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.

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