The #BringBackOurGirls campaign began with a crescendo of indignation, only to fade as those paying attention quietly accepted that the girls were probably never coming back. Since then, good news in northeastern Nigeria has been hard to come by. Fortunately, that changed two days ago. U.S. media outlets began reporting that approximately sixty-seven women kidnapped by Boko Haram in mid-June escaped their captors and fled to safety over the weekend. It seems that these are not the individuals originally kidnapped in mid-April, but the news nonetheless is a bright spot in an exceedingly bleak saga.
The recent history of online humanitarianism seems defined by a number of sponsored campaigns that find traction very briefly, punctuated by the occasional cause célèbre–sometimes sponsored, sometimes not–that lingers in the public imagination. #BringBackOurGirls was the first landmark campaign since Kony 2012 able to permeate into political, humanitarian, celebrity, and public circles. The campaign, though less centralized than Kony 2012, was likewise able to achieve concrete policy changes. The US sent a team of consultants to aid the Nigerian government, while the public pressure forced the Jonathan administration to acknowledge the kidnapping had taken place and launch a search effort. Even though, unlike most humanitarian campaigns, #BringBackOurGirls successfully altered policy, the policies themselves have had no discernible effect on status of the kidnapped women. Additionally, the campaign risked increasing the domestic and international support for a brutal counterinsurgency strategy that has killed thousands of civilians. #BringBackOurGirls has succeeded in providing some degree of democratic accountability where it is sorely lacking in Nigeria, but it has failed to achieve its primary objective.
Despite the international cooperation, the extensive search effort, and a willing public, the kidnapped women themselves proved the most able to ensure their own survival. Those cast as the least powerful did the most good. The concept is simple, really. Those at risk of violence have both the most motivation to protect themselves and the information to make it happen. Outside forces face political, logistical, and financial barriers to civilian protection, which even solid intelligence often cannot surmount. This incident should give us pause about the wisdom and effectiveness of top-down humanitarian interventions, especially in politically and geographically remote areas. It is not that outside solutions have no place in global humanitarianism; such an attitude would amount to throwing out hands up in the air. However, we must remember that the most effective actors at pursuing civilian protection are also the likely victims of violence. Aiding them to do what they are able to do most effectively, rather than working to save their lives from the outside and without their assistance, is usually the best we can do.