” said Seay.

The resulting legislation passed in the Dodd-Frank bill regarding conflict mineral transparency put as many as 2 million people out of work according to Seay. Making decision from the outside can have significant consequences.

Working in partnership is essential, agrees John Paul Fawcett, Legislative Director for RESULTS.

“You can get a glimpse of that in Tom Paulson’s profile this week of Luwiza Makukula, a Zambian community activist, who spent time this week with RESULTS grassroots in the Pacific NW and Canada,” said Fawcett to Humanosphere.

“She has a powerful personal story about surviving TB and getting access to AIDS drugs, but we’re not just grabbing her story on a 30 second video clip. We want folks to be able to have a real conversation with the people who benefit from the programs they advocate for — in this case, the Global Fund. Moreover, Luwiza’s organization (CITAM+) and RESULTS and both members of ACTION, a global health advocacy partnership. Through ACTION, we are constantly talking to and learning from each other about how to advocate in our respective countries.”

The Tufts discussion did include examples of good campaigns. Landmines were used as an example by de Waal of a good campaign that ended up getting worse. Originally advocates would speak with factory workers to show how their products were harming people around the world. He said that kind of campaigning led to internal change within the producers of the mines. It ran into problems, according to de Waal, with the Ottawa convention that led to a global ban and a fund to support their removal.

Problems develop with broad condemnations and rules that are applied top down. Tostan is an organization that takes on female genital mutilation and cutting by working with religious leaders and individuals to change attitudes about the practice. It does not simply condemn FGM and tell everyone that it is wrong and must end. The organization takes the point of view that FGM is wrong, but change must come from within communities, not from the top, explained Seay.

Fawcett admits that some advocacy efforts are bad, but advocacy does not have a monopoly on failed interventions.

“I do get frustrated that a lot of the examples of “badvocacy” aren’t attempts at advocacy at all, but rather fundraising, and just aren’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. Despite the howling about amateur efforts to send t-shirts and shoes to Africa, most bad development projects are done by development professionals,” he explains.

As the debate between de Waal and advocates like the Enough Project continues, the problems of Darfur and eastern DR Congo persist.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a Maine-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom found and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.