To mark the publication of Advocacy In Conflict: Critical perspectives on transnational activism, ed. Alex de Waal with Jennifer Ambrose, Casey Hogle, Teisha Taneja, and Keren Yohanne (London: Zed Books, 2015), we are launching a series excerpted from select chapters. The editorial team emerged out if the World Peace Foundation student seminar competition in 2013, and our first excerpt comes from former Fletcher students who first proposed the topic and wrote the introduction to the book, Jennifer Ambrose, Casey Hogle, Teisha Taneja, and Keren Yohanne.
‘Nothing for us without us’
Activists across time zones, decades and topics have used variations of the slogan ‘nothing for us without us’ to express a key tenet of responsible advocacy: people affected by conflict, rights abuses and other injustices should play the leading role in movements that advocate on their behalf. When repression, silencing or dispersal leaves those people disadvantaged, it places particular responsibilities on Western advocates to act in a way that allows the substantive agenda, targets and goals, media portrayal, and methods to be set in accordance with the articulated priorities of the affected population. Most recently associated with the international disability rights movement of the 1990s, ‘Nothing for us without us’ demands that audiences listen to the self-expressed interests and goals of oppressed people. In the wake of recent advocacy campaigns, such as Invisible Children’s Kony2012 film and the US Campaign for Burma’s ‘It Can’t Wait’ videos – both of which became international sensa- tions more for their tactics and messaging than for the issues they promote – the slogan encourages reflection on the extent to which recent trends in transnational advocacy have deviated from core principles of responsible activism. Hence, the impetus for this book is our recognition of the need to reclaim international advocacy movements to make them more self-reflective and accountable to the people and the evolving situations they represent.
Our focus is on a particular subset of transnational activism, itself a subset of activism more generally, namely professionalized Western advocacy concerned with particular conflicts in other parts of the world. While there is a rich literature on global society and activism (Kaldor 2003; Feher 2007; Reydams 2011), Western-led campaigns that focus on particular conflict-affected countries are dealt with only in passing. While individual campaigns such as Save Darfur have generated both controversy and research (Mamdani 2009; Hamilton 2011), there is little comparative analysis on how these movements fit with broader issues of global civil society. This book targets that gap, and our central argument is that the development of these specific forms of activism, in which advocates have shaped strategies to fit the requirements of marketing their cause to Western publics, and adapted them to score tactical successes with Western governments (especially that of the USA), has led to the weakening or even abandonment of key principles. This is akin to what Mary Kaldor (2003) calls the ‘taming’ of civil society, as social movements transform into professionalized NGOs. The key principles we identify as needing to be asserted or reclaimed include receptivity to the perspectives of affected people and their diverse narratives and attention to deeper, underlying causes, and therefore a focus on strategic change rather than superficial victories.
In March 2012, Invisible Children unveiled its Kony2012 campaign, based on sparse and ill-constructed logic, designed to ‘make Kony famous’. What soon became one of the most viral YouTube videos in history sparked a mad dash by the organization’s target audience of American high school and college students to purchase advocacy kits. With these kits, student activists purportedly possessed the tools needed to pressure the US Congress to take on the responsibility of stopping Joseph Kony (or, to be precise, not ending its support for efforts to stop him). However, the student activists and organizers ignored their obligation to represent the priorities of the affected population, a central tenet of responsible international advocacy. While students stepped up to the task of ‘saving’ the people of central Africa from the terror of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – with- out being invited to consider the marginal role Africans themselves were allowed to play – the video’s misleading portrayal of the situ- ation on the ground sparked a widespread counter-movement and hearty discourse in the blogosphere. The Tumblr site most critical of Kony2012, Visible Children, gained thousands of followers, and major television networks began calling on academic experts to articulate their concerns over the campaign.
The Kony2012 video succeeded in propelling Joseph Kony to in- ternational stardom. The seemingly black-and-white, for-or-against Kony2012 debate that immediately followed the video’s release pro- vided a platform for everyone opposed to the campaign to name a plethora of reasons why it was bad. Few critics, however, could fully articulate how an international advocacy campaign in the twenty-first century should be conducted in an ethical, responsible and effective way. While Kony2012 made it clear that, with skilful use of media, a mass public campaign on an international issue can make a big splash, it reinforced the need for local leadership and for being con- scientious regarding the intricacies of a situation. As Kony2012 began to outshine home-grown advocacy movements and their objectives for Uganda, it also brought up the necessity of ensuring enough space for indigenous and international movements to work together, with local movements setting the agenda and Western groups offering resources, scale and solidarity.
Two years later, in April 2014, a leading instance of ‘hashtag activism’ – the #BringBackOurGirls campaign – demanded the return of the over two hundred Nigerian girls kidnapped from the Chibok girls’ school by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram. This has interesting echoes of the activism against the LRA, beginning with the way the LRA’s mass abduction of pupils from the Aboke girls’ school in 1996 suddenly provided a focal point for wider awareness and campaigning across Uganda. Similarly, Boko Haram had been killing, abducting and terrorizing for more than two years before Nigeria’s elite or Western actors began to take notice: it took the girls’ kidnapping for this to happen.
The kidnapping sparked the origination of #BringBackOurGirls locally before the campaign was amplified internationally. The Nigerian campaign focused equally on Boko Haram and on the Nigerian government, and its ineptitude, corruption and brutality. It criticizes not only Boko Haram’s devastating actions, but also the environment that has given the group its raison d’être and the ability to conduct such a major attack. Nigerians asked for the return of the Chibok girls, of course, but also for better governance, more security and less corruption. The activist message simplified a complicated story, but it did break through that domestic barrier.
The American narrative, though, diverged significantly from the original Nigerian campaign. Its focus is exclusively on Boko Haram. The Western campaign was not organized around a specific ‘ask’, but some Nigerians worried it would transmute into lobbying for American military action – as that is the default option for US foreign policy and American popular culture (Balogun 2014). However, despite the fact that Boko Haram is identified as a terrorist organization associated with al-Qaeda, the USA has not dispatched its own troops, at the time of writing. It provided surveillance aircraft to assist the Nigerian military, but US government spokespeople were openly critical of the Nigerian army’s record on corruption and human rights (Schmidt and Knowlton 2014).
What accounts for this less interventionist message and outcome? A large part of the reason is likely to be reluctance in the US Depart- ment of Defense, translating into a policy decision in the White House not to intervene (ibid.). Insofar as the leading Washington lobbyists on African human rights issues pick up this signal, they are unlikely to advocate for an intervention that would be strongly resisted. A second, related reason is that none of the American ‘advocacy superpowers’ (Carpenter 2014: 40) have taken up the cause, leaving the agenda-setting – by default – to the Nigerians. As a result, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign failed to create a lasting interna- tional publicity blitz; its presence on social media platforms rapidly dwindled. The campaign left its Western audience with a short and savvy glimpse into a complicated Nigerian story, having diluted the message and having had almost no international impact (Fisher 2014). Cognizant of the lessons of Kony2012, Nigerian activists may be grateful for this neglect.
With these two examples in mind, many questions demand further reflection regarding the future of international activism and how to more closely align efforts with the ‘nothing for us without us’ adage.
The book is available here.