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).

"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."
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:
  • 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.
What would you add to this list?

Update: Bill Easterly has a nice discussion of the "doing nothing" vs. "doing something" debate going on over at Aid Watch today.


  1. I very much agree with this post, well said. I would also just add to this the old argument (and this probably mainly ties into your first point) that reducing 'Africa' to one homogenous place is really not helping, and that being reactive on this basis is a far ‘too little too late’ response. It seems to me that ‘Western’ attitudes toward Africa are overly simplistic in large part because they are shaped by portrayals of moments of disaster and nothing else. Bringing out some of the nuances of politics also requires recognizing that Africa is many places: it has success stories, it has developmentally oriented countries, and yes, it has conflicts that are politically complex with long lead up periods. Just like every other continent in the world. Congo, Uganda, Sudan so not have conflicts that happened overnight. Watching news coverage of Sri Lanka, it is no wonder people are ill informed. Suddenly people are asking ‘do you see what is happening in Sri Lanka?’ Well, if people were getting better information, they might reflect that they could have been asking that question for over twenty years. How many advocates or news outlets were really reporting to a mass public on Tamil Eelam even this time last year?

    All this to say, good advocacy I think could use to be a bit more forward-looking, and less sensational. For instance, how many countries have elections coming up next year? Sudan, the Philippines, Afghanistan to name a few. Knowledge tells us in politically tenuous environments, these events can be fairly contentious (Kenya – who saw that coming and actually wrote about it?). Why not think about advocacy based on mitigation, rather than on stopping violence that has already started? Given the expertise that clearly exists, I am not sure why this is an impossibility. Yes, it is not as flashy to talk about being proactive because it usually means getting into the details and the politics before any action has a chance to take place. And it would probably be difficult b/c it would require a lot more in-depth public awareness raising and general context-based analysis. Anyway, those are my adds! Thanks again for the great post.

  2. A funny (because it's true) post from the Stuff White People Like website: "Awareness." http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/01/23/18-awareness/

  3. I agree with you on this issue (both posts). "AidWatch" and "Wronging Rights" are kind of on the same kick right now - my paraphrase: "doing nothing is usually better than doing the wrong thing."

  4. Micol, great points. The confusion over "Africa" leads to all kinds of problems; that's why we see declines in tourism in, say, South Africa when something goes wrong in Somalia. The lack of understanding of nuance is really significant.

    Tales from the Hood, yeah, I know. Just added Easterly's post from today to this one.

    B, awesome.

  5. I overwhelmingly agree with your post, and that the demand for greater recognition of the complexity of these issues - and our own capacity to do harm when not adequately informed or engaged in deep reflection on the causes of various violent conflicts - should be heard by more advocacy groups (and THEIR FUNDERS, who don't know how to ask the right questions, creating incentives for what look like results, such as numbers at a rally, but may not translate to the effects we hope for).

    However, it's worth noting a basic premise of U.S.-based advocacy that is too often unrecognized by the critics. It's this: without dramatic, simplified frames through which average Americans can come to care about an issue (child soldiers, rape, coltan in cell phones), the policy discussions on the ways to respond to the crises would never take place.

    That is to say, there is a role for tshirt slogans and oversimplified narratives. Without them, policymakers simply don't pay attention and no responsible response is at all possible, and we all agree that - given the extent to which the policies of Western governments are already impacting these situations, noticed or not - there needs to be greater discussion and response.

    The key then is complementing such broad-based, over-simplified narratives by training and educating a core groups of truly informed and dedicated activists, analysts, and opinion leaders, who do the real grunt work of talking to policymakers about the complexities of these issues in an honest way, and who can make sure that the over-simplified narrative is developed as strategically as possible to support the kinds of policies that are truly needed.

    Otherwise, we are left with talking heads with no audience (w/o simple narratives) or broad audiences who don't know the right things to say (tshirt campaigns without in-depth analysis). You need both.

    There's always the strong risk that our advocacy won't produce the desired results (always depends on how policymakers actually choose to respond). But if complemented by good analysis and strong leadership, the risks inherent in creating tshirt-message campaigns should be taken.

  6. But when a t-shirt campaign leads to a figure like Oprah joining up without being informed, the greater message being projected is that of the over-simplified variety.

    Educating would-be advocates on the issue they are advocating for is imperative.

  7. In a perfect world, complex issues would not need to be put in simplified terms to get a widespread response, t-shirts would not be enough to engage the masses, and stories of a conflict would not need to highlight the lives of Western advocates in order to garner an empathetic response. Whether we like it or not, this is simply not a reflection of the world in which we live. While we seek to engage the public in deeper ways, some concessions must be made in order to mobilize people toward effective policy.

    On bad advocacy doing more harm then good, I agree with the principle of your argument but fail to see eye to eye with some of your conclusions and classifications. Some of the organizations that don’t sit well with you, specifically Invisible Children, provide an introduction to a conflict for a young demographic who would otherwise take no notice. The key word is introduction; using media with Western appeal or t-shirt campaigns provides an entry point for engagement, not an end in itself. For anyone willing to dig deeper, the means are made available - through Invisible Children and a host of advocacy groups focusing on the issue.

    If an organization like Invisible Children is doing more harm then good by acting, they should cease their work immediately. But the true impact of Invisible Children’s recent advocacy campaign was not, as you stated, that a bunch of young kids slept outside for a night and wore oversimplified t-shirts, or the fact that Oprah attached her name to the cause. The true impact of their efforts was in creating the political noise necessary to allow for comprehensive legislature to be introduced on the floor yesterday with bipartisan support from dozens of members of Congress who took part in their event. (http://allafrica.com/stories/200905190874.html) The bill, which seeks to capitalize on the buzz of the recent Invisible Children event, calls for a comprehensive political and humanitarian response to the conflict. It would require the Obama administration to develop a strategy that protects civilians in the region and includes appropriations of tens of millions of dollars in reconstruction funds to the north, as well as immediate assistance in the LRA-affected areas of the DRC. In this regard, perhaps the t-shirts, the sleepover and the flashy media might hold more than meets the eye.

    Citing your thoughts on Invisible Children’s work in Uganda, I must again respectfully disagree with your conclusions. They received much criticism for being rogue when they first began in Uganda, but that is simply not the case today. It might be worth paying a visit to their operations in Uganda and having a chat with their Ugandan Country Director, public officials and members of the local community before citing the very little that they have done for Uganda. The millions of dollars from t-shirt and merchandise sales that Invisible Children has used in their development work to implement community-based education and resettlement/economic projects in Uganda has resulted in tangible change that has rightly given them praise from officials in northern Uganda, who, incidentally, unashamedly wear their t-shirts.

  8. Anon #2, I completely disagree. T-shirt and bumper sticker advocacy is useless when it only engages people at an entry point. If the information available to those who want to "go deeper" were accurate, it would be one thing, but IC doesn't do a good job on that count. The protesters I talked to here in Austin were presumably among the most committed since they were willing to sleep outside for a few nights. But they quite clearly lacked even a basic understanding of effective aid and advocacy, choosing instead to focus on the "cool" factor. That doesn't help anybody.

    On the legislation, I'm very doubtful about the potential of U.S.-based legislation for conflict resolution in central Africa. Clearly the LRA problem won't be solved until solid governance is restored to the DRC, southern Sudan, and northern Uganda. If that happens, it won't be because Congress committed some cash to setting up tents for IDP's in Ituri. But setting those questions aside, I'm sure that IC's pressure (and forthcoming lobby day) has a lot to do with the timing of the introduction of the legislation. However, the people focusing on Africa in the administration and in Congress have been working on these issues for a long time. It's not just because of IC that the legislation was written; the fact that we now have a Democratic Congress and President means that such legislation has a much higher chance of getting through. Clearly the legislation is a coalition effort. I'd be interested to know who actually wrote it.

    I haven't been in Uganda since 2007, but those I know who have uniformly report that IC is perceived very poorly by most local officials and leaders. That's probably because sending poorly informed twenty-year-olds into a former conflict zone isn't an effective way to provide assistance. IC has wasted so many resources on such unintelligent approaches to the problem. And, yes, the efforts to sponsor children are good, but they've helped what, 600 or so kids? In the grand scheme, that's not a good use of the millions they've wasted on marketing, office space, and bad films. We're going to have to agree to disagree on this.

    Poff, I think you're right. The problem is that the intelligent analysis side is too often missing in advocacy campaigns. In the rush to simplify issues for mass consumption, complexity is abandoned. And that's not helpful.

  9. Just a note on the legislation introduced yesterday.

    That was a result of Resolve Uganda and their Knock Knock campaign where advocates were urged to talk to their representatives. They weren't expected to pay $120 for the right to do so like "How It Ends" appears to be requiring.

    That legislation has been in the works and to give credit to IC is incorrect.

  10. I was under the impression that the legislation was written by Resolve. Maybe Poff can verify or refute this?

  11. Thanks, D. I know you follow Uganda more closely than most of the rest of us!

  12. This is an excellent post, Texas in Africa.

    Anon #2, I also disagree with you. I was involved in conversations on the Invisible Children t-shirt and Rescue controversy, so I don't want to get carried away, but I'll touch on a few points.

    For starters, I've lived and worked in Uganda and am good friends with well-known politicians, peacebuilders, and religious leaders, as well as many locals. On-the-ground sentiment towards IC is not favorable. This is primarily because, as you stated, they were criticized in the beginning and have hardly attempted to become more culturally-sensitive since then.

    This is not to say that IC is not achieving good things on the ground. I research war-affected education in northern Uganda for two months, and the head teachers of some schools I visited praise IC as the greatest education NGO for northern Uganda (of course these are of the few schools affiliated with IC's Schools for Schools program). So, yes, IC does good work on the ground, even though there is of course room for improvement.

    As far as advocacy goes, this post hits the nail on the head regarding IC's approach to activism and advocacy. Yes, IC claims to "introduce" others to the situation in northern Uganda and now eastern DRC, but introductions need to be informed, not simply trendy.

    These AK-47 and "I Heart the LRA" shirts, for example, were intended to raise questions from others who don't know about child-soldiers, Joseph Kony, or Africa's Great Lakes Region in general. The young IC followers wearing the shirts are supposed to inform them, but all these high school and college kids know is what the three IC demi-gods told them through "Invisible Children: Rough Cut," which was outdated even when it first aired several years ago. Even more so now. Some people I approached who were wearing the shirts thought Kony and the LRA were still terrorizing northern Uganda. Some think night commuting still exists.

    Yes, you can argue that IC has since made more short educational videos, but even these videos are sensationalized and self-centered. IC does a great job of getting young people passionate about a cause. Indeed, that is commendable, but there must be something beyond the passion. This is a matter of moving from one-time "eye-catching" t-shirt slogans to long-term advocacy, reading, and education in order to develop sustainable solutions.

    "...praise from officials in northern Uganda, who, incidentally, unashamedly wear their t-shirts."

    I could go on and on about this. On and on. Initially, local politicians in northern Uganda were livid about these shirts (and other ways IC portrays northern Uganda). Norbert Mao even criticized the organization for making light of a real-life situation. Though IC claimed to have consulted Mao and others, they were not, in fact, consulted, as I learned from Mao. From my understanding in talking with Jason Russell at IC, the only Ugandans consulted regarding the shirts work for IC. That's dangerous.

    So, initially, the shirts were NOT praised. Initially, northern Ugandans were horrified by them, and rightly so. It was not until some people raised concern in northern Uganda that IC had to do damage control. Top-down approach: having to CONVINCE locals of what you think is a good idea, even though it makes them uncomfortable. This is poor advocacy. If what you're advertising/advocating does not develop at the local level and is not appreciated by those you claim to support, how can you be a legitimate voice for them?

  13. Thanks, Erin. Great thoughts and thanks for sharing your experiences.

  14. Really enjoy the blog, and interesting post - much food for thought, and just linked back at:


  15. I know I'm late to the game here but I enjoy the IC discussion here.

    I am a high school teacher in America who has been to Uganda and I sponsor an IC club at my school.

    I think of IC as entry level advocacy for young Americans who otherwise don't give a shit about anyone but themselves. Since that describes most of the kids I teach, I actually think IC is doing something good.

    If you're older than 25, or just a very intelligent youngster, you probably should be past watching IC movies. That's my stance.

    I mean, can you criticize Sesame Street for not being truthful in teaching us about life?

  16. Like others, I think this is a great blog and intend to use the term 'badvocacy' when training people at work!

    I'd like to jump into the conversation about IC and advocacy tactics. I agree that there is value in involving children in OECD countries in conversations about the realities of life in less developed areas, in fact I think this fits into their rights to be informed and participate and assists in efforts to encourage global citizenship. However, I feel uncomfortable with the idea that an organisation can be praised for doing all sorts of things in another country if it means that youth in a western country become less self centred -- if the aim is development education for western youth it can be done in a respectful and constructive way in partnership with other communities, rather than in a sensationalist way that could risk the dignity (and indeed safety) of those in poor countries. If the aim of your organisation is to educate youth in your own country, go for it, but give them accurate information that leads to a deeper understanding not simple information that leads them nowhere.

    In terms of who claims the credit for legislation: I have done research on advocacy directed towards donor governments regarding their donor practices and overwhelmingly the very experienced people I spoke to reiterated time and again, that good advocacy – the kind designed to change behaviour, legislation or policies of decision makers – should in fact be anonymous, allow the decision makers to take credit for it if appropriate and be entirely separate from fundraising or profile raising of your organisation. It’s a tough thing to do, but if we put profile and fundraising aside we generally get a more intelligent advocacy campaign. After all, for those of us working in rights based organisations, we are in fact just asking governments to honour their commitments and we are facilitating, where possible, contact between communities and government bodies but not determining the messages – that is up to the community itself.

  17. If Invisible Children (IC) wants to make a documentary about how the rich world should respond to an African conflict, they should make something more like "War Don Don," and much, MUCH less like "Together We're Free."

    "Together We're Free" is an IC documentary about "The Rescue," an IC advocacy and awareness-raising event held for the "invisible children" of northern Uganda. The vast majority of the film consists of footage from some rather weak-looking rallies, demoralizing meetings of confused-looking (and sounding) youngsters, and teenagers cheering at the prospect of getting a mention by Oprah or Arlen Specter, set to the tune of the latest hits from teenage bands. The whole point of the event is to improve the lives of Ugandans by raising their profile in the media and in the White House, but I have no idea what was the connection. The theory of change was at best opaque, and at worst non-existent. So I learned basically nothing about the relationship between the event and the conflict, much less about the conflict itself. If there's any reason to watch "Together We're Free," it's to learn something about the psychology and banality of IC.

    "War Don Don," on the other hand, offers a lucid, nuanced account of the international response to the civil war in Liberia. By extension, for precisely the reasons you've outlined above, the film spends A LOT of time on the internal dynamics of the war, the politics in its aftermath, and the period antebellum. It paints a detailed yet digestible picture of both the necessity AND the tragic shortcomings of U.N. and Western involvement, without compromising the fundamental "East African-ness" of the conflict. The call to action comes subtly and only at the end of the film, after a long point-and-counterpoint as told by those involved on the ground. Only by crafting a film in this way could a two-hour movie possibly even BEGIN to inform Western advocacy. It is, as you said it should be, "intelligent."

    This is (a microcosm of) the difference between good advocacy and badvocacy, at least as far as documentary film-making relates to advocacy.

  18. I was just reading your blog for background about "badvocacy" and I think your analysis is pretty spot-on. I don't know if you make this connection, but I see a whole lot of analogy between the kind of misguided advocacy around developing world issues and similar approaches to the issue of human trafficking. Specifically, the marginalization of sex workers as "the voiceless" (coupled with outright hostility toward sex worker advocates when they dare to disagree with the agenda of NGOs), the drive to "do something" in the form of heavy-handed "raid and rescue" tactics, and most recently, the involvement of misguided celebrity crusaders as a problematic addition to the whole mix. A good article and video here on actually assessing the human rights impact of anti-trafficking policies before implementing them, policies that are currently very poorly planned and implemented: link.

    I'm not sure if you're aware of the spat between Ashton Kutcher & Demi Moore and the Village Voice, but here's some background: link, link, link. It seems like many of the issues you discuss are at play here.

    Anyway, thumbs up for the informative article.

  19. anon#2 and texas in africa, take a step back from your bias views and read both of your points in a little more depth and you see that both of you are very right and if you believe that is not possible then you do not understand the world we live in. There could be 1000 people with texas' views 1000 with anon#2's views neither are wrong neither are right but if all are involved in the situation then all make an impact. I agree kony is badvocacy i also agree that this type of campaign/video is needed to engage people who have nto heard of the issues or who are not politically minded and informed enough to understand the conflict, and rightly said by anon if people wish to read further into the subject and make their own informative decision then can you not say that the video was a success and that the people that hold any competence of making a difference politicaly have read more into the matter than simply watchign a propoganda style video, although the people who are not engaged in these issues as much have now still heard of the atrocities that go on in this world after all knowledge is power, agreed under complexity of the knowledge is dangerous but the vast majority who dont understand the true causes of this war pose no threat to the people involved in it anyway. read the comment added by a teacher in the US, it is a moral that is gained from this campaign nto a result.