Making Academia Safe

On Tuesday, Science published a lengthy and detailed article by Michael Balter about “the sexual misconduct case that has rocked anthropology.” The whole thing is worth a read to understand the latest in a series of sexual harassment or assault incidents in academia in general. Just last week molecular biologist Jason Lieb finally resigned amidst accusations of misconduct, and the subject has been gaining more scrutiny as people continue to push for better policies and mechanisms through which victims can seek redress, abusers can be held accountable, and departments can prevent these types of incidents from occurring.

The recent anthropology case stems from a research assistant who has accused paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond of taking advantage of her in his hotel room while she was drunk in late 2014. Richmond, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History (and a former professor at George Washington University), has been placed on leave from the museum while investigations are under way. The entire story is very much worth reading, but I want to highlight one thing that stands out in the article: the decision by some academics to directly respond to the allegations. All of the details below draw from the Science article, linked above.

While the incident with Brian Richmond is still playing out, I want to highlight the article’s focus on the institutional response by GWU. Some people involved have not hesitated to take action to ensure that other targets of harassment can come forward, to signal to students that these issues are a serious matter, and to, as the article puts it, “do battle against sexual misconduct”.

At AMNH a lawyer reached out to anthropologist Rebecca Ackermann to help investigate Richmond’s actions. She found three undergraduates who gave accounts of inappropriate behavior. AMNH is still investigating him (he was placed on leave after the initial investigation, and no other punishment was added when Ackermann submitted the other three accusations).

Richmond had already left GWU, but continued to teach at the GWU-run Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya. According to the Science article, immediately after finding out his former co-worker and pupil was accused of sexual misconduct, GWU professor Bernard Wood decided that he wanted to be sure that Richmond’s presence at GWU was not marked by the same type of activity:

In St. Louis [at the conference where the research assistant first came forward], Wood canvassed younger researchers about their experiences with Richmond. He asked everyone the same question: “Does this alleged behavior come as any surprise to you?” But he didn’t get the “yes” he was expecting. Nearly all said that they were not surprised, and two individuals told Wood that they had been the direct subjects of unwanted sexual advances by Richmond.

Wood continued asking questions back at GWU’s Center for Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology (CASHP) that yielded similar responses. Rebecca Ackermann, an anthropologist asked by AMNH’s lawyer to help investigate Richmond’s history, found three undergraduates who gave accounts of incidents of harassment and unwanted contact that occurred at the field school.

The CASHP faculty informed Richmond that he was “no longer welcome at the Koobi Fora Field School and was no longer part of it.” Wood penned several blog posts and op-eds about about sexual misconduct in academia, one of which was published at the same time that Richmond was vying for a seat at a scholarly association’s governing board, and refused to chair a panel that Richmond was supposed to speak on. In one of the op-eds, Wood sketches out his motivation by saying that “male professors have a special responsibility to be strong allies of the women affected by sexual misconduct [and] we should not wait for traumatized junior colleagues to demonstrate the greatest courage before those with the greatest power show any.” He continued:

At the very least, any scientist should think twice before collaborating with those who use their research reputation to harass female colleagues, and before inviting them to conferences. Why? Because every paper they publish, talk they give, and conference they attend enhances the influence they have abused. If perpetrators are made to pay a professional cost, their influence will wane, depriving them of further opportunities to prey on women. More importantly, male faculty must report concerns to institutional authorities. The more frequently a department head or a dean learns of concerns, the more likely it is that behaviors will be recognized as a pattern of misconduct.

Sexual harassment in the sciences occurs in many circumstances and settings, but the silence of the past must be replaced by action. The untenured are brave to speak out, but powerful male voices must join in to make sure we level this particular playing field. Alpha males are the problem. Alpha males need to be part of the solution.

Wood’s actions, and his thought process behind them, are really important. It is vital for professors to help make campus safe for students. And this means more than passing a resolution or appointing a committee. It also means standing against those guilty of abusing the power and influence they have over their students.

Compare this to the situation that unfolded at Northwestern: in an article ostensibly about her university’s ban on sexual relations between professors and students (and the implicit acknowledgement of the power relations involved in such a relationship), Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis described the misconduct accusations that philosophy professor Peter Ludlow faced as mere “melodrama.” Kipnis ridiculed students and activists for suggesting that a professor-student relationship might carry with it unequal power dynamics, arguing that “it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around, which is pretty much what happened in the case of” Ludlow. (For more, see this overview of the Ludlow case).

This was an instance of several failures. Ludlow’s punishment for misconduct was a pay cut and a denied promotion and little else. The graduate student’s information was not kept confidential, and she faced harassment because of her actions. The university failed to protect her or sufficiently deal with the incidents. And Kipnis’ framing of the situation was misleading and the graduate student involved has stated that the article felt like retaliation for filing a complaint against Ludlow. When the university failed to respond, student activists intervened, making it impossible for him to teach and even preventing a job offer, eventually forcing his resignation.

When UC Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy was accused of repeated harassment and misconduct, his university did very little. His colleagues, however, responded swiftly by punishing him professionally by un-inviting him from conferences, publicly naming him, and pushing for his ouster. He eventually resigned. When the university failed to respond, other astronomers stepped up.

Looking over the current situation with Richmond, I’m glad that George Washington University’s Anthropology Department – a place I currently call home – has taken the actions that it has. It’s critical that faculty stand behind students in such positions, and it’s critical that those who abuse power face consequences.

Africa in the Wizarding World

J.K. Rowling recently announced, on the Pottermore site, that the Wizarding World does extend around the world, even to Africa:

Although Africa has a number of smaller wizarding schools (for advice on locating these, see introductory paragraph), there is only one that has stood the test of time (at least a thousand years) and achieved an enviable international reputation: Uagadou. The largest of all wizarding schools, it welcomes students from all over the enormous continent. The only address ever given is ‘Mountains of the Moon’; visitors speak of a stunning edifice carved out of the mountainside and shrouded in mist, so that it sometimes appears simply to float in mid-air. Much (some would say all) magic originated in Africa, and Uagadou graduates are especially well versed in Astronomy, Alchemy and Self-Transfiguration.

It’s a nice effort to incorporate Africa into her fictional world, and it is a useful, inclusive addition. It’s also a nod to archaeological evidence of humanity’s roots also being on the African continent. And it even includes some pretty specific information, Rowling stated on Twitter that it exists in what is today Uganda – and the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda are often referred to as the Mountains of the Moon. But the introduction to Uagadou is also couched in something that irked many. What could be seen as a form of Pan-Africanism in Uagadou’s admissions policy also smacks of Africa-is-a-country effect, which prompted some debate on Twitter.

In response to this backlash, political scientists Chris Blattman and Henry Farrell came to Rowling’s defense, arguing that such a view of the continent a thousand years ago may not be so wrong after all. In their argument, however, they craft a much more problematic image than Rowling’s initial description.

They rightfully state that “African history did not begin with colonialism” but proceed to give short shrift to African state formation prior to the late 19th Century. They break down some of this history, using the usual state-centric thrust of political science, and imagine the founding of Uagadou as something that emerged outside of the state, and therefore perhaps fled the state as well. They also engage in their own bit of fiction-building as they imagine that Uagadou may have begun in West Africa (due to the real existence of a mythic place called Wagadu) and perhaps migrated to the Rwenzoris later.

This attempt to place the history of the African state onto the fictional Uagadou was a bit unsatisfactory to those with knowledge of the long history of state formation in Africa, especially in southwestern Uganda and the broader Great Lakes region, not to mention those of West Africa, Ethiopia, and elsewhere.

Enter Timothy Burke, with a really great response to all of this that I absolutely need to share. He begins by stating that:

[T]he kinds of imaginary constructions of African societies and African people that operate in fantasy, science-fiction and superhero universes are actually rather instructive guides to how Western-inflected global culture knows and understands the histories of African societies as a history of absence, lack or deficit rather than as histories of specific presence, as having their own content that is in many ways readily knowable.

And I’d add the inverse as well. As much as fiction shows us how we imagine the real world (look at problems with Tolkien’s Orientalism, for instance), the way we see the world working can have a influence how our imagination plays out. Setting the record straight on African state formation and turning to look instead at how Potterverse-style witchcraft may have emerged in Africa based on local contexts opens up so, so much more in terms of what we can imagine.

From there, Burke does a great job of mapping out multiple alternate explanations, including that any wizard leaving West Africa would likely follow tried and true migratory routes rather than mashing up West African names and East African mountains and calling it African. Especially in light of the fact that both of these areas have long histories of states, this doesn’t seem like the right way to craft this fiction. In particular, though, there are two bits I want to highlight. First, Burke pushes us to incorporate colonialism into the history of the Potterverse in a really engaging way:

If you ask me to provide the fictional background of a wizarding school in western Uganda and why it is the only one in sub-Saharan African and admits pupils from all over a very large continent, the last thing I’m going to do is start farting around with gigantic generalizations about states and state systems that immediately frame Africa as a place which has a lack, an absence, a deficit, that is somehow naturalized or long-running. I’m going to build my plausibility up from the actual histories of African societies.

[…]

If I start to think about why there’s only one school, and why the whole continent uses it, I stop thinking about a thousand years and start thinking about two hundred. I stop messing around with giant social scientistic abstractions and start thinking about colonialism… I start thinking about why Uagadou is in fact like Hogwarts, physically and otherwise. Perhaps why the University of the Witwatersrand is not wildly different from Oxford in the generalities of its institutional functioning. I think about the world in the last three hundred years, and why institutions in modern nation-states resemble each other in form even if they don’t in power or privilege or relative resources or impact. And then I wonder why Rowling doesn’t simply go there too.

 

The world of Harry Potter may be an unusual place for a debate over how to do scholarship on Africa, but I think Burke makes some very, very good points that will resonate with many Africans. I’ve had more than one conversation where Africa gets framed as lacking something that the West has, be it development or some fictive piece of culture. If we’re going to do some imagining of Africa, we would do well to base it on the African experience.

Weekend Reading

These readings all meet the 15% rule:

It is not wrong to ask why mainstream Democrats don’t support reparations. But when the question is asked to defend a radical Democrat’s lack of support, it is avoidance. The need for so many (although not all) of Sanders’s supporters to deflect the question, to speak of Hillary Clinton instead of directly assessing whether Sanders’s position is consistent, intelligent, and moral hints at something terrible and unsaid. The terribleness is this: To destroy white supremacy we must commit ourselves to the promotion of unpopular policy. To commit ourselves solely to the promotion of popular policy means making peace with white supremacy.

[…]

The point is not that reparations is not divisive. The point is that anti-racism is always divisive. A left radicalism that makes Clintonism its standard for anti-racism—fully knowing it could never do such a thing in the realm of labor, for instance—has embraced evasion.

[T]o think about American slaves merely as coerced and unpaid laborers is to misunderstand the institution. Slaves weren’t just workers, the Sublettes remind the reader—they were human capital. The very idea that people could be property is so offensive that we tend retroactively to elide the designation, projecting onto history the less-noxious idea of the enslaved worker, rather than the slave as commodity. Mapping 20th-century labor models onto slavery spares us from reckoning with the full consequences of organized dehumanization, which lets us off too easy: To turn people into products means more than not paying them for their work.

Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading Jonas will leave streets covered and doors shuttered:

[G]utting public infrastructure wasn’t the only way that neoliberalism brought out the worst that the winter storms had to offer. It was also the speed-up at work, the shredding of social safety nets, and the fracturing and atomization of communities. All of these factors combined to leave people tired, frustrated, isolated, scared, and cold.

Snowstorm after snowstorm was dealt with in more or less the same fashion, while people grew more desperate and more exhausted with each passing week. Workplaces remained open while public transit ground to a halt. Children were given snow days — but not adults.

Conflicts around language-use and representation always emerge out of attempts to shift hierarchy. Each incident follows the same general pattern. People with less power demand or request that people with more power moderate their speech or actions. The people with more power use “that’s just being PC” as a rhetorical hedge to reinforce their dominant position. By their very nature, then, efforts to shift language are generally subversive; the backlash, generally regressive. Any attempt to analyze a given incident of “politically correct” action or repression must therefore look not at what’s being demanded, but where power actually lies.

It turns out that agitation for less offensive speech and safe spaces become dangerous to free speech or academic freedom only when powerful, entrenched forces co-opt such movements for their own purposes.

Weekend Reading

Readings:

Intersections, on encountering police

When I lived in New Haven, a young man on a motor scooter crashed into my parked car at an intersection in the Wooster Square neighborhood. I was walking home at the time, and turned the corner as a police officer was writing up some notes. The officer asked if I knew the owner of the car, I said it was me, he told me that the “kid” was going up a one-way street in the wrong direction and, when he saw the officer, tried to speed away and lost control, crashing into my car. The officer told me that he had found drugs on the young man.

newhaven

An intersection in New Haven. (Google Maps)

I fidgeted a lot, worried about the man in the back of the police car. I tried to look at him from where I was standing, to see who he was, but I didn’t want him to feel like I was gawking. New Haven doesn’t have a history of good race relations or of good police conduct. I wanted him to feel my worry and my solidarity, but I wasn’t sure how to convey it. I wanted to ask the officer if I could not press charges, but I knew that neither possessing drugs nor driving the wrong way were crimes “against” me, but against the state. I wanted to ask the young man if there was anyone I could call for him, anybody I could tell about what happened. I was nervous around the officer; I did none of these things. I stood by as he continued talking.

As we were standing there, a middle-aged white woman driving by slowed down and rolled down her window. “THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!” she shouted at the officer. He waved at her. They might have talked for a moment. She drove away.

I was not thankful for the arrest of another one of New Haven’s black youth. The young man in the backseat of that squad car certainly wasn’t thankful either. But her grateful outpouring for the policing presence was probably enough for the three of us. This experience – the blind appreciation for policing the neighborhood – is ingrained in my memory.

The lived experiences of policing are so, so different depending on where you live or what you look like. The intersections of state and society are not the same for everyone. In every place I’ve lived in, I’ve seen this. SB 1070 in Arizona. Stop and frisk in New York. A one-way street in New Haven. The intersections at which police and everyday people meet, depending on the city, the neighborhood, the block, can be polar opposites.

*  *

gilbert

A street in Arizona. (Google Maps)

When I was a teenager, I was driving home from somewhere. A police car drove past me, and I saw it flip a dramatic U-turn in my rear view mirror. I drove slowly, trying to let him pass to whatever demanded his attention. He didn’t pass. I turned into my neighborhood, and he followed. I decided I would stay on a road with more traffic, and pulled over by the neighborhood mailbox instead of going to my house. The officer pulled over behind me. His lights weren’t on.

I hesitated. My parents – like many parents of sixteen-year-olds – had taught me what to do when pulled over by a police car, but parents don’t usually teach you what to do when an officer follows you for half a mile without turning the lights on and then pulls over behind you when you stop.

Trying to act casual, I got out of my car and I picked up the mail. I stood by my car. I think a few people drove by, but I don’t remember. I do remember wishing that my parents or one of my friends would just happen to be passing. Someone who knew me. I remember standing on the sidewalk, feeling vulnerable, immediately regretting that I was not still in my car. The police officer rolled down his window and looked at me like I might have something to say, but he remained silent.

“Is there a problem, officer?” I asked. I remember asking it like that because I think that’s what they say in movies. He gestured towards his laptop and told me he was checking to see if my car was stolen. He didn’t mention it matching a description or a recent call or similar plates or anything. After a pause, he said everything checked out, and he drove off. I lingered for a while before getting back in my car and driving home, unnerved.

That was before SB 1070, but police have been profiling long before it was law. (I grew up half-white, half-brown in a more-than-half-white town, county, state). This was before I had really come to realize how easily a man in a car with lights on top of it – even if the lights weren’t on – could make you feel like you had done something wrong, like you were in trouble, like you might not make it home. I learned quickly. I learned around the corner from my house. (And that was in a middle class, white neighborhood in which I wasn’t stopped, nor arrested, and no weapon was drawn on me – a huge sign of privilege in and of itself).

*  *

I often think about the guy with the scooter. I wish I had done more, not knowing exactly what more I could have done. Once I think about him, I begin to think about my own encounters with police, as a brown-skinned driver in Arizona, or as a protester in New York (another story, another time), and think about how they compare to my experiences with police when I was in a car accident, or when I needed directions downtown somewhere. I often think about how these situations shift, how much depends on so little. Every encounter depended on what intersection it happened at (and who was involved). Most of my encounters with police have involved no confrontation, they’ve been professional, and no harm was caused. But it’s the moments of unease that remain with me, and even my encounters have been remarkably unremarkable. I was followed once, and I saw someone get arrested. I was wrestled to the ground in a protest once, but I got away scared but relatively unscathed. But these moments are what I think of when I think of police. People remember their vulnerability more than any run-of-the-mill interaction.

I’m not a victim of police violence, that’s for sure. I’ve only ever been inconvenienced and a little unnerved. I’ve never been in the real danger that whole segments of our society know all too well. Policing happens everywhere, but it looks different. I’ve often thought about writing about these anecdotes, but I never know what to say about it all. I’m typing this now because I read about what happened to Steve Locke a month ago.

Locke is a professor in Boston, and he was stopped by police while getting lunch on his way to class because he fit the description of someone who broke into a nearby house. The description was essentially black-person-in-winter. The whole account is worth reading, but this excerpt is what got to me:

Something weird happens when you are on the street being detained by the police.  People look at you like you are a criminal.  The police are detaining you so clearly you must have done something, otherwise they wouldn’t have you.  No one made eye contact with me... An older white woman walked behind me and up to the second cop.  She turned and looked at me and then back at him.  “You guys sure are busy today.” I noticed a black woman further down the block.  She was small and concerned.  She was watching what was going on.  I focused on her red coat.  I slowed my breathing.  I looked at her from time to time. I thought: Don’t leave, sister. Please don’t leave.

The difference between the two passersby is a crucial gap in society. Those who feel protected and those who feel vulnerable. Those who admire police officers (and want to thank them blindly and profusely) and those who fear them. Those who are thankful that they can live their lives in safety because of those who serve and those who just want to live their lives, but can’t, for the same reason.

Experiences with law enforcement are different depending on the people and places involved. But the moments that stick – to me and to others – are those encounters tense with vulnerability and fear. Some, like me, know these moments from a rare experience thanks to our privilege. Many don’t know them at all. But a number of people also know these moments all too well.

This fundamental difference in how we live our lives is an obstacle to real change that can improve the lives of those on the other side of the law’s enforcement. I was nervous for the person in the backseat that day in New Haven, but what I was feeling was probably nothing compared to what he was dealing with. The woman who drove by knew nothing about the situation, but she blindly expressed gratefulness to the uniform standing next to me. These different perspectives, on Centre Street in Boston, on Hughes Place in New Haven, on every street in the country, are something that I can’t get out of my head. If we are going to be able to create a society where there is less police oppression of minority communities, we need to make an attempt to understand how those communities experience the police presence.

Weekend Reading

These links only circle the Earth once every seven days:

For the Bundys, then, nothing really happened before the 1870s. They do not mention Spanish explorers in 1532, or French Canadian trappers, or the British occupation after the war of 1812, or Oregon statehood in the 1850s. Their story most definitely does not begin thousands of years ago, when the first people settled the region. They have no time for how the U.S. Army resettled the northern Paiute in the Malheur Indian reservation in 1872—emptying Harney County for settlement by white people—nor how those same white settlers demanded (and got) the reservation dis-established in 1879 so they could have that land, too.

[…]

The U.S. military first had to ethnically cleanse the land, getting rid of the various native peoples that had lived in these stretches for thousands of years. But even after the land had become “free” to white settlers, prospective ranchers still needed markets for their cattle, especially once their primary market for meat, the U.S. Army, had moved on to other territories. It was the federal government that stepped in and bailed them out, taking on debt by an act of Congress to finance and build a railroad system. Without the Central Pacific Railway, those thousands of cattle could never have been sold.

As Reconstruction ended and Southern white men reclaimed political power, they dropped out of the Klan, no longer limited to secret outlets for their violence… The Klan itself was dying, but only because white supremacy was resurging right out in the open, with the sanction and participation of law enforcement and white society at large. Now they had Jim Crow laws. They had a criminal justice system that disproportionately punished Black people and imprisoned them in prison farms, on former plantations. They had lynch mobs, who no longer concealed their identities.

As Gwendolyn Chisholm would comment over a century later, about the white supremacists who tortured and murdered James Byrd Jr. in 1998, “They look like normal people, don’t they? That’s the way they are nowadays—they don’t wear hoods anymore.” Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century lynchers also looked like “normal people.” The complete absence of any hood, costume, or concealment presented, literally, a new face of white supremacy. Journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett estimated that in the twenty-five years after the Civil War, lynchers murdered 10,000 black Americans. Starting in the 1880s, spectacle lynchings attracted crowds of up to 15,000 white participant-witnesses, who booked special excursion trains to reach lynching sites. They snatched victims’ clothing, bone fragments, and organs as souvenirs; they photographed themselves, smiling, posing with their kids beside the broken, burned bodies of their victims; they scrapbooked the photos and mailed them as postcards, confident that they’d never be held accountable for their terrorism. They didn’t wear hoods, because they didn’t need to.

Weekend Reading

If your New Year’s resolution was to click on some links, I’ve got a few for you:

Legitimacy is what is ultimately at stake here. When Cooksey says that her son’s father should not have called the police, when she says that they “are supposed to serve and protect us and yet they take the lives,” she is saying that police in Chicago are police in name only. This opinion is widely shared. Asked about the possibility of an investigation, Melvin Jones, the brother of Bettie Jones, could muster no confidence. “I already know how that will turn out,” he scoffed. “We all know how that will turn out.”

Indeed, we probably do. Two days after Jones and LeGrier were killed, a district attorney in Ohio declined to prosecute the two officers who drove up, and within two seconds of arriving, killed the 12-year-old Tamir Rice. No one should be surprised by this. In America, we have decided that it is permissible, that it is wise, that it is moral for the police to de-escalate through killing. A standard which would not have held for my father in West Baltimore, which did not hold for me in Harlem, is reserved for those who have the maximum power—the right to kill on behalf of the state. When police can not adhere to the standards of the neighborhood, of citizens, or of parents, what are they beyond a bigger gun and a sharper sword? By what right do they enforce their will, save force itself?

It is funny growing up under a free-market dictatorship masked as business as usual. A child cannot be too different, and the education system drills conformity like clockwork. Activist deaths and disappearances and suppression of freedom of speech are not on the news when we come home from school. Families affected by the long shadow of 1965 cannot speak of it, especially those with “Communist sympathizer” lineage. Despite the academic understanding some of us have of Soeharto as a dictator, it still feels funny in my mouth to say “diktator.” Despite the “real history” education at home given by parents who fell in love as student activists, he is for many years just the president. It is generally understood—despite political talk at home and leftist books filling our bookshelves, despite my friends and I not being completely oblivious to the fact that there is a status quo—that it is dangerous to speak against the way things were in public. Most everyone toes the line in public, adults behaving as obedient schoolkids do, quick to ostracize. In middle-class Jakarta, life is supposed to be “normal” and as usual, but there is a tightness in the air.

What are elections for, anyways?

There are several countries in Africa that are holding elections amidst some pretty tense circumstances. In Burkina Faso, after a popular revolt ousted long-time President Blaise Campaoré and then an attempted military coup put a brief hiccup in elections, voters went to the polls just a couple of weeks ago. Burundi has descended into violence amidst efforts by President Pierre Nkurunziza to overstay his welcome and run for a third term, with similar “constitutional coups” being attempted in Rwanda, the D.R. Congo, and other states, and similar efforts are practically routine in Uganda (where Yoweri Museveni will be moving into the 30+ Years of Rule Club with elections in April) and still others.

In many parts of the world, elections become perennial points from which both popular organizing and protest as well as intense violence and repression emerge. The Burkinabè were able to use Campaoré’s attempts to change the constitution to instead be the cause of his downfall. Burundians tried this but have since been caught in a prolonged struggle over the future of their country. Elections can be points of radical change, but they can also  be events that put the official seal on the status quo or sites of intense state violence.

Amidst this kaleidoscope of possibilities, the electoral landscape also includes the Central African Republic, where elections are scheduled to move the country from a transitional government to a newer, more “legitimate” one. Though the actual reasons for holding elections in the middle of what can only be described as a heap of turmoil raises the question: why?

In a recent post at the Monkey Cage, Haley Swedlund tackles the question of “Why donors demand immediate elections after unrest in developing countries.” She highlights a number of theories pointing out that quickly pushing through elections actually stymies the democratization process, but she argues that donors need some semblance of stability in order to carry out basic aid projects. She points out that “decision-making is often driven by the functional needs of particular agencies, rather than a sound assessment of the political situation in the recipient country. With only limited funding available, this pattern of behavior means that more fundamental democratic reforms are often sidelined in favor of the ballot box.” In other words, donors want elections not to encourage democratization or because elections could show a peaceful transition, but to serve their self-interests.

A few weeks ago I attended a panel at the United States Institute of Peace about the ongoing instability in Central African Republic. The event centered around a new book edited by Louisa Lombard and Tatiana Carayannis about CAR (which I’m reading now!), and the role of elections was a hot topic during the conversation (a full video of the panel is available here).

CAR has seen shocking episodes of violence over the last few years as rebellion led to a cycle of reprisal attacks that immersed both the countryside and Bangui in violence. During the panel, Roland Marchal argued that we need to reflect more on the types of solutions we offer to the current conflict. He listed several core issues facing the Central African people, including abuse by the state, arbitrary enforcement of the law based on religion, and said that “these are the questions that have to be discussed and it is not organizing elections that is going to provide answers.”

Faouzi Kilembe pointed out three key problems: the question of identity in CAR (and who can vote), the question of logistics and how to prepare to hold elections, and the question of security and how to hold elections in the current situation of insecurity. Two very important points he raised are that no matter the outcome, the results will be contested (likely violently) by one party or another, and he asks what miracles the newly elected government will be able to achieve that the transitional government cannot. Similar questions arise in William Clowes’ piece at the African Arguments blog about whether elections will make things worse rather than better.

When asked to respond to Kilembe’s statements at the panel, Laurence Wohlers argued for holding elections because logistics aren’t going to improve, the question of legitimacy won’t be solved by waiting, and the transition needs to end in order to place power in a government entity beyond international community, which leads him to say that “we have to have an election that is admittedly not going to be a good one.” He focused most of his response on what to do after, including a long list of post-conflict reforms. Marchal disagreed, stating that questions of accountability, religious discrimination, demobilization, go unanswered even though the international community has money for such interventions, because “the international community doesn’t do it, not because it’s bad, not because it’s ignorant, but because it’s busy on the election.” Later, Marchal pointed out that the urgency for elections by the international community don’t necessarily resonate for people who haven’t participated in a free and fair election in decades. Carayannis notes at the end that the timing of elections is tied to France’s desire for an exit strategy, stating that “we need elections tied to what’s actually happening in CAR, not what’s happening in Paris.”

The international community wants elections, partially because elections are what signal “post-conflict” status and, thus, act as a sunset provision on the French intervention there, regardless of actual improvement of the situation on the ground. As Lombard mentions in a different panel on elections in CAR, the international community “tend[s] to think in terms of ‘well, these are the Central Africans’ elections, they’re elections for the Central African Republic… and we’re just helping” but at the same time “there would be no elections if it weren’t for all of these different kinds of international players who were involved in all of this. These are our elections too.” Circling back to Haley Swedlund’s point – elections are demanded due to international community’s interests no matter what is going on in the actual country of concern.

The first round of elections occurred on December 30th amid relatively little violence, and the results will be announced soon. The voting was lauded as an “undeniable success,” but that won’t actually be known until the results are announced, the run-off is held, and whether the new government can successfully move the country forwards through the present insecurity.

Transnational Advocacy and the Single Story Problem

In 2013, a group of students at the Fletcher School at Tufts organized a research seminar on the topic of Western advocacy campaigns and their shortcomings. Several short pieces were posted online (here’s an overview of the seminar [also as a pdf]), which I followed from afar, and I was happy to hear that the organizers decided to turn it into an edited volume. When I was asked to review it, I excitedly agreed:

Transnational advocacy is an increasingly apparent part of activism in a world that is more and more interconnected. As Twitter and other social media sites allow people to forge relations with like-minded individuals, many have chosen to stand with or for others in their activism. Some of this has taken the form of solidarity movements like BDS while others can more easily be categorized as part of the “white savior industrial complex,” like Save Darfur.

While the book covers much more, the problems of Western advocacy campaigns are at the heart of Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, a new collection of articles edited by Alex de Waal with Jennifer Ambrose, Casey Hogle, Trisha Taneja, and Keren Yohannes. In an age when there are more and more edited volumes that fail to achieve much, this is one example that is more than the sum of its parts. The chapters in Advocacy in Conflict strike at the heart of what activism looks like and does, and what it ought to do.

Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, edited by Alex de Waal

One crucial theme throughout the book is the role of single narratives. While we’ve all seen Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on the dangers of a single story by now, not everyone was aware of this danger when planning advocacy campaigns for causes around the world. Mareike Schomerus shows this in her chapter on the most (in)famous attempt to craft a single narrative: Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video and campaign. The dangers of a narrowed narrative are also present in Burma, where Maung Zarni points out the limitations of a narrative centered on an individual such as Aung San Suu Kyi rather than Burma as a nation, which has left the country with a facade of democratization; it is present in the D.R. Congo, where Laura Seay explores the unintended consequences of Enough’s conflict minerals narrative, including a de facto boycott of (and loss of livelihood for) legitimate Congolese miners; it is in South Sudan, where U.S. support of the SPLA helped create a new country out of Sudan, but also bolstered a corrupt and murderous structure that led to the ongoing civil war in South Sudan; and in disability rights, where Tsitsi Chataika et al. show that the complexities of identity and representation get molded into a narrowed discourse as Western donors get involved, a discourse which carries out its own oppression.

The pitfalls of a single narrative are just one thing that the book questions in its attempt to “reclaim international advocacy movements to make them more self-reflective and accountable to the people and the evolving situations they represent” (1). Other key questions that the organizers of the volume set out to answer include critiques of the legitimacy of advocacy on behalf of others, the question of inclusiveness, how to bring academic knowledge and public activism together, and the hierarchies of local and global contexts. The book does not necessarily offer explicit answers to each of these topics, but throughout the pages one can find explorations and ruminations that get us closer to building a better form of activism that is aware of its vulnerabilities and the importance of a more robust activism rooted in solidarity.

The book as a whole does a good job of turning success stories on their head. De Waal’s chapter on South Sudan shows that the success story of South Sudanese independence is anything but, and in so doing he renders the current civil war not a sudden crisis but a long-expected emergence rooted in the SPLA’s history as “a regressive resistance army masquerading as a liberation movement” (165). Citing Rebecca Hamilton’s brilliant reporting on South Sudan’s leading supporters in the U.S., de Waal also shows how these activists provided pressure that made U.S. policy inflexible, something I remember seeing in my own brief encounters with Save Darfur activists. This critique of past policies and advocacy helps place the current conflict in a new context, which can guide activists working to end this most recent crisis.

Critiquing movements that are commonly seen as success stories is more than just a buzzkill exercise. By doing this over and over, the book as a whole attempts to forge a new way forwards. Roddy Brett’s chapter on Guatemala shows that international efforts helped open space for indigenous activists to demand rights and gain a voice, but simultaneously made the realization of those rights impossible. Schomerus’ chapter on Invisible Children emphasizes that even radio programs that seek to inform people about LRA activities can inadvertently feed fear of rebels and empower armed militias that should otherwise be disbanded. Research like this, and others in the volume, show us what to be wary of as we engage in activism regardless of where and for what cause.

It’s crucial to ensure that global activism links all parties, giving local voices a global audience and ensuring the buy-in of those directly affected. Otherwise, we wind up with what de Waal refers to as policy that “can be progressive at home and regressive abroad” (19). Whether it’s central Africa, Burma, Guatemala, or Gaza, transnational activism is susceptible to being co-opted by those in power, and the best way to resist this is to ground our activism with those involved. It is harder for Uganda to entrench its militarization of the region if more Ugandan voices are included in advocacy decision-making. Congolese miners are more likely to stay employed and maybe even benefit if efforts to crack down on rebel supply chains were instead diverted to more fundamental concerns like security, justice, and governance at the heart of rebellion. The lesson in each of the cases featured in the book point to similar takeaways: be inclusive of those involved, be aware of the effects of involvement, and engage with complexity in order to address underlying causes.

The book itself is laid out in four parts – a one-chapter history of activism, followed by three case studies of Western advocacy movements linking with local campaigns (in Burma, Guatemala, and Gaza), then three case studies where Western activism diverged sharply from events on the ground (Congo, the LRA, and South Sudan), and three cases of issues-based activism (disability rights, the arms trade, and land grabs). All four sections offer different perspectives on a common problem: how to do advocacy across societies.

De Waal’s historical chapter is a useful look at how transnational advocacy has changed from decolonization through the human rights regime to today (though whether “today” is defined by post-Cold War, post-9/11, neoliberal, etc. is up for debate). The next section is useful for seeing how movements can merge – but the key is to see how this occurs. Sometimes foreign activists can integrate their message with local campaigns, but other times grassroots work gets derailed by intervention. The third section is most relevant to me, perhaps because it’s on Western advocacy in armed conflict in central Africa, but also because it demonstrates how outside activists can advocate for a cause regardless of what those affected actually feel about it. This power relation is an issue that is fundamental to any activist to be aware of, be it mansplaining, the white savior industrial complex, or some other form of the superiority-via-helping tendency. The last section, on issues-based activism, was to me the least interesting (chalk it up to subjects I’m less familiar with, or a different argument structure), and yet there are still key lessons to pull from disability rights activism being co-opted by big international NGOs, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines’ rapid success which actually heralded its failure, and the ability of actors with very different understandings of land rights to come together to resist it despite their differences.

Regardless of where you’re coming from (academic, development, activists or otherwise), this is a book worth reading. Taken individually, each chapter offers different perspectives and lessons on the particular topic at hand. Taken as a whole, the book coalesces around key concepts and lessons that every activist (and scholar of activism) should commit to her agenda.

In their conclusion to the book, Hogle et al. find four common goals in order to help “reclaim activism.” These are 1) empower local actors, 2) recognize complexity, 3) be inclusive of a range of those concerned, 4) reject single narratives. This call to action, and the volume as a whole, is a salvo in an ongoing debate over how to carry out activism, and it’s packed with important evidence and relevant cases for all aspects of transnational activism.