Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Had Enough of Enough?

Alex de Waal at the World Peace Foundation takes one hell of a whack at the Enough Project:

Reclaiming Activism
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.
The disquiet about Enough's style of activism and agenda-driven policy recommendations seems to me to be reaching a tipping point. The conflict minerals debate, for example, is all-but over among serious Congo researchers: Just about every serious independent researcher and NGO to have studied the issue reached similar conclusions: DF-1502 has done nothing to end the conflicts, harmed the people it was meant to help and helped the people it was meant to harm. The question is: Are Enough's funders listening?

To be clear, I probably have fewer misgivings about Enough's style of advocacy than some other scholars and activists. I don't mind them promoting simplistic narratives or enlisting celebrity spokespeople, for example, just as I don't mind anti-poverty groups that pull on heartstrings or environmental groups featuring polar bears desperately swimming toward ice floes. I don't even mind Prendergast's self-promotional style, or at any rate, not that much. I find it in poor taste, but I appreciate that it's incredibly hard to enlist Americans in causes far from home and about which they have no first-hand experience.  My quarrel with Enough is much simpler: The policy they promoted to help end the conflicts in the Congo--the conflict minerals campaign--caused irremediable damage to the million or so people who depend on the trade for their livelihood, while doing nothing to help end the conflicts. And what's worse: They were warned of the dangers their campaign would cause by knowledgeable, local experts, yet went ahead with it anyway.

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