constructive criticism, productive advocacy, and #kony2012

First of all, I’d like to thank the Academy: three days of engaging, critical, and invigorating discourse on #KONY2012 have produced unprecedented levels of traffic, exposure, and discussion for Securing Rights–much of it stressful, but all of it important. This post is neither a round-up, nor a “response to critics”; I stand by my initial comments, my analysis of Invisible Children’s compelling, problematic public narrative, my discussion of its political and moral implications, and my (snarky) call for more educated, responsible, and policy-informed advocates. Unbeknownst to many selective readers, I recognize Invisible Children’s remarkable, important role in crafting compelling narratives, mobilizing young constituencies for social change, and beginning an important conversation on advocacy, conflict resolution in sub-Saharan Africa, and the moral hazards, opportunities, and quandaries of effective advocacy. As with all mass movements, #KONY2012 is a teachable moment, one which should spark continued discussions about improving public policy, considering and reconsidering global leadership, and conceptualizing the role of human rights in a responsible foreign policy.

Let’s start with our first teachable moment, an existential question: What is advocacy? For many, this question is deceptively straightforward: advocacy is the process of pressuring decision-makers, in both the private and public sectors, to shift, continue, or adopt certain policies. In the case of Invisible Children, advocacy operated on two planes: first, the popular plane, which called for the devotion of U.S. government resources to capturing Joseph Kony, transporting him to the Hague, and bringing him to justice for the LRA’s heart-wrenching acts of political violence; second, the policy plane, which called for a more nuanced approach, including the expansion of regional military cooperation in LRA-affected areas, the mobilization of pervasive early warning technology throughout the region, and the rehabilitation of survivor communities in northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Given advocacy’s dual nature, the #KONY2012 debate focused on two narratives, often meshing Invisible Children’s public narrative with critiques of the U.S.-supported military operation in Central Africa, the absence of local participation in Western conflict resolution initiatives, and #KONY2012’s depiction of the LRA’s political dynamics.

In general, I don’t differ much from Invisible Children’s policy plane: while I recognize that there are unavoidable moral, political, and operational quandaries associated with a forceful solution to the LRA conflict, the human rights advocacy community, including the Enough Project, Resolve, Human Rights Watch, and the International Crisis Group, has crafted a valuable framework for post-operation conflict resolution. The organizational policy initiatives do not mesh easily with local mediation, peacebuilding, and transitional justice processes, but nor are the international and localized efforts fundamentally anathema to one another. While public discourse on military intervention should always be controversial, heavily debated, and carefully reasoned, the cost/benefit analysis on U.S. advisory support to the anti-LRA operation appears to hold up. With that said, Ethan Zuckerman is spot-on, describing the ways in which #KONY2012 “plays into existing narratives about the ungovernability of Africa, the power of US military, and the need to bring hidden conflict to light.”

The popular plane, by contrast, has sparked much of the blogosphere’s ire, with members of the African diaspora, as well as Central African civil society leaders, critiquing the #KONY2012 campaign’s immediate marginalization of African voices, policy experts dismissing Invisible Children’s simplified, moralized conflict narrative, and field researchers taking the organization to task for minimizing geographic shifts. Invisible Children has responded in kind, although most of its commentary has adopted a different plane, seeking to counter the popular narrative’s simplified shortcomings with discussions of policy recommendations, programmatic initiatives, and organizational leadership in northern Uganda. As the organization notes, however, Invisible Children has developed alternative resources to engage participating activists in the history and political complexities of the LRA’s mobilization in Central Africa.

The popular debate, which, over the past three days, has largely occurred throughout the blogosphere, Twitter community, and online Facebook constituencies, has underlined a core characteristic of advocacy’s existential problematic. With rhetoric reminiscent of, most recently, the SOPA/PIPA discussion, cyber-evangelists have quickly heralded Invisible Children’s online mobilization as the “future of online activism.” Commentators hint at, but do not expound on the exceptional quality of Invisible Children’s activism: hundreds of NGOs throughout the United States, Europe, and the world attempt to mobilize constituencies around human rights, foreign policy, and conflict resolution issues, but few have been as successful as Invisible Children in marrying activism’s popular plane with its political consequences. At the same time, however, the political context of the U.S. government’s anti-LRA efforts, underlined by its strategic partnership with the Ugandan military, demonstrates the complexity of decision-making determinants. As Adam Elkus noted on Twitter, U.S. policy Invisible Children has mobilized a broad-based constituency, predicated on widespread, almost-instant awareness of Kony’s atrocities, but advocacy’s role in the policymaking “black box” is difficult to determine (to use Bec Hamilton’s Darfur analogy). Advocates tend to use anecdotes (“once, a U.S. senator responded to a swell of phone calls on Darfur”), instead than empirical metrics (“repeatedly, over the course of several years, a bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators, each with varying commercial, political, and personal interests, responded to a swell of phone calls on Darfur”), for impact observation and evaluation.

Advocacy remains important, but we need to begin to view its role in the popular plane through a different lens. Currently, the advocacy conversation focuses on the quantity of conversation, as well as the effectiveness of advocacy actions: Does mobilization work, or not? Our current perception of advocacy relies on the myth of democratic decision-making: in reality, for better or worse, foreign policy is a meritocratic process, reliant on a small, expert community with power, influence, and credibility. Empirically speaking, advocacy’s impact is difficult to assess. According to Michael Kazin, a keen observer of U.S. social movements, immediate policy changes rarely result from the effective mobilization of progressive activists; unintentionally, American progressivism has successfully sustained cultural, media, and social conversation on equality, rights, and global freedom. Our “effectiveness” framework, therefore, does little to understand advocacy’s role, its contribution to social well-being, and its importance to domestic and international political development. Instead, let’s change the conversation: advocacy is a discursive act, with advocates, policymakers, and conflict survivors as discursive actors. In accordance with constructivist theory, transnational advocacy networks play a critical role in strengthening norm diffusion, reconceptualizing political perspectives, and, over the long-term, changing the behavioral preferences of political decision-makers. The diffusive process is straightforward: as seasoned advocates gain access to political decision-makers, institutions, and professional opportunities, foreign policy discourses gradually shift, resulting from a new, collective mix of political preferences, ideological biases, and social interactions.

If we begin to view advocacy as a discursive process, the post-#KONY2012 conversation on “constructive opportunities” begins to take a different shape. The two opportunities are non-exclusive: If Invisible Children-style movements serve as an entry point, discursive advocacy focuses on investing in community leadership, creating opportunities for constructive, dialogic civic engagement, and fostering the normative importance of human rights in international public policy. Advocacy focuses on improving the quality of human rights discourse, raising the profile of responsible, self-critical policy, and broadening the mobilized constituency.

In addition to Covering the Night, advocates for atrocities termination in Central Africa should make intentional, directed attempts to engage Central African diaspora communities, building opportunities for common relationships, policy forums, and constructive dialogue. African diaspora communities are engaged in extraordinary leadership development initiatives, and advocates can participate in those conversations, hear diaspora voices, and consider their role in the popular policy discourse. On the popular plane, the quality and inclusivity of policy discourse matters, not the rightness or wrongness of policy asks. Additionally, advocates should prioritize empathetic rather than sympathetic narratives of violent conflict and mass atrocity. If our personal, public narratives compel us towards moral action, those actions should be based in the empowerment of survivors, not condescension towards conflict victims. For atrocities narratives, simplification is, in a sense, unavoidable; however, if we invest in discursive quality, rather than quantity, the balance between local resilience and international action becomes apparent. As advocates, with uncertain effectiveness, it’s the best we can do.

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