what causes badvocacy?
I've gotten a fair amount of criticism for some posts on problems with various advocacy groups of late, both in comments and in the inbox. On Tuesday, an anonymous commenter asked the following excellent question:
"Do you think this current round of advocacy focusing on the conflict in Congo as a resource driven war is worse than no advocacy at all?"Here's part of my answer:
"...as many others before me have pointed out, advocacy needs to be intelligent. When you present information that isn't accurately descriptive of the dynamics of the situation, advocacy groups can sometimes do more harm than good (See: Save Darfur, Invisible Children).Why is so much Africa-focused advocacy in the United States so off-base? What leads to bad advocacy, or badvocacy? ("Badvocacy" is a good catch-all term to describe advocacy that begins with great intentions to help those who are suffering, but that at best accomplishes nothing or at worst actually makes the problem even more difficult to solve.) I can think of a few reasons:
"Well-intentioned but off-base advocacy tends to lead to bad policy (and to celebrities traipsing around regions pontificating on issues they don't really understand). If advocacy doesn't help to solve crises and if it does little or nothing to improve the lives of those who are suffering, then, no, I don't think it's better than nothing."
- Oversimplification of the issue. Oversimplifying conflicts is probably the most common mistake American advocacy groups make. As George Kennan noted long ago, Americans tend to seek a single external source of evil for all of the world's problems. It makes sense that most of us would instinctively try to narrow complex conflicts down to make them understandable to normal people. After all, it's a lot easier to call the war in Congo a "resource war" than to explain that what's going on there now is actually a series of ongoing local conflicts over land, ethnicity, resources, and governance with local, national, regional, and international dimensions (some of which have to do with the civil and international wars of 1996 and 1998-2003 and others that do not) in which dozens of local defense militias, national armies, and rebel groups fight over various objectives that tend to change and alliances and loyalties that constantly shift. That doesn't really fit on a t-shirt.
- Western-conceived solutions. The vast majority of peacekeeping missions, peacebuilding efforts, and conflict resolution plans are conceived in New York, Washington, and Brussels, often by people who have never or rarely visited the countries they purport to help. Perhaps you've noticed that these so-called solutions rarely work. That's why I'm a big believer in looking to local leaders to find answers whenever possible. As Suraj Sudhakar points out in a great post, that people are poor and live in a conflict zone does not mean they are stupid. Civil society leaders are well aware of their communities' problems. And they usually have ideas as to how to solve those problems, or at the very least to mitigate the effects of violent conflict on civilian populations. They speak the languages, know the cultures, and can mediate among the key players in local socio-political dynamics. This doesn't mean that there's no room for Western assistance. It does mean, however, that advocates on this side of the Atlantic should be asking intelligent victims of war what they think would help rather than insisting that the experts know best. We should listen to Somalis when they tell us that the development of a functioning coast guard would help to combat piracy better than ridiculous efforts to patrol half of the Indian Ocean. They know that of which they speak!
- Focus on celebrities and trendiness rather than intelligent analysis. This is Save Darfur's problem. Everybody opposes genocide, of course, and the suffering of innocents is something we should all be committed to ending wherever it happens in the world. The problem, however, is that when people who are trained as actors and musicians start traipsing around war zones without having done any homework independent of the organization supporting their visits, we tend to get a narrative that isn't exactly representative of the facts. So Darfur in the popular imagination becomes not a civil war over changing land usability and land tenure rights with people doing horrible things on both sides, but rather becomes the nasty Arab government going after innocent black Darfuris. The reality, of course, is closer to the former description than the latter, but I don't expect Mia Farrow to know that. Because Mia Farrow is an actress.
- Focus on the advocates rather than those they purport to help. Regular readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of Invisible Children's work, which is apparently a cardinal sin these days. (If Oprah likes them, clearly I'm in a first-class seat on the slow train to hell.) There are many reasons I think IC is not worth supporting, but among the most paramount is the fact that most of their advocacy isn't actually focused on Ugandan children, but rather on how their supporters feel about Ugandan children and the problem of the use of child soldiers. Hence a series of films that do more to tell us about the filmmakers than to explain the conflict, events that focus on protesters spending the night waiting to be "rescued" from their campouts, and a merchandise line that would appal any well-mannered Ugandan. As we've discussed before, for all their movies and talk show appearances, IC has done very little to actually help many Ugandan children, and they are very poorly regarded by Ugandans in the reason. Good advocacy isn't about the advocates; it's about the people who need others to stand up on their behalf.
- The insistence that "we have to do something." Amanda at Wronging Rights has a fantastic post on this issue. (Also, anyone else jealous that Bill Easterly reads their blog?!?) The human impulse to protect others is a generally a good one. But insisting that WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING OR PEOPLE WILL KEEP DYING doesn't always mean that the "something" in question should be done. Too often, Westerners get involved in conflicts we don't really understand. And not surprisingly, bad things tend to ensue (cf Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.). That we don't know exactly what would solve the problem in a place like Somalia is not a good enough reason to take action for its own sake. The risk of doing more harm than good is too high. In many cases, it might be better to step back, make efforts to support local political solutions, and to focus on purely humanitarian assistance and civilian protection for awhile.
- The white man's/woman's burden. Related to the problem of Western-conceived solutions to African problems, this is probably the most grating aspect of many Africa-focused adovcacy programs. Young people get excited about truly appalling situations, and, like generations of missionaries and colonists before them, they decide they're going to "Save Africa." This generally leads to discussions of being "a voice for the voiceless." Here's the problem with that: Africans aren't voiceless. In eleven years of experience on the continent, I've never met a citizen of an African state who didn't have opinions on his or her country and its state of affairs. It's true that many don't have access to platforms through which to speak to those in power, although the explosive growth of the African blogosphere suggests that cheap internet access is rapidly changing this state of affairs. There's a big difference between claiming to speak for someone and standing alongside those who want to change their own communities. Africa-focused advocacy could use a lot more of the latter.
Update: Bill Easterly has a nice discussion of the "doing nothing" vs. "doing something" debate going on over at Aid Watch today.