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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