On Luvungi, and the Problem of Evidence in Advocacy

Amanda and I spent the second half of last week at a World Peace Foundation seminar on “Western Advocacy in Conflict.” It was lots of fun. (If your idea of fun involves assorted cheese cubes and extremely detailed discussions of human rights crises. Mine certainly does.)

One of the themes that we hit on repeatedly was the relationship of advocacy to evidence. Because we were discussing Kony 2012 and conflict minerals activism on Congo, this came up primarily in terms of advocacy campaigns that seminar participants felt had distorted or paid insufficient attention to evidence. But it’s a much bigger issue, and one I have been thinking about for a while.

In contexts where the source of human rights abuses is complicated or unclear, advocates must use evidence to demonstrate that their analysis of the cause of the violations is correct, and thereby justify their proposed policy recommendations. As I note in the post linked above, that’s a very different task from the one advocates confront when the source of human rights abuses is clear. In those cases, they collect evidence to document that violations have occurred, and marshal it in support of demands that the violative behavior stop.

The challenge advocates face in situations where it’s not obvious who is responsible for human rights abuses or what would be necessary to halt them is exacerbated by the fact that these are often also situations in which it is difficult to collect information. This problem is highlighted by a controversy about the 2010 mass rape incident in Luvungi currently playing out in the (virtual) pages of Foreign Policy.

In her article “What Happened in Luvungi? On rape and truth in Congo”, reporter Laura Heaton delves into the events at “ground zero of Congo’s rape epidemic.” The August 2010 rebel assault on villages near Luvungi in North Kivu became front page news of the UN’s failure to protect Congolese civilians. The International Medical Corps (IMC) team that arrived on August 6 reported a shocking number of rape victims among the survivors. Ultimately, the UN concluded that 387 women and girls had been raped over the course of the 4 day attack.

In her trips to the area to follow up on the recovery process, however, Laura found reasons to doubt the official account. Speaking with survivors, she had the uncomfortable feeling that “a psychological element seemed to be missing” and thought perhaps the women had been coached. A local healthcare provider told her he had only treated 6 rape victims in the immediate aftermath of the rebel incursion. He said that most of the people seen at the local clinic at the time were treated for disease or for injuries incurred fleeing the rebels, but their records were altered after IMC arrived.

Laura was unable to reconcile what she was being told with what the UN and humanitarian aid workers had reported. She wondered if the numbers had been intentionally inflated, either to draw attention and funds to Luvungi, or, potentially, to protect the identities of the true rape victims.

Responding to Laura’s article, two aid workers who were part of IMC’s team in Luvungi in August 2010 vigorously contest the allegation that IMC misrepresented these events. I spoke with one of the authors, Will Cragin, who said that when he arrived in Luvungi, “there had essentially been no patients seen since the beginning of the attacks” because of the distance to the clinic and insecurity in the area. He added that once there, IMC neither retroactively revised past patient logs, nor classified incoming patients who did not report rape as sexual violence victims.

Will also thought it unlikely that the community colluded in deceiving the humanitarian workers and UN investigators in order to net media attention and aid money. He noted that ICRC and Heal Africa continue to provide psychosocial services in the community and that it’s “hard to believe that [these] women would carry on this story for so long.”

I am in no position to assess the truth of what happened in Luvungi, but the alternate narratives, each supported by eyewitness accounts, underscore what is so difficult about advocacy in complex conflict situations.

If we accept the evidence that the Luvungi numbers were inflated, we’re likely to classify this episode as emblematic of the negative effects of characterizing Congo as a place primarily defined by rape. I’ve written about this before, and share the concerns Laura identifies about the incentive structure created by a disproportionate focus on sexual violence.

But as Will and his coauthor, Micah Williams, point out, rape is a vastly underreported crime in Congo (as it is elsewhere), and “current funding remains woefully inadequate.” If we take the official Luvungi numbers at face value, we might think instead that this is one more piece of evidence that eastern Congo is in the throes of a rape epidemic in desperate need of increased international attention.

The policy prescriptions indicated by these competing interpretations of evidence are starkly different: less focus on sexual violence initiatives or more. Reason enough to be careful about what we think we know, and how we know it.

 

 

6 thoughts on “On Luvungi, and the Problem of Evidence in Advocacy

  1. “I’ve written about this before, and share the concerns Laura identifies about the incentive structure created by a disproportionate focus on sexual violence. But as Will and his coauthor, Micah Williams, point out, rape is a vastly underreported crime in Congo (as it is elsewhere), and “current funding remains woefully inadequate.” If we take the official Luvungi numbers at face value, we might think instead that this is one more piece of evidence that eastern Congo is in the throes of a rape epidemic in desperate need of increased international attention.”

    and

    “Reason enough to be careful about what we think we know, and how we know”

    Well, well, well. I never thought I would see this in print.

    I like this blog and have been following for some years – I think your arguments are usually well structured, very often laugh-out-loud funny (which is no small feat given the subject matter) and with regard to quite a few issues (notable Kony 2012) – absolutely spot on. However, I don’t think you are as bright as you believe yourselves to be and your commentaries can be assumptive and woefully ignorant of any real understanding of what an issue is like in reality (rather than in theory) – which is not surprising given that you write this blog as educated white women from the US and don’t have extensive overseas experience in any real regard from what you say.

    With regard to your views on rape, it would seem that you are embarrassingly quick (particularly given where you are based – which is not, for example, in DRC) to undermine and lessen any possibility that rape (the violent act of power that more than anything else signifies control) is happening in numbers any greater than what you or “Texas in Africa” (because of course! one American woman does speak for a whole continent and millions of women) believe to be true. Given that you are American (a different culture to the women you are referring to so easily – yes, we are all people, regardless of where we are from, but culture has a vast impact on how we respond and are even able to respond to various situations) and have not been raped (because if you had you would not speak about it with such frivolity) I think your implied agreement with Laura Heaton’s statement that she ” found reasons to doubt the official account. Speaking with survivors, she had the uncomfortable feeling that “a psychological element seemed to be missing” – to be seriously problematic.

    So, lets unpack this shall we? – a very young American (again) reporter (I just looked her up and read her background) with an undergraduate degree, who is also not from DRC, and does not have experience of a higher academic level, with rape survivor, or extensive experience working in Africa can say with any assurance how a rape survivor should react? What is appropriate? No, she can’t – and neither can you. Out of interest have you ever spoken and worked in depth with rape survivors? Have you taken on board the different sociocultural areas (and of course influenced by politics and economics, let alone extreme poverty and conflict) that rape can occur in – that the resulting response – and ability to respond or the freedom to respond in a way that you as an American feels appropriate will be influenced (consciously or not) by this?

    But since you seem so sure, let me ask you – Have you ever been in a conflict situation? have you experienced the terror that armed militia can bring on? Have you worked in a conflict situation or an area with few to no resources? Have you experienced real fear? Of what would happen to you or your family? Do you know what it’s like to be vulnerable – esp a woman or a woman with kids – in an area of conflict with no resources and to face violence? With (as in some cases) no governing structures ? Or free press? Do you know what it’s like to do anything to protect your family? To be silent because it’s safer? To protect your kids? To save your own life? Do you know what it’s like to give birth? In any area with no resources? Do you know how much stronger/resilient or maybe just resigned you have to be to deal with poverty, conflict, violence, lack of any access to medical services or even medicine? What’s it’s like to navigate the world, in a tough environment already – often with kids – with no access to education or choices? Do you know what it’s like to have no access to any news, any information, let alone objective information? Do you know what its like to not be able to read? To not have a voice? To not be able to an active participant in the world around you? Do you believe in such a case atrocities will be more or under-reported?

    No. I thought not.

    I too am female, I’m also white and western (not American though) although I have a mix of academic (PhD) and overseas work – and you know what this has taught me? Not to be so unbelievably sure of what I think I know or to draw conclusions unless I’m damn sure I have some real understanding and experience in the area.

    Yes, yes, I know you actually think “Rape is a very serious issue and we write (“Rape!” tm) that way because you are trying to draw attention to the fact that real issues are being clouded by a focus on this, that it reduces women in these areas to women without a voice and merely fodder for Westerner media” (etc, etc) – however – it comes across as offensive and juvenile and whether it is your aim you in fact reduce rape to something that is not worthy or a real response.

    The problem is that you have (till now and another recent post) not exhibited any humility, and awareness that you may not, in fact, know the whole story let alone the absolute finite truth.

    • Hi SG,

      I honestly can’t tell from your comment if you are praising the post or criticizing it. (My tentative conclusion is that you are praising the post, but criticizing Kate and me more generally?)

      A few things:

      Sexual violence, in the DRC and elsewhere, is obviously horrifying and should be stopped. We have always been on the record about that.

      I’m a bit confused by your harangue about privileged Western women, because it was the residents of Luvungi who described the attack differently from one another. The Congolese health-care provider who was in the area during the attacks stated that he had treated 6 victims of sexual assault, of whom 4 were assaulted by rebels. Three women, at the behest of village elders, described horrific sexual assaults at the hands of the rebels – these were the stories that made Laura uncomfortable, and made her interpreter believe that they had been the result of coaching. A different woman told Laura’s interpreter that she had been raped, but that there “weren’t many like her,” and that the village elders had decided to say that many women had been raped in order to avoid ostracizing those who were. Importantly, none of these people said that there were no rapes, and neither did Laura. But you seem angry that Laura didn’t end her inquiry with the first women’s description of events, and I don’t understand why.

      As to your point about our experience working with victims of sexual violence: you are incorrect in your assumptions.

      Oh, and your statement that neither of us could have experienced sexual violence ourselves because if we had we “would not speak of it with such frivolity” is pretty ironic in light of your next paragraph. (Not to mention a truly appalling way to tell someone they’re not entitled to participate in a conversation.)

    • There’s a lot of issues brought up in both the original post and the comment, most of which I won’t address. I did however want to add some observations to the discussion:
      First, I support the comment “Reason enough to be careful about what we think we know, and how we know.” Because good data is hard to come by. Because the plural of anecdotes are not data. Because few things are ever even remotely black and white. Because we like data to fit a pattern. Because confirmation bias exists. Because there are pressures on whoever is doing the reporting and the interviewing and the telling to cast the truth in a certain light. Grain of salt here, people
      Second, I don’t quite understand the sanctimony of the commenter. Someone seems to be claiming a lot of moral high ground, and I am not sure you’ve earned it (maybe I missed the field cred pissing contest? should we compare resumes or something?). You jump to a lot of conclusions about the original posters, and you are vulnerable to the same criticism: white, educated, western, presumably not a victim of prolonged sexual trauma. In terms of a different perspective, the commenter mostly seems to bring lots of parentheses, and not a lot of humility herself.
      But I’m not here to knock the commenter off their high horse, nor defend the original posters – they can do that themselves – but to make a different point: the fundamental problem with any kind of observation of a situation external to one’s own, for example reporting on anything, really, but most saliently in areas where the personal stories come to the forefront, is that you can always walk two moons in someone’s shoes—and then take them off and walk away. Because the fundamental difference between the rape victim in the Congo and me – you, me, anyone who is not that person and yet is in a position to see and hear and take in that story – is that I can generally walk away. I am not faced with the crushing inexorability of the situation, the idea that not only is this misery but I have no way out.
      The commenter seems to hold the idea that unless you have suffered everything that the survivors have suffered, you cannot and should not report their views. The paragraph-long string of obnoxious rhetorical questions do make a good point: how can someone who has not experienced something possibly report on it in any meaningful way without falling victim to one’s own bias? As the commenter herself says, she has learned “Not to be so unbelievably sure of what I think I know or to draw conclusions unless I’m damn sure I have some real understanding and experience in the area.” But by her own line of argumentation, she can not and will never ever be able to have real understanding or experience in any area that is not white, educated, and female.
      Katherine Boo had some excellent thoughts to say on the subject, making both of the points more eloquently than I am doing here: “Even if I were to stay in Annawadi or something like it, it wouldn’t be the same. After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, I did stay in the shelter [when] I did reporting for The New Yorker. But me staying in a shelter is not the same as someone who’s been evacuated to that shelter. This whole thing of, “I’m walking a mile in their shoes by living this certain way.” Well, I’m not living that way. I can turn around and leave. We can do the best we can to get to the core of people’s circumstances, but it’s ludicrous to think that my being in Annawadi all of that time is walking in their shoes. It’s not.”
      And another great quote: “But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost.”
      What are we left with? A complicated picture, and one that is not so simply reduced to one’s age or nationality or experience.

      http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/reporting-poverty/

  2. Pingback: Searching for Truth About Rape and the DRC | Humanosphere

  3. I guess I’m not entirely convinced by the argument that we focus “too much” on rape in DRC. Caveats: Yes, it plays to the worst sort of stereotyping about Africans. Yes, proportionately more media attention and ngo money are given to it than to other, equally deserving issues. Yes, it stigmatizes the area to call it the “rape capital of the world” as Wallström famously did. And yes, it’s often covered voyeuristically by western journalists, who sometimes seem to compete to see who can get the most horrific story. But as a way of drawing attention to the larger problem, I’m not sure it’s inherently disreputable. It’s similar to way we focused on hand amputations in Sierra Leone–it’s the signature atrocity, a synecdoche for the region’s ongoing catastrophes. And at the end of the day, are “we” paying anything like enough attention to anything taking place in Congo?

  4. Pingback: Troubling Numbers | Wronging Rights

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