Eastern Congo 2: academic-activist partnerships

There were several follow-up posts on the conflict minerals debate yesterday:

  • Laura Seay (Texas in Africa) gave a history of the conflict. Summary version: it’s complicated, but it has a lot to do with ethnicity, citizenship rights, land ownership, outside actors — and not much to do with minerals.
  • Jason Stearns (Congo Siasa) restated why he is “grudgingly in favor” of the legislation.
  • Amanda Taub (wronging rights) broke down the actual content of the conflict minerals legislation. Summary version: it’s complicated, and the impact won’t be clear until the SEC develops various regulations over the next 9 months.
  • The Enough Project Blog… has not commented on the issue. But I don’t really expect them to.

But my favorite comment came from Kate Cronin-Furman (wronging rights), who threw down the gauntlet:

As far as I can tell, Enough has not yet managed to get a single serious researcher of the eastern DRC to sign on to their analysis of the conflict. (Would anyone like to dispute this? I am willing to lower the bar to anybody who has spent more than six weeks straight in the Kivus.)

(The challenge is reiterated by Chris Blattman, who adds pirate talking as a further requirement.)

As I’ve said before, I don’t qualify as an expert on the Congo, conflict minerals or frankly anything else. So while I don’t have much to say in response to Cronin-Furman’s challenge, it got me thinking about the connection between academics and activists. I’m neither, though I dabble in both.

The recurring theme in this debate is that the academic community is unhappy with the stances taken by the advocacy community. Although I still defend the Enough Project’s need for a simple narrative, there’s a difference between a simplification of reality and a distortion of it. Here’s a quick test: try to edit your narrative into a more complete picture of the world. If you only have to add elements, then congratulations, your narrative is just a simplification. If you also have to delete elements, then shame on you, your narrative is probably a distortion.

Unlike a distortion, a simplification is actually backed by and derived from a more considered analysis. A simplification is tied by a clear (if unstated) chain to a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the problem. Some advocates would claim that it’s okay to use a distorted narrative, as long as it leads to the right policies. This thinking is dangerous because it detaches your policy agenda from reality. You start believing your own distortions and lose any assurance that you really are pursuing the right policies. Even worse, other people start believing your distortions.

In the case at hand, the Enough Project seems to have gone beyond simplification and entered the realm of distortion. The Enough narrative has depicted a conflict driven by minerals, and partially solvable by US legislation on the same. Expanding this narrative into a complete picture would require backtracking on the role of minerals in the conflict, and repositioning them as just another source of finance rather than a central motivation for violent groups. The academics are unhappy because this distorted narrative can come into conflict with accurate narratives, leading to policy confusion.

These kinds of critiques aren’t limited to this particular case. Hype around the issue of child soldiers has also influenced policy and programs, as discussed in a CGD study that Blattman mentioned yesterday. Similarly, the “Save Darfur” movement has been harshly criticized by Mahmood Mamdani in his Saviors and Survivors (2009), which gives an extensive history of how ethnicity, land ownership and outside actors have made the situation in Darfur far more complicated than genocide.* I’m sure there are other examples outside the realm of conflict — maybe something around child labor activism.

In any case, the practical question is: How do we ensure the advocates use narratives that are simplifications, rather than distortions? First, academics must learn to be okay with simplifications. Relishing the nuances of an issue is a luxury that those outside the Ivory Tower can rarely afford. The political economy of political advocacy won’t allow for it. At the same time, academics must be on guard against distortions. The development blogosphere isn’t the best venue for this, and after the legislation has passed isn’t the best time. Our current debate here provides no form of accountability over the strategic choices made by advocacy groups.

Fixing this problem will require both communities to change their habits and meet in the middle. Circling back to Cronin-Furman’s challenge, I don’t think the Enough Project should be trying to get serious researchers signed on to its analysis. Rather, Enough should be trying to get serious researchers involved in the analysis ex ante, before even crafting a policy and certainly before launching a campaign. If the advocates aren’t reaching out to the academics, the academics should do the outreach themselves.

This is where my knowledge of the two communities ends. Are there forums where these conversations happen? I’ve heard too much mocking of international development conferences to think that they provide a good venue. Many think tanks occupy a space between academia and advocacy, but always seem to err in one direction or another. What are the specific mechanisms that can make these partnerships happen in the future?

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P.S. On a somewhat similar topic, Duncan Green had a great post a few weeks back on the relationship between researchers and practitioners. Now we just need to spell out the relationship between practitioners and advocates, and the triangle will be complete.

* See also Mamdani’s earlier article in the London Review of Books, “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, and Insurgency“. It makes the same argument in a shorter space (but not much shorter — after all, it’s complicated).

8 thoughts on “Eastern Congo 2: academic-activist partnerships

  1. Yes, yes, and yes. The research, friendship building, and advice gathering has to happen before the messaging or the activisting.

  2. Hi Dave,

    Great post; it’s absolutely true that activists should reach out to experts before crafting a message. In this case, Enough actually did consult with a number of scholars. However, as Laura from Texas in Africa has pointed out, they seem to have ignored what those scholars told them because it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. I think this accounts for a lot of the rancor we’re seeing in the debate about this issue – the expert community feels that their input has not just been ignored, but actively disregarded.

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