How legitimate and accountable are Westerners who advocate for geographically and culturally distinct issues? If the legitimacy of these Western actors is not derived from those people on whose behalf they are advocating, what gives these ‘activists’ the right to propose solutions? Who are these advocates accountable to, if they do harm? How can advocacy campaigns be more inclusive and account for multiplicity of narratives? These are some of the central questions considered in 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).
On 26 October 2015, the World Peace Foundation invited contributors Anat Biletzki (Albert Schweitzer Professor of Philosophy, Quinnipiac University; Professor of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University), Laura Seay (Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Colby College) and Alex De Waal (Executive Director, World Peace Foundation and Research Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy) to speak about the book at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. They were joined by Trisha Taneja and Jennifer Ambrose (both graduates of the Fletcher School) who contributed to, and edited the book with De Waal.
De Waal began by arguing that transnational advocacy had historically been shaped by the anti-colonial and civil-rights movements, where Western groups had acted in solidarity with ‘southern’ activists. These relationships between southern and western actors have been reshaped by new power relationships where the organisations of the south no longer have ownership over their own narratives – the discourses of transnational advocacy are now often shaped and defined by well-funded Western NGOs (such as the Enough Project). These Western NGOs wield enormous influence in choosing topics for advocacy efforts, selecting a southern NGO or activist as a junior partner or client, and determining the nature of advocacy. These advocacy efforts are themselves geared and calibrated towards a particular segment of western policy-making audiences, perhaps with the intention of initiating a conversation between advocacy organisations and policymakers about the use of particular policy tools. Unfortunately, this transfer of ‘ownership’ and political bias in advocacy efforts can lead to an unhealthy failure to get to grips with the problems of people who are ostensibly being represented!
Laura Seay expanded on these broad themes in her presentation. She argued that, in trying to present a simple, appealing narrative for easy consumption by western policy-makers and western audiences, transnational advocacy organisations sometimes exacerbate the condition of those that they are claiming to represent. Her research focuses on the advocacy efforts around conflict minerals in the Congo – the sale and trade of which may benefit armed groups active in the region. Advocacy efforts around Congolese conflict minerals have suffered from several elementary problems – they presented the argument that the conflict in Congo was caused by the western demand for these minerals; they overstated the death toll in the region and targeted minerals that were not mined in the conflict areas. They have also been extremely successful in pushing a particular legislative agenda, for example, these advocacy efforts led to the inclusion of section 1502 in the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, which required companies listed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission to file periodic reports on their due diligence efforts to exclude conflict minerals from their products. The logic of the campaign was: reduce the demand for these minerals, cut off revenues for the armed groups, and thereby reduce actual violence. These legislative and advocacy efforts had a number of unintended consequences, however – a blanket prohibition on mining of conflict minerals was put in place by the Congolese government and a number of companies stopped purchasing these minerals because of the difficulty of certifying their products as being ‘conflict-mineral-free’. In particular, the consequences for the Congolese were catastrophic – livelihoods were destroyed (a large number of miners migrated), violence increased (perhaps, as competition over remaining resources intensified) and development indicators all appear to have deteriorated in the affected regions. Seay argued that this response to the conflict was entirely conceived of in Washington. Only after the policy had been produced did advocacy organisations involve Congolese NGOs.
Biletzki, a professor of linguistics, spoke about how these categories of ‘the West’ and the ‘coloniser’ were less clearly defined in the context of advocacy efforts around Gaza. Instead, she identified three kinds of advocacy – ‘ironic’, ‘straightforward’, and ‘convoluted’. ‘Ironic’ advocacy efforts are advocacy efforts by, and for Israel – they portray Israel as the victim, despite being the primary violator of humanitarian norms. ‘Straightforward’ advocacy measures include advocacy for Gaza on the internet or in media, by Palestinians or Palestinian supporters. Biletzki suggested that it is a peculiar characteristic of this advocacy that is largely driven by people engaging in digital networks much more than the regular media (which has been affected, effected and influenced by Israel and its supporters). ‘Convoluted’ advocacy, which she finds the most interesting, involves advocacy efforts by Israeli human rights organisations on behalf of people in Gaza.
Debate around the conflict is particularly polarised – the conflict is considered a zero-sum game between two parties, and Israeli NGO efforts on behalf of Palestine are often described by pro-Israel groups as ‘betrayal’ and treason’. As a result, Israeli activists in these organisations have to constantly reflect on their own identity. She argued further, that this has been aggravated since the 2014 war in Gaza, and the discourse has moved beyond the victim-perpetrator dichotomy which had existed earlier. Within Israeli society, Israeli human rights work has now been completely delegitimised.
Ambrose and Taneja concluded the presentation by speaking about the origin of the book project, and the lack of critical work on transnational advocacy that had motivated them to organise a seminar on the topic. They also cautioned that while the creation of simplistic narratives and western (or celebrity) ‘ownership’ of advocacy remains deeply problematic, local ownership also needs to be critically examined, so as to avoid the perpetuation and amplification of existing power hierarchies.
In the question and answer session, the panelists were asked a diverse set of questions, broadly centred around the themes of the narrow framing of issues by advocacy organisations; the unique nature of the American political system (with its multitudes of lobbyists) and whether it was shaping advocacy movements; the role of researchers (especially given that research itself can be considered a political activity) in helping advocacy movements strike a balance between engaging people while remaining critical of the methods adopted for advocacy, and an overarching question on what it meant for an advocacy movement to have been ‘successful’.
The panelists responded by suggesting that the narrow framing of issues was connected to the likelihood of advocacy movements being less inclusive. In general, framing issues narrowly (such as in the Congo conflict minerals case) isolates these particular issues from the context in which they arose, therefore increasing the likelihood of policy solutions aimed at addressing these issues being unsustainable and having unforeseen consequences.
Biletzki and Taneja suggested that the industry centred on advocacy was slightly different in the United States than in Europe or Canada. De Waal argued, on the other hand, that although it was possibly true that the role of advocacy organisations was particularly accentuated in the USA, however, the core issues remained the same across much of the developed world (with highly media-tised consumer cultures) where the power to set the agenda for advocacy has become pivotal.
All the panelists agreed that research was a political process. In Ambrose’s post-graduate career, this began with choosing issues to focus on and included selecting the location of projects and selecting local partners. Seay suggested that researchers can help provide context to advocacy organisations and make their projects more inclusive. Biletzki argued that the real challenge was in trying to be political and universalist at the same time.
The panelists concluded by suggesting that successful cases of advocacy were much harder to demonstrate than problematic cases. That said, successful advocacy campaigns are likely to be those which have mobilised a diverse array of constituencies.