Blast from the (Recent) Past: “Kony 2012: Lessons for the Congo” Podcast

Happy New Year, internets.

In case you’re nostalgic for 2012 already (The royal wedding! Unseasonably warm temparatures! RomneyBot3000!), good news: The podcast for the Congo in Harlem “Kony 2012: Lessons for the Congo” panel that Amanda and I participated in is now available:

Each panelist focused his or her remarks on a different aspect of the Kony 2012 campaign and subsequent kerfuffle. I chose to highlight Invisible Children’s emphasis on ICC prosecution for Joseph Kony as the ultimate goal of their advocacy, and explained why I found this strategy an awkward fit for the LRA crisis.

A point I had hoped to discuss further, but didn’t have time for, is that Kony 2012 demonstrates some of the problems that can arise when complex political situations are treated as problems for criminal justice to solve.

The idea behind the existence of the International Criminal Court is a laudable commitment not to allow criminal behavior that is also political behavior to go unpunished; to have a legal mechanism that will punish those guilty of mass atrocities that is to some extent insulated from the operation of politics. But this insulation comes at a price: Once the legal mechanism gets going, you can’t reintroduce politics, even if it might produce better peace and justice outcomes. Consequently, Uganda was not able to offer the suspension of the ICC warrants during peace negotiations with the LRA.

A number of critics (me included) have made the point that Invisible Children’s approach takes a long-standing political crisis, and reduces it to the criminality of one man. And the reaction from those who feel this criticism is unfair has been: “Why do we care? This guy has committed egregious crimes, does it really matter if we’re over-simplifying the conflict as long as he’s punished?” But it does matter, because when you choose legal solutions you are foreclosing political options.

Being aware of this tradeoff is particularly important with regard to Congo, where we see a similar move being made with the conflict minerals campaign, which tells us that the violence in the Kivus is the consequence of individual greed and criminality, not complicated political dynamics. And it’s clear why this narrative is appealing– a lot of confusing complexity washes out, and law enforcement solutions are a comparatively simple policy ask. But if the story that conflict mineral activists are telling isn’t correct, then law enforcement solutions will not address the root causes of the violence.

All of which leads me to wonder: The international criminal justice system was set up to deal with the political that is also criminal – to ensure that human rights abusers don’t get away with murder because they happen to occupy positions of political power. But is it equally well-suited to dealing with the criminal that is also political?

Today in “Totally Nailing It”

Via Africa Is a Country, an appeal for Africans to send their spare radiators to warm freezing children in Norway:

A project of the The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund, Radi-Aid asks us all to “[i]magine if every person in Africa saw the “Africa for Norway” video and this was the only information they ever got about Norway.”

Way to show, not tell, guys!

Kony 2012: It’s Baaaack!

Amanda and I will be participating in the Congo in Harlem panel “Kony 2012: Lessons for the Congo” this Friday. Come check it out if you’re in New York.

Meanwhile, the new Kony 2012 video, “Move,” dropped yesterday, and it’s… well, not really even interesting enough for me to finish this sentence. See for yourself:

There’s a neat screenshot of Amanda and my first Atlantic piece at 15:23, but otherwise it’s mostly just crying. (See Katie J.M. Baker’s Jezebel post for the full run-down, plus coverage of Jason Russell’s Oprah interview.)

At minute 28:53, they finally get down to business and announce a march – or an invasion, it’s hard to tell – on the White House next month. Apparently, I’m not the only one who had difficulty establishing what, exactly, the plan is. The Guardian reported it as follows:


11:18am update: I’m still not clear on what the new campaign is, but apparently it involves a Global Dance Night. For reals.

(H/T: @AfricasaCountry for the screenshot)

Point/Counterpoint on Samahope: Our Two Cents

As promised, here are our thoughts on Samahope’s use of patient profiles to raise money for fistula repair in Sierra Leone:

Although we’re kind of in love with the idea of a Kickstarter for poor women’s vaginas, we’re concerned about the fact that these women are presented primarily in terms of their injury. The key information provided for potential donors browsing through the photographs of possible recipients is “name, age, nature of fistula.” Some of the profiles list a few of the women’s hobbies or interests (“gardening” is a popular choice), but the bulk of the information is fistula-related.

We’re also troubled by the coercive dynamic implicit in the offer of assistance in exchange for public admission of a stigmatizing injury. Even in the best-case scenario, in which the women have no shame about their injuries and aren’t worried about stigma, Samahope is asking women to publicly reveal private information in exchange for help. Leila points out that she has personally spoken with fourteen of the women, and they were all willing to share their stories, but we suspect we’d also be “willing” to publicize our gynecological issues if it meant we would get otherwise unaffordable much-needed treatment. If ladies who aren’t willing to disclose their condition to the global public aren’t eligible for funded surgeries (as Leila’s comments suggest that they’re aren’t), this whole process starts to seem pretty coercive.

Here in the U.S., we don’t think it’s acceptable to force women to publicly describe their vaginas in exchange for vagina-related assistance: We’d never accept it if, say, Medicaid were to require women to post their names, photos, and description of their gynecological problems on a website in order to visit an OB/GYN.  That policy might find a fan in Rush Limbaugh, who famously said that he should be allowed to view the sex acts of young women who received government-subsidized birth control, but that’s hardly indicative of mainstream morality; his comments were (rightly) greeted with horror by the general public.

Both of these concerns (the reduction of a person to an injury, and the potentially coercive nature of the requirement to reveal private medical info) are heightened in the case of the underage girls on the site. We propose that when the question is: “hey, should i post this photo of a 14 year old girl, along with her name, and a description of her broken vagina?” the answer should always be “no.”

Finally, we worry that the setup of the appeal for help – presenting the women and girls almost as if they’re in competition for funding – sets up a disturbing decision process for the potential donor who must choose the most “worthy” (damaged? youngest? prettiest?) recipient for their funds. This mirrors a broader trend that disturbs us, in which NGOs compete for funding and attention by jostling to show the most pathetic victims possible. (Not just a starving woman, but a starving woman who has been raped.  Not just a starving woman who has been raped, but a starving child who has been raped. Not just a starving child who has been raped, but a starving child who has been trafficked into sexual slavery…)  This not only sets up a weird competition for who is “most deserving” or “most in need,” it also contributes to a culture in which no information is too private, and no depiction too demeaning, to demand of victims.

We are not cool with an NGO culture that focuses more on gratifying the egos of donors than on preserving the dignity of recipients. Campaigns like this one contribute to that culture, regardless of their intentions.

None of this is to say that we don’t think Samahope should raise money for fistula repair in Sierra Leone. We’re fully on board with soliciting wealthy Americans for money for poor African women’s vaginas. And actually, we think this has a lot of potential as the next great hipster cause. Think about it: hipsters LOVE to say the word “vagina.” (Look at us, for instance.) And West Africa Fistula Foundation, which performs the Samahope-funded surgeries, seems like a worthy beneficiary. Their focus on recruiting and training local staff is particularly encouraging.

We think there are some pretty easy fixes for the problems we’ve identified above. Nixing the photos of the underage girls would be a great start. We also challenge Samasource to consider whether they could raise money effectively for fistula repair without running photos of pre-operative patients at all. We understand the urge to present real people in need of immediate help – we’ve all seen the research showing that individuals are much more inclined to give when they have a particular person with whom to associate the need for donations. But we think creatively presented profiles (yes, and photos too) of post-op patients would be a more ethical way to establish this connection. Although it would definitely forego some of the urgency of the appeal, showing women who are able to live full, healthy lives as a result of fistula repair would be a moving testament to the value of Samahope’s work, and would clearly underscore the need to fund help for similarly situated women.

Stay tuned for Samahope founder Leila Janah’s response later on…

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble

Our initial reaction when we first saw Samahope was: Man, what brilliant satire. It so perfectly skewers the particular sort of poverty porn-y, competitive victimhood-encouraging NGO that we’re always ranting about. But as we clicked through the site, which posts pictures of Sierra Leonean women and girls suffering from fistula and asks for donations to pay for surgical intervention, we began to get that uncomfortable tingling that accompanies the realization that something you thought was a hilarious send-up of a disturbing phenomenon is actually just one more example of the disturbing phenomenon itself. (What? It’s a real feeling. We get it all the time.)

We didn’t want to jump to any conclusions, though, because Samahope is backed by Leila Janah, the founder of Samasource, which is “an innovative social business that connects women and youth living in poverty to dignified work via the internet” that we’ve been fans of for years. But when we reached out to Leila on Twitter, she told us that Samahope is totally for reals. We mentioned that we were having a lot of uncomfortable, squicked-out feelings about the whole “repair a broken vagina for just $3 a day” approach and that we were going to blog about them (because that’s why people have blogs), and offered Leila the chance to share her perspective as well.

So tomorrow Wednesday we’re going to have an Onion-style Point/Counterpoint in which we’ll explain why this hurts our brains, and Leila will explain why Samahope is doing important and necessary work. Hopefully we’ll all learn and grow.

Best Hoax Ever

I’m about a month late to this party, but have you guys seen

Inspired by Kickstarter, the site purports to “cut out the middleman in online activism, allowing funders to directly support the causes they care about.” Potential funders can contribute to a Mobile Black Site (tagline: “discrete tactical vehicle for interrogators on the go”), DIY drones, or my personal favorite: the hunt for Joseph Kony. A contribution of $50,000 will net you one of Kony’s teeth, while $100,000 will get you his skull (less any teeth that have already been disbursed).

Kickstriker is the work of three graduate students in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, Josh Begley, Mehan Jayasuriya, and James Borda, who came up with the idea during a classroom discussion on Kony 2012. Intended as a commentary on the fine line between this type of activism and crowd-sourced warfare, the site has triggered reactions that suggest said line may actually be nonexistent. As Spencer Ackerman reports, the satirical nature of the project is not obvious to all viewers, and Kickstriker has gotten a number of press inquiries that take it at face value.

Josh, Mehan, James, well played, sirs. We owe you a drink. Well, three drinks. You don’t have to share.

WTF Friday, 4/13/2012

“Others recount being warned by white neighbors not to slaughter animals for festive occasions, or being mistaken for a prostitute simply for having drinks in a bar full of white patrons.” Wow. #capetowndoessoundawesome.

Give freedom to children around the world through the stats of your favorite baseball players. For example, you can pledge $1 every time Matt Holliday hits a home run, or you can give $5 for every game your favorite team wins.” Pressure’s on guys. I know it’s early in the season but you better start playing well or these humans are gonna get trafficked all summer long.

“Not only President Chavez but certainly his supporters and certainly the people handling his political campaign are taking full advantage of [his illness]. And I think it would be crazy for them not to do so.” Yea, that’s what would be crazy.

This Week in Advocacy Videos We’re Kind of Wigged out by

A tipster just sent us this link to the Enough Project’s latest SPLA propaganda video George-Clooney-in-Sudan video (embedded below). For those unable to watch, highlights include:

  • Graphic images of two maimed children, including a young boy whose hands had been blown off “less than an hour ago”
  • The line “for the first time since the Stone Age, people are living in caves”
  • The reduction of the conflict to “blacks who have been on this land since creation” vs. “invading Arabs who want to take their land.”
  • Hagiographic descriptions of the SPLA – er, sorry, we mean “brave Nuba rebels fighting for freedom.”

We don’t have the energy to go through this yet again, so if you’re wondering why we’re horrified by this, please refer to this excellent Dart Center tip sheet on working with victims and survivors.

WTF Friday 3/9/2012

After years of American rappers doing it or resisting it metaphorically, Swazilanders are literally throwing rocks at the throne.

“The Taylor aide believes that his boss is not on trial for crimes in Liberia but rather in Sierra Leone and, therefore, he deserves his pension benefits as former head of state here.” Honestly I think it’s messed up that he had to export his war crimes just so he could get his pension. The game is rigged.

This is just about the antithesis of Kate and Amanda’s article at The Atlantic (shameless plug). Giving “why not” as a justification? Check. Hyperbole about the power of social media and “awareness?” Check. Totally predictable opinion (from a teenager) about whether Kony is chill or unchill? Check. (Spoiler: hes goes with “terrible”). Baselessly optimistic prediction? I think we have a winner.


"It Makes Sense, but Not Science"

That’s a quote from my mother (hi mom!), describing the phenomenon of causal explanations that seem intuitively correct, but upon scientific investigation, turn out to be wrong.

I’m bringing it up because Laura Seay at Texas in Africa has an excellent series of posts up on how social scientists think about evidence, causation, and uncertainty:

  1. how social scientists think: anecdotes aren’t evidence
  2. how social scientists think: what your driver says isn’t evidence
  3. how social scientists think: correlation is not causation
  4. how social scientists think: we’re not completely sure about much

She’s writing in an attempt to explain why social scientists and activists seem to produce such divergent assessments of the causes of conflict in places like the DRC and such contradictory prescriptions of what should be done to help. She argues that while academics are trained to think “in systematic ways that explain causal relationships between phenomena,” advocates “are trained to stir emotions and to draw personal connections between international events and Western students, consumers, and families.”

I don’t disagree that advocacy’s focus on awareness raising contributes to over-simplification of analysis (see Amanda and me not disagreeing here and here), however, I don’t think that’s what’s at the root of the difference in approach.

The kind of advocacy that Laura is talking about, even when not performed by human rights groups, is an outgrowth of the human rights movement. Yes, there are other philosophical sources for this type of activism, but the approach is heavily dependent on the methodology developed by human rights lawyers over the last half century. This methodology is characterized by meticulous documentation of violations of human rights laws, naming and shaming of perpetrators, and advocacy for (1) compliance with the laws, and (2) punishment of non-compliers.

Which is to say: lawyers don’t argue from evidence the way social scientists do. As Laura explains, social scientists are primarily concerned with using evidence to explain why certain events occurred and to predict future events. Lawyers use evidence to prove that certain events occurred and sometimes to prescribe or proscribe future action.

Consequently, lawyers (and those who employ their methodology) and social scientists are interested in patterns in evidence for very different reasons. When human rights researchers collect evidence, they are trying to provide enough support to legitimize a claim that serious violations are occurring. The goal is therefore quantity and reliability.

When social scientists collect evidence, they are trying to establish a causal story. As Laura explains, it is incredibly difficult to get from showing that two things happened to proving that one thing caused another thing. This means that they have to think about connections between pieces of evidence, and control for other potential explanations of the evidence they observe, that aren’t relevant for the lawyers’ approach.

Neither of these approaches is better than the other. The evidence-gathering methods of the human rights movement are extremely well suited to the strategy they were designed to support: advocacy for the cessation of violations of human rights laws.

The problem is that the strategies of some advocacy groups have outpaced their methodology. What Laura is highlighting is a move towards making recommendations that rely on causal claims that their evidence-gathering methods are not able to support.

(Stay tuned for my next mom-quote inspired post: “Not All Fruit Is Perfect, Just Eat It and Shut Up”)