Amnesty, Attention, and Raif Badawi

Amnesty International’s defense of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi has gathered quite a bit of attention over the last few weeks.  While his case would have captured some attention regardless, the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the death of King Abdullah have amplified the relevance of Badawi’s case.  Although some intricacies of this case are particular to Amnesty’s prisoner of conscience strategy, it still sheds a great deal of light on attempts to use international attention and political pressure.

Amnesty’s prisoner of conscience strategy exists on two levels.  The first focuses on immediate action.  Amnesty attempts to channel pressure to achieve their goals in one particular case. For the Raif Badawi case, the goal at this level is to stop his flogging and obtain his release from prison.

However, the second level uses the prisoner of conscience as a symbol of a particular type of human rights abuses.  If Amnesty’s sole focus was to secure the release of the prisoners of conscience they adopt they would help many individuals, but their impact would be relatively limited.  As Nicholas Kristof would happily tell you, it is much easier to bring attention to systemic problems when you highlight the story of an individual.  Amnesty does just that, linking broader human rights problems to an individual case.

Amnesty’s first priority is certainly protecting Badawi from vicious punishment, yet he also has great symbolic value.  First, he is imprisoned for apostasy, having “insulted Islam” on his website.  The charges make clear Saudi Arabia’s complete intolerance for dissent, free speech, and freedom of religion.  His particularly medieval punishment, 50 lashes each week for 12 weeks, also demonstrates the brutality of the Saudi government.  Last, Saudi Arabia’s status as a key US ally gives Amnesty both a primary actor, Saudi Arabia, and a secondary one, the US, to pressure through naming and shaming.  Raif Badawi’s case draws clear attention to Saudi Arabia’s horrendous human rights record, and Amnesty is also able to use the attention to pressure the US to use its leverage over Saudi Arabia.

Recent events, while completely unexpected by Amnesty, have amplified Badawi’s symbolic value.  First, on January 7th, gunmen attacked the headquarters of French satirical magainze Charlie Hebdo, killing eleven.  The attack led to popular defense of ideals of free speech, culminating in a unity rally on January 11th, two days after Badawi was lashed for the first time.  The march was attended by as many as 2 million people including many notable world leaders, among them Saudi officials.  Many pointed to the hypocrisy of a number of leaders at the march, and Raif Badawi was often brought up both to criticize the Saudi leaders attending and the many leaders allied with them.  Nicholas Kristof used his January 14th column to criticize Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Badawi and the US alliance with the Saudis.  Amnesty provided the means for this criticism, having been far and away the main promoter of his case.  For example, the first person to use what became the fairly popular hashtag #jesuisraif, an appropriation of #jesuischarlie, linked to Amnesty’s update on the case.

The death of King Abdullah on January 23rd further put Saudi Arabia under the spotlight.  While a number of Western leaders gave glowing statements remembering Abdullah,  his death also brought examination of Saudi Arabia’s government and the US alliance with it.  Raif Badawi’s case served as a clear example of human rights abuses that critics could point to.  With the instability in the Middle East, most recently with Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical importance to the US and EU is greater than ever.  However, it is nearly impossible to talk about Saudi Arabia without mentioning its abhorrent human rights record, and Raif Badawi’s case offers a clear demonstration of these abuses.

There is not a linear path from attempts to use attention and political pressure to the intended goal.  No one can really direct the efforts, but powerful individuals and organizations can provide the means for broad-based actions to serve the intended purpose.  Amnesty knew that Raif Badawi’s treatment showed the brutality and intolerance of a staunch Western ally.  They would have had no idea that there would be events leading to intense attention on free speech and the Saudi government, but their focus on Badawi clearly stemmed from the aspects of his case that made his symbolic value particularly important.  As they had already provided coverage and research on Badawi’s case, others were easily able to adapt attention on current events to shame the Saudi government in a vulnerable time.  The nature of Badawi’s case, repeated flogging over a long period of time, means that Saudi Arabia will face continued criticism over the course of his punishment.  The postponement of Badawi’s second lashing because his wounds have not healed may be an attempt to outlast the international attention.  While his release is not secured by any means, this would suggest that Amnesty is making progress on their immediate goal of stopping his punishment.  The broader goal of shaming Saudi Arabia on its human rights record has already had success, and Saudi Arabia will only further damage its reputation each time they flog Badawi.


How Not to Respond to Boko Haram’s Massacres

Boko Haram’s recent massacre in the northeastern Nigerian city of Baga has brought more attention to the militant group than any event since their kidnapping of 276 girls in April.  Initial reports placed the death toll at as many as 2,000 people, although it was likely in the hundreds.  Much media attention has focused on the large lack of attention this attack received relative to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.  While the scale of Boko Haram’s atrocities merits great attention, efforts to pressure the Nigerian government should proceed with caution.  Forcing the government to take Boko Haram seriously would be major progress, but the recent attention could also lead to rash and destructive offensive tactics from the Nigerian military.

The attention on the Baga attacks has put President Goodluck Jonathan under pressure.  As this incident coincides with the buildup to the election February 14th, attention will be intense for the next month.  However, this attention will disappear soon after, and Jonathan will know this.  The Chibok kidnappings prompted the enormously popular #bringbackourgirls (which it should be noted was a largely Nigerian movement, and international attention was only a part of it), but even that attention waned after a few months despite the failure to return the kidnapped girls.  If Goodluck Jonathan can beat out Muhammadu Buhari and appear to beat back Boko Haram while attention focuses on him, he will be in a strong position when the attention fades.

Jonathan seems to have realized that in the short-term he must appear to fight Boko Haram.  He initially showed disinterest towards Baga, condemning the Charlie Hebdo attacks while remaining silent about Boko Haram’s.  However, on January 15th he made a surprise visit to Maiduguri, his first visit to the Northeast since March 2013.  Given the immediate but likely fading attention on Jonathan, an offensive against Boko Haram would best suit his interests. Steps which would actually protect civilians against Boko Haram, such as professionalizing the military, giving them adequate equipment, and defending citizens when Boko Haram attacks would have relatively invisible effects in the short-term and also point to Jonathan’s past failures.  An offensive, however, would immediately show he is taking the threat from Boko Haram seriously, and given the major threat from Buhari he needs result quickly.  Although Jonathan’s word should be taken with skepticism, his statement in Maiduguri that “all the areas under the control of Boko Haram will soon be recaptured” suggests he will pursue this approach.

Offensive tactics against Boko Haram would cause large damage to Northeastern Nigeria’s citizens.  First, the Nigerian military would likely lose.  It is hampered by low wages and corruption, and Boko Haram has superior weaponry.  Counterinsurgency offensives have also been enormously dangerous for Nigerian citizens.  When a state of emergency was called in 2013, Human Rights Watch found that “the large number of troops deployed to enforce the state of emergency engaged in indiscriminate arrest, detention, torture and extra-judicial killing.” Baga itself shows the risks the military presents.  Before this most recent attack the town was known for the 2013 massacre of approximately 200 civilians by the Nigerian military.  Yet even if Jonathan launches an offensive with disastrous results, it is unlikely to hurt him in his period of attention.  Information is extremely limited in Northeastern Nigeria.  Well over a week after the Baga attacks reported death tolls of 150 and 2,000 are both still plausible and journalists have not been able to make it to Baga.  The military can also be an obstacle, and after the 2013 Baga massacre the military blocked journalists and relief agencies from accessing the town.  If the full details of a failed offensive ever came out, it is unlikely to be until the election is over and after international attention has moved on.  Whether or not it is true, Jonathan could plausibly point to victories in the buildup to the election.

The likely consequences of a military offensive mean we should tread very carefully when pressuring the Nigerian government to respond to the Baga massacre.   Jonathan’s neglect of the Boko Haram crisis is a complete failure of governance and it would be a massive step forward if the Nigerian political elite took the threat seriously.  Yet pressure on the Nigerian government centered on immediately “doing something” against Boko Haram will lead to rash and harmful policies.  The people in Northeastern Nigeria are already in constant fear of attacks from one brutal army; the first priority should be making sure it’s not two.

Why is Africa the Poor Continent when More Poor People Live in South Asia?

When you begin to talk about global poverty, attention immediately jumps to sub-Saharan Africa.  There is the familiar trope that tells a kid to eat his food because there are starving kids in Africa.  However, if someone was to randomly select an actual hungry child, it is more likely that the child would be South Asian than from sub-Saharan Africa.  Extreme poverty follows a similar pattern. Using the World Bank’s estimates and their definition of living on less than $1.25 per day as extreme poverty1, 507 million people live in extreme poverty in South Asia-of which 400 million come from India- as compared to 414 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.  These disparities beg the question why poverty is so linked with sub-Saharan Africa when a poor person is more likely to live in South Asia.

An obvious explanation is that perceptions of poverty result from the percentage of people living in poverty rather than the absolute number of people.  Although I think there is some truth to this explanation, it is not the whole picture.  While sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of its population living in extreme poverty,this is a quite recent phenomenon.  In 1990, South Asia excluding India had 62% of people living in extreme poverty while sub-Saharan Africa had 57%, and India was just 6% below.  In 1981 sub-Saharan Africa had 33% less of its population living in extreme poverty than China and was actually better than the average for the developing world.  I don’t think this link between sub-Saharan Africa and poverty has rapidly evolved but instead existed well before it became the region with the highest percentage of people living in poverty.  Really, I think both percentage of people living in poverty and the absolute number are not particularly influential on perceptions of global poverty.  Very few people actually know the statistics and most people have extremely limited contact with information on global poverty.

This idea of Africa as the home of poverty exists on two levels.  The first is in popular imagination, or the parent telling their kid that there are starving kids in Africa.  As it necessarily reduces a place’s people to their poverty, I don’t think any place should be seen as the home of poverty in this fashion, especially a place as vast and diverse as Africa.  The starving kids in Africa trope is similarly insulting as well as making little logical sense.  Still, without endorsing this viewpoint this post will explore why Africa is seen as such.  The second level is where efforts aimed at reducing this poverty, such as development and aid programs, choose to focus.  This level is closely related to and heavily influenced by the first.  The relation is very dangerous, as inaccuracies not only lessen the positive impact of efforts to reduce poverty but also exacerbate the harm they can cause.

I find one main reason for disparities between actual global poverty and perceptions of it justified, and this is the difference in the strength of states.  Aid and development organizations do not and should not focus their attentions on countries with strong states.  Rather than go to a country where the government can provide services, they go to countries where this is not happening.  The majority of poverty in South Asia comes in India, and although its government is far from perfect it has not experienced the coups and state failure that have often occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.  China, too, has a strong state.  International organizations have not focused as much on India and China despite the huge numbers of people in poverty largely because there were strong states that could address poverty.  Indeed, they have seen massive reductions in poverty over the last 30 years and state policies have been central to their success.  Given the large influence aid organizations have over popular perceptions of poverty, it is to be expected their focus on African countries would affect the public.  Even though commercials appealing for donations may have depicted an African country because it had a weak state and aid organizations could be effective there, a viewer would still come to associate Africa with poverty.

However, I think a main reason for the association between Africa and poverty is continuing colonial and racial attitudes.  The idea that Europeans needed to save Africans from their poverty and backwardness was a large motivation for colonizing Africa.  Modern development and aid organizations are in part descendants of this ideology and still often share many of these same attitudes.  Popular imagination of a poor Africa is similarly descended from colonial ideas.  Colonization of China was tiny in comparison to African countries, and while India was heavily colonized it was less focused on ideas of saving primitive peoples than African colonization.  That there is less of a historical tradition of thinking of Asians as helpless and poor is a large reason for modern associations of poverty with Africa rather than Asia.

Race was a huge part of the colonial ideology of saving poor Africans.  The blackness of Africans was frequently emphasized, and this continues to influence our modern perceptions of race.  While I do not have proof, I suspect that images of a starving black African child would resonate more strongly than a starving Indian child.  Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the country with the most NGOs per capita in the world, Haiti, has a larger percentage of its population that is black than any other country in the Americas.

The way we currently envision global poverty is wrong.  It is nearly as frequent for a person living in poverty to live in India as in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, and it is quite a bit more likely for them to live in South Asia as a whole.  Even in sub-Saharan Africa, however, people living in extreme poverty are in the minority.   When it comes to international organizations combatting poverty, it does make sense for efforts to focus more on sub-Saharan Africa than south Asia, but this shouldn’t be because they are operating under false assumptions.


1All definitions of poverty have faults, particularly when defined by income like this one is.  However, it is the easiest definition to use for comparing different regions.

Focus on the Conflict, Not the Minerals

*This post first appeared on STAND’s blog in November

When one asks what can be done to help stop the conflict in the DR Congo, the deadliest conflict since World War II, a common answer is to stop the purchase of conflict minerals. Advocacy groups such as The Enough Project and Global Witness have rallied around this potential solution, and it is not hard to see why. Despite its massive human costs, the DRC struggled for media attention for years. The DRC has massive reserves of gold, cobalt, tin, tungsten, and tantalum– a key component of consumer electronics- and both rebel groups and the Congolese army have profited from these resources.

Advocacy groups began publicizing the link between normal products such as laptops and cell phones to the devastating violence in the DRC and this narrative was able to bring far more attention than the conflict had previously received. This pressure culminated in the 2010 passage of Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which mandated that companies track their supply chains from the DRC and surrounding countries and report whether they contain minerals that profit armed groups. Advocacy groups continue to push for compliance with Dodd-Frank and further efforts to restrict conflict minerals. While the conflict minerals approach has brought attention and legislative action on the DRC, this would only constitute progress if it had lead to increased peace and stability in the DRC, and it has not. The logic underlying conflict minerals advocacy does not reflect the realities of the conflict, and stopping the purchase of conflict minerals from the DRC will be at best ineffective and at worst cause significant damage.

Tracking whether conflict minerals enter a company’s supply chain, the central premise of Dodd-Frank 1502, is extremely difficult. In the eastern DRC, where the conflict is concentrated, roads are extremely poor and it is therefore very difficult to visit mines for the tracking process. Smuggling is very common and it is easy to bribe civil servants who receive small salaries, making it difficult to know where minerals really came from. The implementation of Dodd-Frank 1502 in one stage also made it difficult to develop more effective processes. In September, the US Commerce Department confirmed that conflict minerals were nearly impossible to track. Companies therefore find it extremely difficult to know whether or not they are buying conflict minerals. Rather than trying to determine whether they are buying clean Congolese minerals or Congolese conflict minerals, the safest method for companies has been to not buy Congolese minerals altogether. For example, in April 2011, the month of the deadline for implementing Dodd-Frank 1502, sales of tin in North Kivu fell 90%. Mining is one of the largest industries in the DRC, and eight to ten million people rely on mining for a living. Dodd-Frank 1502 has forced as many as two million miners out of work as companies pulled out of an already extremely poor economy. It is important to note that miners forced out of work often have no savings or safety net to fall back on, and starvation and easily preventable diseases can become very real threats.

The massive blow to the Congolese economy could be justified as a necessary step towards ending the conflict, but this is not the case. Undoubtedly armed groups control some mines and profit from minerals, but minerals did not cause the conflict and stopping their purchase will not end it. Local conflicts over land, conflicts of identity and citizenship, and an extremely weak state make up the root causes of the conflict. Recently defeated M23, which was the largest rebel group in the DRC at the time, did not try to control mines and many leaders even left mining areas to join the group. According to Christoph Vogel, the only report to find that Dodd-Frank 1502 contributed to the defeat of M23 was commissioned by the Enough Project, one of the main advocates of the legislation. Conflict minerals are only one of the ways that rebel groups derive profits; they also operate taxation schemes, sell palm oil and cannabis, and are funded by outside patrons. In any case, without funds rebel groups would still have widespread access to weapons in a region that has seen conflict for decades.

The evidence since the implementation of Dodd-Frank 1502 suggests that conflict mineral efforts have not stemmed the violence. With reduced employment in the mining sector armed groups are one of the only ways to gain a living, and some recent recruits to rebel groups cite the loss of mining jobs as reasons for joining. Also, there is little evidence to suggest that a loss of mineral profits have caused any armed groups to disband. In fact, since the 2010 passage of Dodd-Frank 1502 fatalities from conflict have increased slightly and conflict has increased in mining areas. While this does not prove that the legislation caused the increased violence, it does show that efforts of conflict mineral advocates have not had the intended effects.

In a best case scenario of conflict minerals legislation, armed groups would lose some funding but still continue to fight. That perfect legislation has not been written, and instead there have been huge negative effects on the Congolese economy while doing little to stop the conflict. Opposition to conflict minerals advocacy does not mean that we should not hold companies responsible for their actions or that we should pay any less attention to the DRC. It only means that our priority is the well-being of the Congolese people, and conflict minerals advocacy has not helped it.

The Sachs-Prendergast School of Activism

*This post first appeared on The Widening Lens in September

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 andAlex 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.