Reclaiming Activism

For most of my adult life I introduced myself as an “activist” first and a writer, researcher, or practitioner of humanitarian action or peacemaking second. Then, about seven or eight years ago, I became rather uncomfortable with the word. Not because I had diluted my personal commitment to working in solidarity with suffering and oppressed people, but because a group of people, in whose company I didn’t want to be, were claiming not only to be activists but to define “activism” itself. I am speaking of course about the policy lobbyists in Washington DC, also known as “designer activists,” who took on the role of promoting certain causes related to Africa, and who arrogated to themselves the privilege of defining these problems and identifying and pursuing ostensible solutions. It was no accident that those purported solutions placed the “activists” themselves at the center of the narrative, because many of them were Hollywood actors—or their hangers on—for whom the only possible role is as the protagonist-savior. The actions they promoted all had one thing in common: using more U.S. power around the world.

I was not the only one to find this arrogation of “activism” offensive, demeaning and counter-productive. One of the most refreshing aspects of our recent seminar at the World Peace Foundation was finding out just how much the consensus among national civil society activists from Uganda and Congo, as well as Sudan, has coalesced around the view that the basic narratives and policy prescriptions of the Enough Project and its ilk are not only simplified and simplistic, but actually pernicious. Theirs isn’t activism: it’s insider lobbying within the Washington establishment using celebrity hype as leverage. They are not just a benign variant of advocacy, perhaps somewhat simplified: they are wrong.

It’s time to reclaim activism. It’s time to reassert some of the fundamental principles that made activism an honorable vocation and practice.

Some of the principles are contained in blog posts relating to our February-March seminar, easily findable under the tag “advocacy.” Let me outline three such principles.

First, activism should be undertaken in partnership with affected people, under their leadership. It should facilitate those people defining the problem for themselves—it is only by defining their problem that they can ever be master of it, rather than it becoming master of them. It should be sensitive to their leadership. Activists should be alert to the possibility that local people will be dazzled by the illusory prospect of outside salvation and surrender their own leadership to their supposed foreign friends. And so activists should approach the people with whom they hope to act, in a spirit of humility and self-effacement. That is the practice of solidarity.

Second, activism should seek truth and speak truth. That means being honest to the facts, and doing the hard work of finding out realities, and when required, changing one’s mind accordingly. There should be no sacrifice of uncomfortable and complicated truths for the sake of simple messages that foreign audiences can understand and to which they can relate easily. A central part of activism is the hard intellectual work of understanding.

Third, activism should challenge power. That doesn’t mean abandoning the pragmatics of calculating effort and impact, of calibrating intermediate and strategic goals. But it does require being honest about where the greatest concentrations of power lie, and how that power is utilized, and making that power uncomfortable, at least. Lobbying that merely adjusts the trajectory of super-power policies, in directions that are not uncomfortable for that superpower to shift, is not challenging power, but giving power an alibi. 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. “Activists” who pick only on the already-identified bad guys are at best activists-lite, whose inconvenience to policymakers is that handling them takes up precious time. If these policy lobbyists did mount such challenges, they might lose some of their insider access and glamour, but they might gain our respect.

So: three clear principles to guide an individual or organization aspiring to the honorable term “activist.” One: act in solidarity and support of the affected people, and don’t impose on them. Two: be honest to the facts, and open to inquiry into the facts. And when the facts change, change your mind. Three: be ready to challenge the biggest powers: the U.S. government and its allies.


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28 Responses to Reclaiming Activism

  1. Beautiful work, I guess to revive activism has got to flow down to none celebrates but also many of our activists for example in Uganda, many take up, like its the latest pair of shoes or certificate that every “elite “has to have on his or her CV ; or other take up the title to be associated with liberlism, humanitarian works when they do not even know the principles but rather are comfortable with the “tag “

  2. Barbara Cesana says:

    Thank you for posting this…I have similar concerns and think we in the USA need a Team-99 to speak up for the currently dis-enfranchised who are being taken to the cleaners on a daily basis: disabled, elderly, poor and minorities, children…you know the list. After the sequestration reversal of the air traffic controllers, etc., the writing on the wall was clear. In the next (swift) financial crisis, the pain will be on these groups even more. Thank you for writing and let us work together to build our base.

  3. Great article. Thank you for making the distinction between activist and lobbiests. It is so frustrating to hear people call themselves activists when they are promoting the system so many of us are trying to fight against or fix.

  4. David Sweanor says:

    Brilliant observations. As someone who has spent decades in public policy work I have also become dismayed at what has come to be self-defined as ‘activism’. Too often those involved are too-comfortable bureaucrats, assorted rent seekers or ‘brand managers’. Their actions are not just typically counter-productive, but they often ‘occupy the field’, thus making it even harder for real activists to be effective.

    In my experience certain characteristics are indicative of such people: personal ego trumps actual impact, fundraising trumps effectiveness, their benefits packages look like those of rich country civil servants and they are more likely to talk about their free trips than their social impact.

    Maybe a key role for contemporary activists is to ‘out’ the pretenders.

  5. Clive Bates says:

    Alex – terrific, powerful post (and short too!). I think these principles may be generalisable beyond international development. Similar criticisms apply to the green movement, where predictable enemies (nuclear, GMOs, shale gas etc) and dull orthodox solutions (binding targets, renewables, conservation designations etc) seem to matter more to activists than results and progress that can be made with public consent, going with the grain of human life and innovation. As with development, there are many different views, but taken as whole, I think environmental activism has lost its way.

  6. Yes Prof. Alex It’s time to reclaim activism.

  7. Abdulmageed Ahmed says:

    I’m happy to hear from you the a.m. words concerning activism which should be related to being honest, sincere ,of awakened conscious. You may not be able to perform what you think as far as there are whale companies forming,designing, re framing the policy of the world.They think always of their own interests and let the rest go to…….

  8. Abdulmageed Ahmed says:

    I listened to you at Asharqa hall at khrt. univ. I’m interested to have your books or the software of your books.
    The problem nowadays how to think of things with an open mind?

  9. John says:

    It seems somewhat arrogant for Mr. de Waal to redefine activism so groups he disagrees with no longer fall under his reconstructed definition. Perhaps even more arrogant is the way he ignores civil society leaders that Invisible Children and the Enough Project have worked with in lobbying for change.

    Correct me if I am mistaken, but it seems like his biggest issue with Enough/Resolve/IC’s (the so-called “ilk”) lobbying is that has focused on Washington. I don’t think anyone at these orgs would disagree with working with locals. In fact, they have done this for years and will continue to do.

    That fact is: IC/Resolve/Enough’s lobbying efforts are in concert with what many, many civil society groups are calling for. Case & point:

  10. […] de Waal trolls celebrity activists like Enough, Kony 2012, faults them for insufficient consultation with local […]

  11. Tim Glawion says:

    I would even go a step further and say, the first principle of activism is to listen to the people in who’s interest you are fighting, before you act.
    We have so many motivated, zealous and bright young minds in the West who “want” to do good, but forget to ask those who’s good they want, what that good should even look like.
    Wonderful text Alex de Waal.

  12. Ben says:

    Hi Alex. This piece is of particular interest to us right now as we script a documentary to look at exactly this issue as regards the impact of the conflict mineral campaign in the eastern DRC (, so thank you and thanks also for directing us on to the seminar. Best, Ben.

  13. […] 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. […]

  14. John Ashworth says:

    Thanks, Alex!

  15. Dear Alex, Thanks very much for this information about activism! I agree completely! All the best! Bea

  16. […] “…activism should be undertaken in partnership with affected people, under their leaders… […]

  17. Garfield Mahood, OC says:

    I have been involved in advocacy and law reform in the health field for close to 40 years, most of it at the provincial and national level in Canada. Because I have limited knowledge of the international activist scene, only that gained by being an average interested donor, I hesitated to comment on the Alex de Waal essay on activism. However, reading David Sweanor’s comments changed my mind.

    With virtually every campaign in which I have been involved, legislators have had to be dragged across the finish line, kicking and screaming. In most cases, the successful campaign involved “making that power [the government involved] uncomfortable” as de Waal put it.

    In my experience, real activists might well reassess the targets that they should make uncomfortable. Governments are easy targets. The public expects governments to protect special interests that have the power and influence needed to resist change. But often it is the failure of large , well-funded non-governmental interests that “occupy the field” on a given issue to put their weight behind a given reform. Too often, an ill-informed public mistakenly believes these NGOs are engaged in serious prevention, for example, which always means serious advocacy and organizational activism. To affect change, these organizations must be pulled out of the comfort of the spectator stands and brought onto the policy change playing field.

    These large, respected NGO players may also be conflicted out. They may have several files on the go with governments at any one time when those same governments need to feel discomfort. These NGOs more often than not conclude that putting heat on governments on one issue will attract retribution on other files. So they back away from playing the “hard-ball” needed to achieve the desired policy goals.

    Forcing these potential agents for positive change to become really rather than cosmetically involved in activism is part of polarization, a necessary phase in social change. Can we expect real activism to surface from within these NGOs. Not often. Like Sweanor’s “too comfortable bureaucrats, assorted rent seekers or ‘brand managers,” they occupy the field and, through unfunded coalitions, reduce advocacy and law reform goals to the lowest common denominators.

    Sweanor is correct when he says “a key role for contemporary activists is to ‘out’ the pretenders.”

  18. Nell Okie says:

    …there is another less obvious reason that Darfur has become invisible. For the suffering and destruction have at various times been seriously misrepresented by those who claim to know the region best. Alex de Waal, who has repeatedly and stridently condemned civil advocacy in the U.S. and elsewhere—as ignorant, misguided, and finally destructive—seems the best exemplar here. After the debacle of the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement (Abuja, Nigeria), de Waal went on to become the “Darfur expert” for the African Union Panel on Darfur (AUPD) that convened in 2009; the Panel was chaired by the politically ambitious Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa. The AUPD produced a lengthy, excruciatingly redundant report (without a single citation of work by others, including those upon whose work they obviously depended), and as conclusion offered a “Roadmap for Peace in Darfur.” -Eric Reeves
    in “Reflections on the invisibility of Darfur”. 12 May 2013

  19. Ahmed Hassan says:

    my response here is triggered by Monim’s comment on the article, and the subsequent response of Alex in Sudan Tribune:

    Here is my comment:

    Shockingly enough, I couldn’t agree more with the painful, yet factual, dissection of Monim for Alex’s procession over the last 10 years. I have been able to join hands and mind with Alex since, shortly after his historical divorce with HRW over the US and Somalia issue, in 1994-1998 (African Rights), followed by (Justice Africa) in 1999 and onward over various activism and humanitarian assistance projects for the Sudan cause.I had the chance, also, to participate with Alex in the two major Sudan Civil Project workshops in Kampala (1999 and 2000) which presented a culmination of a major activism work intended to bring together almost all stakeholder parties to the conflict in Sudan for addressing the crisis and setting the stage for a just transition of Sudan- focusing on accountability, human rights violations not only by the current parties of to the conflict, but also by previous governments of Sudan, self determination, ethnic and racial relations, child rights, women rights, freedom of belief and expression…etc, many of of which are now lost in the current negotiations.

    I have accompanied Alex partially through “Making Sense of Darfur” till mid-way to it’s transition to “Making Sense of Sudan” and the relocation of the blog to the “Royal African Society” where I felt that I’ve lost the activist Alex I used to know somewhere in between and decided accordingly to dissociate myself.

    Despite his response to Monim, Alex is still unable to realize or admit that he lost his integrity as activist by heavily associating himself with one-sided, in a way or another, political processes of the Sudan peace negotiations, and is unable to admit the shortsightedness and blunders that accompanied most of these negotiations which led to several undeniable failures and complications.

    Though not sure about the resurrection of an activism, I do hope that this new turn in the writings of Alex is a signal to his acknowledgement of the failure of the current political processes with which he has associated himself, and the stands he was taking within them, and a mark of his return to the activism arena that was always there, and which did not need a re-birth in fact, but was awaiting the return of its long left warriors to continue the just and legitimate struggle for a comprehensive and lasting peace in Sudan that focuses on the real causes of the conflict and that encompasses all the real concerned people of the Sudan – in their new dynamics and new local polarization and groupings, and not the obsolete and irrelevant political entities that claim to represent the people of Sudan while they are totally detached from reality and from the new transformations happening grassroots of Sudan. The Sudan issue is no longer about political parties struggling to divide the piece of cake, it is rather of a totally new emerging fragmented society that request clear and serious answers to the questions of cultural discourse, identity, accountability and citizenship rights.

    I do really hope that the new writings of Alex are not game maneuvers, to re-win the heart of those whom, Alex, in his sincere but unsuccessful attempts to contribute to shaping a peaceful future for Sudan, has painfully betrayed them and their expectations of him.

    As I said, the central question is not of the “re-birth of activism”, but that of the “return of the activist”. No shame in admitting our mistakes. Humans do err. Our least concerns should be the None Principled Activist. Principled and None Principled Activists will always remain out there, as part of the eternal dialectic, the determining factor is which one we opt to be?

    Ahmed Hassan
    Central Asia – 28/6/2013

  20. Alex DeWaal says:

    Dear Ahmed,

    Do I have regrets about getting involved in the AU’s attempts to mediate the conflicts in Darfur, the two areas and between Sudan and South Sudan? Absolutely, yes. I am far more comfortable operating in a public and transparent way than working with mediation and the confidentiality that imposes.

    Anyone who joins a mediation team must be ready to be blamed for failures—including failures that aren’t yours individually, or the team’s. Similarly, the mediator must be ready not to take credit for successes, because the parties to the conflict will—and should—take the credit for any successes. I thought it was worth the frustrations and the risks (personal, reputational) to get involved with inevitably flawed mediation exercises.

    Meanwhile, I strongly endorse the analysis and recommendations of SDFG: the AUHIP should continue but with capacity and political backing to address democratization issues in both Sudan and South Sudan.

    I am also ready to admit and discuss my mistakes. But I want that debate to be conducted with proper and objective documentation, so that it is not simply a matter of me making an assertion, based on confidential documents and on my accounts of private meetings: others should be able to make their assessment based on the evidence. When the documentation for the mediation activities becomes available, some of my personal views may become public, though after the fact.

    As you point out, “Making Sense of Sudan” has not been the same for almost three years, since I relinquished the editorship. But we are planning a re-launch, soon.

    Best regards


  21. Ahmed Hassan says:

    Thank you very much for the response, Alex! and quite welcome back. I apologize if I sounded as judging your positions within the internal and confidential deliberations of the mediation. We have no reasons to doubt your motives and sincerity with regards to the Sudan issue, however, the on going negotiations were just quite frustrating and futile in the eyes of those considering the missing opportunity of your valuable activism while you have chosen that arena.

    As you said, this experience will definitely add to the shaping of the upcoming advocacy and activism work that myself and lots of other colleagues are expecting you to continue. The Sudan cause at this point in time, needs all the support it can get to prevent further disintegration of the country and the total collapse of this failed state.

    Again, a very warm welcome back to the battlefield and we look forward to see and contribute to the resurrected “making sense of Sudan” in its new launch.

    Ahmed Hassan
    Kandahar, Afghanistan
    July 3, 2013

  22. D.Michelle says:

    IMHO – just do what you do, this push to define the work makes it appear as if you have sour grapes that you are not the kingmaker/powerplayer when other “activists” work gets more attention. Besides the obvious issue this post creates – defining activism or the principles thereof, because he doesn’t like the definition of activism presented by other activists (or non activists in his opinion) – I’m struck at how useless this process is when “activists, writers, humanitarian worker/however you choose to define yourself” spend time defining who rightfully belongs in their clan and which ways they can operate. Let’s get uncomfortable with some truths for a minute – “soundbiting” your story can do more for a movement than the old hands have done in a lifetime, its disingenuous to say “they” aren’t working with local groups because they do not have your same prescriptions as you, and you don’t know if “they” have used their “insider” to also talk about Somali, Juba, etc. to policymakers. There are many different worlds activist must work in to accomplish the mission – there’s no straight line. I understand and agree with your stated principles but defining the real vs fake activist – its an old fight that gets the movement nowhere.

  23. Alex DeWaal says:

    Dear Michelle,

    thank you for your comment, which raises a couple of important issues.

    One is the definition of the “story”, and the other is the definition of “success.” Most of the situations we deal with don’t have a single story, let alone an uncomplicated one. So the task is less to do with promoting a “story” than with creating conditions in which people in the country concerned can be empowered to resolve the complicated, changing and real-world issues they deal with. It’s true that a soundbite, or a piece of well-targeted publicity, can do more to give profile to an issue than any amount of careful research and local capacity building. (I have written plenty of Opeds too…) But that isn’t always what is required.

    The second issue is defining “success,” which is not achieved in Washington DC or London or Brussels, but in Sudan or Congo or wherever. I am concerned that too many advocacy groups see success in terms of the profile of the issue in the U.S. or internationally. Reading a report or watching a video, within a few sentences or a few seconds, it is clear whom it is targeted at. Any production or writing that doesn’t have, as part of its intended audience, the people of the affected country, is by definition problematic.

    A third question is the importance of language and definitions. It is vital, I believe, to master an issue intellectually and to create or refine definitions. There is room for a wide variety of approaches to addressing these issues, including those who focus on raising awareness in western countries. But there are also some ethical guidelines that we should acknowledge and follow. And I am prepared to be very frank and say outright that some of what passes for “activism” is damaging and should be stopped.

  24. […] in response to the discussion which occurred a few months ago centering around Alex De Waal’s piece on international activism. I found this section most […]

  25. […] wanting to support the Congolese people should read this article on reclaiming activism from the policy lobbyists in Washington D.C., London and elsewhere, and […]

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