Tag Archives: Conflict Minerals

The Sachs-Prendergast School of Activism

2 Sep

*The following is a guest post by my brother Timmy Hirschel-Burns.

Development and mass atrocities both interest me, and the articles I read are mostly about these two issues.  A few months ago, I realized that I could go from an article on corn production in Kenya to political conflict in South Sudan, but a major figure would be present in both articles.  Really, this was not one person, but two; Jeffrey Sachs and John Prendergast had melded together in my mind.  While this could be written off as subconscious sloppiness with little relevance to the real world, I think there are important parallels between Sachs and Prendergast.  Development and mass atrocities have much in common, and Sachs and Prendergast are among the leading figures in their respective fields.  Although Sachs’s ‘bookworm on a mission’ persona contrasts with Prendergast’s ‘cool guy out to save the world’ image, their methods are extremely similar.  That these two similar figures both became perhaps the most publicly recognizable person in their field is not a coincidence, but rather can shed light on how we approach developing countries-African ones in particular-, what types of activism gather attention, and how the shortcomings of these two figures can be avoided.  First, I will present some of the similarities between Sachs and Prendergast, and then I will discuss their broader significance.

Moral outrage– A constant theme for Sachs and Prendergast is their moral outrage about the suffering of individuals around the world.  In The Idealist, Nina Munk describes how after seeing how AIDS victims did not receive medicine in Zambia, Sachs was so appalled he decided to dedicate himself to ending poverty.  His shock is again apparent when he visits the Millennium Village in Ruhiira, Uganda, where he spends much of the visit muttering to himself about how outrageous poverty is.  Munk describes how after speaking with a doctor, “Sachs shook his head in disbelief; he was personally offended by the situation.  ‘They can’t go on like this,’ he said.”  Prendergast also puts his moral outrage at the center of his actions.  In Not on Our Watch, co-authored by Prendergast and Don Cheadle, they describe a visit to a visit to a refugee camp for those displaced by violence in Darfur.  They write, “As we listened to the stories of the refugees who fled the genocide, we sensed what it might be like to be hunted as a human being…Enough is ENOUGH.”

Westerners hold the solution– Sachs and Prendergast both frame poverty and mass atrocities, respectively, as something the West allows to happen.  Prendergast focuses on Samantha Power’s idea that we must be ‘upstanders’ to genocide rather than bystanders in The Enough Moment.  Munk also describes how in Ruhiira, Sachs reacts to what he sees by saying, “This is how we allow fellow human beings to die, by doing nothing.”  Of course, when Prendergast and Sachs say “we,” citizens of Darfur or Uganda do not really factor in.  Rather, the “we” they see as key to stopping genocide and poverty are Western citizens and policymakers.  Their policy prescriptions almost always follow this idea.  For Prendergast, the solution tends to come through Western-led diplomacy, peacekeeping forces, or in the case of the DRC, ending the purchase of conflict minerals.  For Sachs, Western-led aid interventions are at the center of his strategy.  Their seminal projects highlight their position at the center of solving mass atrocities and poverty.  Prendergast’s Enough Project and Sachs’s The End of Poverty both hold titles that emphasize finality.  Prendergast has had enough of mass atrocities and his organization will stop them, while Sachs knows how to end poverty and will describe how in his book.

Celebrity affiliations– A major feature of both Sachs and Prendergast’s work is their collaboration with non-expert celebrities in an effort to draw popular appeal.  Bono writes the foreword to The End of Poverty, Sachs starred in the MTV documentary “The Diary of Angelina Jolie & Dr. Jeffrey Sachs in Africa,” and he has worked with Tommy Hilfiger.  Prendergast co-wrote two books with Don Cheadle, co-founded The Darfur Dream Team with basketball star Tracy McGrady, and has worked closely with George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, and Ben Affleck.

Negative reaction to criticism– Both Prendergast and Sachs have a reputation of taking criticism very personally and having relentless faith in their ideas.  Prendergast has had high profile arguments with Mahmood Mamdani and Alex de Waal, while Sachs has long-running feuds with Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo.  While all prominent figures will have critics and public debate can be valuable and constructive, in these debates Prendergast and Sachs’s tone is often noticeably defensive and aggressive.  A memorable scene in The Idealist describes Sachs screaming at parisitologist Christian Lengeler on an airplane over their differing views on malaria control.  While they have reacted poorly to criticism, Sachs and Prendergast have also shown unwillingness to examine their ideas.  Sachs failed to have the Millennium Village Project properly evaluated (although to his credit he did give Nina Munk fantastic and seemingly uncensored access).  Prendergast has consistently pushed the idea that Dodd-Frank 1502, the legislation aimed at preventing the purchase of conflict minerals that he lobbied extensively for, led to the demise of M23.  However, Christoph Vogel argues that the only evidence to support this theory is a report commissioned by Prendergast and his colleague Sasha Lezhnev.

While some of these similarities are particular to Sachs and Prendergast, many can be applied to other prominent activists, campaigns and organizations.  Sachs and Prendergast are leading figures in a particular school of activism, and I think this is where the similarities between Sachs and Prendergast have the largest implications.  At the heart of the similarities between Sachs, Prendergast, and similar activists is their theory of change: they need to draw Western attention to problems in developing countries, Westerners will care more about these issues, their moral outrage will lead to more resources and money focused on the problems, and these resources and money will solve the problems.  This theory of change which is so prominent in Sachs and Prendergast also pervades Power, Kristof, Invisible Children, and a major portion of prominent activism, and I think this is where the problem lies.

There is nothing inherently wrong about many components of this theory of change.  The inequality and brutality that is present throughout the world should bring moral outrage, and Westerners can play a meaningful and effective role in producing change in the developing world.  What this theory of change lacks, however, is humility.  It fails to consider that Western popular attention may be able to do little to help, that these activists may not be the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle, or that their moral outrage may not be enough to solve incredibly complex problems.  Perhaps they don’t know the answer, or the answer they thought they had was wrong.  They often can’t stop to consider power, institutions, history, and local knowledge because they have had enough of genocide, poverty needs to be ended, and they need to do it right now.  We do need to stop mass atrocities and end poverty, but it will be hard, it will take a long time, and it will take more than this type of activism.

Filling in the Gaps: Advancing DRC Peacebuilding and Advocacy

13 Oct

*This piece was written by myself, Sean Langberg, and Katy Lindquist.

In his article “The Price of Precious,” which recently appeared in National Geographic’s October issue, Jeffrey Gettleman attempts to tell the story of how minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) make their way into our electronics.  Drawing on personal experience in DRC, Gettleman paints a vivid picture of what he perceives violence to look like on the ground, while simultaneously offering a history of Congo since King Leopold and an overview of conflict mineral legislation in the United States – all in less than 1000 words.

The article adopts an all too familiar “Western explorer in Africa” narrative.  As an intrepid outsider, Gettleman is shocked by the danger and chaos.  Based on the article, Congolese are mere stereotypes: helpless villagers, brainwashed child soldiers, or greedy opportunists.  However, Gettleman’s position as a Westerner allows him to (supposedly) see the reality hidden from the ignorant Congolese.

The first half of the article reads like an adventure story in order for the reader to fully appreciate the danger he faces.  He goes out of his way to describe the utter poverty and hopelessness of the situation.  Gettleman then extrapolates from his experiences with a few child soldiers and a corrupt mining official over the course of a day that minerals must be the most important cause of conflict in a homogenous eastern DRC.  “The Price of Precious” is just one link in a long chain of simplistic understandings of Africa.

Unlike Gettleman and many others who write about DRC, we take a different approach.  While so-called “conflict minerals” certainly play a role in the conflict and grassroots advocacy efforts are morally commendable, a broader strategy is needed.  For years, academics and other experts have rightly pushed a multiscale agenda that addresses primary, secondary, and tertiary conflict drivers under the umbrellas of governance, security, sovereignty, and justice.  Conceptually, there exists a dynamic and intersectional pyramid of violence.  At the local level, land conflicts and equitable access to resources must be prioritized alongside the expansion of mobile courts and local reconciliation projects to address injustices and sexual violence perpetrated within communities. At the regional level, the dozens of armed groups operating in eastern DRC must be addressed separately, attending to the specific grievances and histories of each group. Specifically, the M23 rebellion must be addressed through sustained diplomacy, economic pressure, and smart peacekeeping. At the national level, President Kabila and his administration must increase their accountability by facilitating free and fair elections and drastically reforming the security sector to improve the command and control of state soldiers and police. At the international level, immense pressure must be put on Rwanda to end its support of all armed groups in the Kivus, while also pressuring the Congolese government to cooperate with international courts and participate in good-faith regional negotiations.

Advocacy on the DRC has traditionally orbited between two primary entry points: conflict minerals and sexual violence.  Though minerals and sexual violence are parts of the equation in DRC, they by no means constitute a holistic picture.  We must ask ourselves then why these two narratives of the violence in DRC continue to persist?  There are of course many answers to consider, but perhaps the driving motivation for the prevalence of these narratives is their relatability to our daily lives.  The challenges of DRC advocacy in the future then becomes making the complex roots of violence relatable to advocates, and broadening the policy scope while focusing on targeted results. To be clear, there are numerous laudable advocacy organizations and initiatives that are already advancing an agenda that will benefit DRC and civilians targeted by violence.  Incorporating these initiatives into the mainstream, diversifying media coverage, and prioritizing expert voices are potential next steps.  There are no easy answers, but continuing to ignore deep forces at work in DRC in favor of simple narratives of violence will not only fail to improve the situation in eastern DRC, but risks making the realities on the ground worse.

Analysis, Activism, and My Experiences with the Two

8 Jul

A couple of weeks ago, Daniel Solomon wrote this in an email to me, “…I see myself as an analyst, an institutionalist, and an advocate; never as an activist, in the sense that my “theory of change” is intra-hegemonic (within the institutions of power), rather than counter-hegemonic. So, I approach my work on mass atrocities through that lens–morally problematic, perhaps, but as I see it, much more effective in achieving what I see as foundational goals. We can go rounds on this, but suffice it to say that when de Waal chides human rights activists for their proximity to power, I disagree, at least partially.”  While Daniel’s thoughts on a theory of change for atrocities prevention deserves its own blog post, these lines did get me thinking about how I identify personally as an activist or an analyst.  This post then is a rumination on that topic.

I first got involved with what can be classified as atrocities prevention in high school (though the phrase probably would have been lost on me then), though I had always been interested in international affairs (which, at an earlier age, was embodied in soccer) and human rights.  I participated in Amnesty International and this experience was important in influencing future decisions, but at that point, my understanding of the issues was minimal.  In college, I got involved in STAND, which ended up being the experience that really drew me into the atrocities prevention field.  I quickly became interested in involving myself further with STAND, but it wasn’t immediately clear in what way.  At first, I conceived of STAND in an activist context, but I never really found a role positioning myself as an activist in the broader anti-genocide movement.

There was a strong activist culture at Swarthmore and I shared a lot of the same values, but I didn’t really fit because I was interested in international rather than domestic issues.  I also didn’t have much experience with or enthusiasm for organizing work (and when I did try, I learned I wasn’t very good at it).  I found myself, for example, more interested in the politics and logic of nonviolent struggle rather than its actual execution.  I thought about starting a conflict minerals campaign at Swarthmore, but soon after that, I saw the David Aronson article that challenged the core tenets of the conflict mineral approach.  I’m not sure if it was solely this incident, but that article was certainly an important moment in making rethink my previous approach to genocide prevention activism which pretty much boiled down to this: learn that people are dying, and look up strategies to help without doing too much organizing, spending more than a few weeks on the project, or leaving Swarthmore’s campus.  This theory of change obviously has its limitations, and so the more I realized that, and the more I got involved in Swarthmore’s intellectual culture, the more I moved away from a purely activist mindset (not a pejorative, but just a descriptive term for lack of a better word).

Though many friends at Swarthmore like myself are interested in working with oppressed communities to help improve lives, international issues, and mass atrocities in particular present a special challenge.  The advocacy entry points are limited by borders, bureaucracy, apathy, language, and money in a way domestic issues aren’t.  Making changes then, simply becomes much harder.  Bec Hamilton’s Fighting for Darfur made me deeply skeptical of the ability of mass movements to affect positive change on atrocity prevention and demonstrates that an intention to do good is not nearly good enough when it comes to genocide and mass atrocities.  The barriers I mentioned mean that more time and expertise is required to influence and create atrocity policy in comparison to domestic policy (though I am no expert on domestic activism so I welcome any challenges to this conclusion).  This realization swept over me gradually, and so I began to change the way I looked at atrocities prevention.  Reading about the issues took up more of my time, and actually engaging academically with current events became important.  And so over time, perceived effectiveness influenced my personal preferences (I have a genuine intellectual interest in studying violence and international politics that goes beyond any specific goal) and vice versa to push me in more analytic direction.

Returning to Daniel’s quote: while I’ve thought a lot about how different approaches to atrocities prevention work influences outcomes, the dichotomy between activism and analysis is not entirely defined.  Personally, I came to atrocities prevention work in an activist mindset influenced by my then-theory of change and other influences, such as my grandfather’s history as a Holocaust survivor.  And while I seriously changed the way in which I think I can create change, my goal, to prevent atrocities, remains the same.  That goal is inherently activist as it seeks to change current societal conditions.  However, changing mass atrocities prevention and response largely involves getting involved with national and international institutions or creating other organizations that can work directly with communities at risk.  To do this, speaking the language of international politics scholarship is a must.  Therefore the methods to reach the goal of preventing atrocities are beyond the scope of what’s traditionally considered activists’ realm.