Causal Stories and When Not to Use Advocacy Strategies

I recently read Activists beyond Borders by Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, and although the whole book is great, I found one argument to be particularly important.  They write that “in order to campaign on an issue it must be converted into a ‘causal story’ that establishes who bears responsibility or guilt.  But the causal chain needs to be sufficiently short and clear to make the case convincing.”  While this dilemma is often overlooked, I think it is perhaps the key factor in advocacy campaign success, and it should be a central determinant in the choice of tactics.

You can find effective causal stories in –as far as I can think of- every successful advocacy campaign.  In the buildup to the arms trade treaty, advocates brought attention to how arms dealers would sell to human rights abusers that would then use the weapons to harm civilians.  In the case of King Leopold’s Congo, the Congo Reform Association focused on Leopold’s ownership of the Congo and the massive atrocities he orchestrated.  Both these cases provided compelling harm to individuals, actors to target, and solutions that were not excessively difficult to envision.

Yet in both these cases it is also the case that for the problems the advocates sought to fix, the causal chain really was quite short in reality, not just in the stories the advocates presented.  Yet many problems have roots so complex that they are nearly impossible to put in a simple causal story.  One such case is racism in the US.  While it would be unbelievably ambitious for a campaign to take on all of American racism- all movements, the Civil Rights Movement included, have incremental targets on the way to a larger goal-, even for many targets advocacy strategies will fall short.  An effective causal story could be crafted around voter ID laws, and the focus on police brutality has attempted to utilize a causal story.  Yet although police officers killing unarmed people provide a clear problem and target, it is extremely difficult to extend this to an effective solution.  The easiest solution would be target “bad cops,” but this totally misunderstands discriminatory policing.  Extending the story to lead to body cameras and other policies that could partially mitigate the impact of discriminatory policing have been effective, but the primary cause, implicit bias, is simply impossible to put into a causal story and advocacy campaign.  The target would be just about everyone, and what solution could the campaign possibly propose?  Beyond policing, many crucial issues of institutional racism, from housing policies to political representation, do not lend themselves to causal stories, even when aiming for incremental progress.

This drives at what I find such a necessary discussion to have alongside causal stories, which is what to do when they cannot work.  An effective advocacy campaign will have an easily understandable causal story that leads smoothly to a proposed solution.  Yet there are so many important problems that do not have a simple chain of responsibility that cause them.  The danger is that a campaign will be so attached to advocacy strategies that they will create an effective causal story, but then advocate a solution that fits into their causal story but does not actually address the problem they sought to fix.  This is what I think happened in conflict mineral campaigning.  They condensed a massively complex conflict into a story of Western consumers buying minerals that cause violence in Congo, and that story led to Dodd-Frank 1502.  Yet that solution addressed their causal story, not the reality of the conflict, and as a result they caused further harm to the Congo.

Advocacy strategies have great potential and there are countless problems that need to be addressed.  But advocacy strategies are a tactic, not the only route to create social change.  When the problem cannot be converted into a simple causal story that leads to an effective solution, then advocacy strategies should not be used.  Other routes, such as legal processes, academics and policymakers working for institutional reforms, or broader efforts to change hearts and minds rather than driving directly at a solution, should be used instead.  Contorting problems into simple but inaccurate causal stories will only cause more harm.

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