ASSK and the Problem of Advocates’ Remorse

Criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi has increasingly mounted in recent weeks for her denial and tacit acceptance of mass killings and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya, with many even calling for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked. For me, some of the most wrenching criticism to watch has come from advocates that once idolized her. They have been forced to take down posters of her that have stood in their house for decades, or discovered that a prized photograph of them with a human rights hero had suddenly transformed into a ghastly image of them beaming next to an accomplice to crimes against humanity. Even more sadly, this is hardly the first time that actors human rights advocates have championed as the solution to mass atrocities have become perpetrators themselves. This pattern is far too frequent to be ignored, and if we want to move towards the more just world advocates do so genuinely want, we must take its implications seriously.

Like Myanmar, South Sudan presents a case where almost all are deeply disillusioned with the actors advocates once promoted. Few cases have demanded as much attention in mass atrocity prevention circles as South Sudan, and South Sudanese are currently facing mass killings and are on the brink of famine. Yet this time the conflict originates in a 2013 split in the leadership of the SPLM, the organization that American advocates championed for decades, ultimately playing a crucial role in pushing South Sudan to independence.

Such cases stretch quite a bit further than Myanmar and South Sudan. A clear case that comes to mind are the enormous atrocities carried out by Communist governments, with the responses of foreign leftists ranging from disillusionment to denial. More recently, in Syria, Western advocates have often backed opposition forces that have carried out torture and executions, used child soldiers, and maintained uncomfortably close relationships with extremist groups. Paul Kagame, so often praised for bringing the Rwandan genocide to an end and building development success, has masterfully used this political capital to carry out mass killings in the DRC and tighten authoritarianism within Rwanda. And in South Africa, the government officials that oversee massive self-enrichment and shootings of striking miners are often the same ones that heroically fought against apartheid a few decades ago. Indeed, when looking at countries facing violence and authoritarianism, it is quite a bit easier to find ex-heroes than heroes.

For some of these fallen heroes, the abuses were not fully clear until they had taken power. More frequently, however, advocates turned a blind eye to warning signs. The SPLA carried out mass killings throughout their war for independence, including resulting from conflicts between different factions of the independence movement. Similarly, the RPF conducted mass killings prior to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi has long held a blind spot towards the abuses of the Rohingya.

In many respects it is easy to understand why this is such an common trap for advocates to fall into. When Omar al-Bashir, Bashar al-Assad, or Burma’s military government are the points of comparison, seemingly minor warning signs seem a lot less severe. And in the face of massive injustices, seeing brave activists sincerely and eloquently denounce injustice is compelling.

Yet time and time again, these same heroes later turn out to be disappointments. If I could draw one conclusion from this pattern it would be this: advocates place far more faith in agency than they do structure, only to be disillusioned when structure has its say. In the face of Myanmar’s military government, the story became Aung San Suu Kyi’s moral righteousness and bravery rather than the political force she represented. Only now, after she has overseen horrific abuses of the Rohingya, do we see that she was an imperfect vessel of democratic progress within a system of institutionally entrenched authoritarianism and exclusion.

In an extremely thoughtful piece, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub write that “Myanmar’s transition to democracy was ascribed to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s heroism. Now its persecution of Rohingya is ascribed to her cowardice. Maybe she was always more a symptom of Myanmar’s best and worst than she was their cause.” Surely the same holds true of the SPLM and Paul Kagame.

As Fisher and Taub argue, it is far easier to see heroes and villains than systems. But this world of heroes and villains begs the questions of why authoritarian countries so often find those who are supposed to be liberators from authoritarianism turn out to be authoritarians themselves, and why war-torn countries so regularly get new leaders just as violent as the old ones, and why previously persecuted minorities, once having gained power, end up persecuting others. Could it be that countries like Myanmar and South Sudan have populations unusually devoid of moral sentiments? And that they have irregularly high concentrations of malicious and villainous people?

Far more likely is that people in these countries, just as we are, are largely products of their environments. While some agency remains, it is nearly impossible to come from a place where violence, abuses of power, and exclusion are norms and emerged without having internalized some of these norms. Even if one were to hold the purest of intentions and consciences, creating change requires gaining power, including all the morally ambiguous trade-offs and hard to swallow compromises that come with it. When the ceiling for our heroes is slowly muddling through towards a better society, overseeing unsavory practices in the process, it is a far shorter fall to a floor of ghastly atrocities.

So when the next generation of heroes comes along, whether that be Lucha’s efforts to finally bring accountability to the DRC or Mohamed Mohamed’s charming story and work to rebuild Somalia, or Raila Odinga’s successful attempt to re-do Kenya’s presidential election due to irregularities, we should be much more cautious. It may very well be that these are heroic individuals using the agency they do have to move towards justice, but that is by no means incompatible with the idea that they could be subject to many of the flaws of their environments and be forced into morally dubious decisions. Or they may simply let us down, and we should remember not to let our hope for change in the face of horrors blind us to the failures of our heroes. But above all we should remember that it isn’t really about them, our selected band of heroes. Young activists that risk death for their ideals are far more compelling than abstract ideas of the rule of law, competent bureaucracies, and the just distribution of political representation, but our heroes are far more likely to let us down than the ideals they represent. And we would be well-served keeping our focus on the slow, messy, and essential work to transition to more just societies rather than chaining ourselves to a flawed group of individuals highly constrained by the injustice we seek to fight.



I recently graduated from Swarthmore and I’m heading off to Benin to teach English as a Peace Corps Volunteer for the next two years. I’ve already slowed a bit on blogging in the last year, and it will likely be even less frequent the next two years. If you need to contact me, email me at

On a related note, while I’ve been publishing less on this blog recently, here are some of the things I’ve published elsewhere:

“Lucha Continua: The Youth Movement Striking Fear into Congo’s Elite”:

“Atrocity Prevention in the American Political Landscape”:

A few things on Trump’s refugee and visa ban and his proposed budget: and

Two things on fossil fuel divestment at Swarthmore: and

On pre-professionalism and career choices:

Looking for Book Recommendations

At the beginning of June I’m leaving for Benin for the next two years. I will have a lot of time to read, so I’d love book recommendations. I generally read non-fiction but am open to other stuff. Mostly I just want books you think are really good, but I’m also including a list of things I want to learn more about:
–climate change and environmental issues
–welfare states and social protection, especially in poor countries
–international law
–social theory
–agriculture, especially in poor countries
–social movements and organizing
–finance (as in understanding it economically and politically)
–gender and women’s rights, especially in developing countries
–public health
–India and other parts of South Asia

Why I Don’t Want the Revolution

I used to be a fan of anti-capitalist theories. By anti-capitalist I don’t mean something like the Scandinavian model, but that I read and liked things advocating radically different political and economic models. I sympathized with the critics that saw getting rid of key facets of the global order—things like markets, globalization, liberalism, modern multilateral institutions— as pressing priorities. But I ran into the problem that radical theories seriously struggle to explain. To put it simply, if the dominant political and economic system of recent times is bad, how is it that the world has been getting way, way better? I just couldn’t come up with an answer. And because of the story told in the charts below, I came back from the far left.

our world in dataAs the charts above highlight, the world has been getting far better in a wide range of indicators. In the last 200 years humanity has experienced a completely unprecedented improvement in our quality of life, with the last few decades producing particularly rapid success. For me, the most important and the most dramatic has been the rapid decline in global poverty. In 1990, 35% of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 2013, that number was 11%. Even if you take out China’s amazing success, there has been a fall from 26% to 12%. This is incredible! This is well over 1 BILLION people in 23 years. 23 years! Think about it: the number of 5-year-old bodies that didn’t need to be buried, the families that could afford to send their daughters to school, the sense of dignity hundreds of millions of parents gained from giving their children a better life. If we want a political ideology that leads to a more just world, what is arguably the most rapid and important increase in human welfare in history cannot be an afterthought. This has to be absolutely central to our understanding of politics, especially when this period has also seen large increases in democratization, gender equality, and a decline in conflict.

These massive improvements came under the liberal world order, almost entirely in governments that adhered to some sort of market system. Communist countries never approached this kind of economic success; what they produced more regularly were huge atrocities that leftists often fail to take seriously. China’s mindboggling success, cutting extreme poverty by 86% in 32 years, came after it had shifted towards a more market-based economy.

I don’t want my argument to be misconstrued as an argument for free market neoliberalism. Adherents to the Washington Consensus saw relatively few development gains. Instead, the biggest recent development successes, cases like South Korea, China, and Taiwan, all used heterodox policy combinations, just as European countries did as they developed. Further, strong welfare states have been critical to the reduction of poverty.  If you ask me, Scandinavia is great. Still, this is a far cry from revolution. The massive improvements in global welfare in recent decades have often taken reformist paths, cooperating with the international order and allowing private enterprise at least some latitude. In contrast, models from the far left have an extremely patchy record of success.

I also don’t want this to be misconstrued as an argument that everything is rosy. Getting above the threshold for extreme poverty often means someone is still really, really poor. The country of one’s birth is unbelievably influential in one’s quality of life. In what I think is the strongest counterargument to my point, even if the current system has produced massive improvements in many key indicators, it has also set us on the course for climate disaster. It has seen the rise of authoritarian nationalism, too. Maybe it is the case that our current system isn’t sustainable and to deal with these challenges we need something different, and I think far left theories can offer some insight into these questions.

However, I would say that we should keep building on and improving what has a proven record of moving us towards the just world we want: liberal democracies, multilateral institutions, and market economies with strong welfare states. We should try to strengthen the welfare state and develop it in countries lacking one, make the international system more democratic, and reduce the enormous global inequality we still face. We will have to find changes to overcome climate change and authoritarian nationalism or much of the progress we’ve made will be reversed. But if you gave me the choice between building on tools that have made possible the most successful period in human history or throwing it out for ideologies with little real-world success to point to, it’s not a hard choice.

The Catastrophe

This was a catastrophe. It’s one I didn’t see coming. I joked when he announced his candidacy, even as he gained momentum I said he couldn’t win the nomination, and after that I predicted a landslide. I wasn’t totally complacent. I recognized the race was tightening, I canvassed (though not as much as I should have), I posted semi-apocalyptic Facebook statuses imploring people to vote. I took the damage he could cause seriously, but I still didn’t quite believe he could win. I thought my knowledge of political science was worth more than it was. I was out of touch. I thought that for all America’s problems, it couldn’t be this bad.

I’m not going to be feeling the brunt of this catastrophe. I’m not in one the groups that will be hardest hit by Trump’s actions. I’ll also be out of the country for much of his first term, and there is a significant part of me that regrets I won’t be here to fight back.

The damage will be huge. Any last chance we had to get on top of climate change has been obliterated. Obamacare will almost certainly be repealed; benefits for the poor will be eviscerated. Mass deportations will be one of his first priorities. The police will become more militarized and aggressive, and we can expect incarceration to increase significantly. He will name Supreme Court justices that roll back progress. The legitimacy the office of the presidency offers will be extended to Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. And this is just what we know he will do. To name just a few of the things it seems entirely possible he will do, he might cause a global economic crisis, a relatively tame provocation could cause him to start a war, and it is difficult to think of a president you would trust less with nuclear weapons. He has already refused to accept electoral defeat, and if he loses in four years he will have the power of the federal government under him.

So yes, Tuesday night was a catastrophe, and now there is nothing we can do except fight it with the seriousness it deserves. This seriousness is think every day about what you are doing to fight back seriousness. This is maintaining the same urgency we feel now once the Facebook posts have dried up seriousness, watch less TV so you can read up on organizing seriousness, don’t spend excess money on Fridays so that you can donate to the ACLU seriousness. It’s keep an eagle eye on the government for the next four years seriousness. It’s get to know some Trump supporters seriousness.

Fighting this with the seriousness it deserves requires not letting our hearts outweigh our heads. We have to analyze this carefully and humbly, and accept painful conclusions. We have to figure out what went wrong and how we can respond most effectively. This won’t be done overnight, so I’m hesitant to offer prescriptions. I am confident that we should take anti-establishment thinking seriously, and we should take economic anxiety seriously. But it would be a fatal mistake to overlook race. He gained political prominence claiming President Obama wasn’t a citizen, not by talking about trade; he didn’t launch his campaign promising to “drain the swamp” but instead by saying Mexico was sending rapists. The rise of the far right in Germany and Sweden should make clear that a more egalitarian economy won’t cure us of racism. Accepting the role of racism also doesn’t mean writing off Trump voters. We should know better than to think that there is a dichotomy between racists and non-racists, and the rapid decline of homophobia should remind us that individuals can and do turn away from bigotry. Working towards these changes will be both exceptionally challenging and exceptionally necessary.

Fighting this also doesn’t mean turning away from our liberal democratic ideals, even though the Republicans have consistently violated democratic norms and Trump took this even further. Yes, Clinton won the popular vote and yes, there was significant voter suppression, but we can’t change the result of this election. That doesn’t mean the winner is right. American democratic winners have supported slavery, they have supported turning away refugees from Nazi Germany, and they supported the criminalization of homosexuality. Winning elections doesn’t grant you a monopoly on truth and legitimacy. If Trump tries to do the unconstitutional things he has promised we will jump on it. If he uses democratic means to achieve unjust ends he may well succeed, but we don’t lose our rights to pressure our representatives and to protest in between elections. When it does come to elections in 2018 and 2020, we must win.

To do this well we will have to have a big tent. Third party voters must be welcome, disaffected Republicans must be welcome, and yes, we must welcome even Trump supporters that turn away from him. One of the most hopeful moments I’ve had in recent days was reading a piece by the Irish writer of a blog about my favorite English soccer team. That’s how big a tent we need.

This, I hope, is the most dangerous moment in our lives. I think it will take decades to come back from this catastrophe, but we have no choice but to try. Students around the world protest dictatorships when they know they may be killed for it. When a bomb falls in Aleppo people run to the rubble so that they can climb in to save whoever is left. If they’re still fighting, so can we.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the aftermath of World War II in the last few days. The world had been through the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and two world wars that together killed close to 100 million people. Much of the world remained colonized. And although massive problems remain unsolved, the world went on to become more peaceful and prosperous than it has ever been, lifting billions of people out of poverty. So the first lesson of World War II is that the world has come back from worse. But the second lesson is that we have to do whatever we can to make sure it doesn’t get to that point. 78 years ago today my grandfather was arrested by the Nazis. Even on the way to Buchenwald, he did not foresee how bad things could get. The vast likelihood is that President Trump won’t cause anything so disastrous, but there is absolutely no way we can wait to find out.

Our Use of Conflict Death Tolls Compares Apples and Oranges

Simply put, estimates of conflict death tolls are really important. They help determine which conflicts gather media attention, where aid and diplomatic attention is focused, and shape historical memory. Therefore, it is a very significant problem that our use of death tolls is totally inconsistent.

Efforts to quantify deaths will always be extremely difficult in quickly evolving environments where there is a breakdown of record-keeping (if there ever was any), there is almost never a free press, and safety concerns prevent access to vast regions. Yet a completely avoidable problem is that “death toll” can mean very different things, and there is almost no effort to differentiate them.

Consider these two sentences from BBC reports:

June 23, 2016, “Nigeria Boko Haram: Scores of refugees starved to death – MSF”:

“The Islamist group’s seven-year rebellion has left 20,000 people dead and more than two million displaced.”

December 15, 2014, “South Sudan conflict: What chance of peace?”:

“At least 50,000 killed”

From these two reports, you would think South Sudan’s conflict was quite a bit deadlier than Nigeria’s, yet the reality is that we do not know. To some extent that is because there are large methodological questions about those numbers, but a bigger reason is that they are measuring different things. If you trace back those two figures, you discover that the South Sudan figure measures excess deaths, while the Boko Haram figure only measures violent deaths (The exact source of the 20,000 figure is somewhat unclear. Still, there is no evidence of any study ever measuring excess deaths in Nigeria; for example, no tweet has ever contained all of the words “Boko Haram excess deaths”).

Excess deaths refer to comparisons of mortality rates during the conflict with a baseline mortality rate, with the final figure supposed to represent the number of people that died that would not have had the conflict not occurred. This includes people that die from malnutrition because they are forced to flee their homes, illnesses that otherwise would have received medical care, or illnesses resulting from decreased access to clean water, none of which are picked up in violent death tolls.

The articles cited above make no effort to distinguish between violent and excess death tolls, but excess death figures are often multiple times larger than the violent death toll. Indeed, the majority of conflict deaths in South Sudan are not violent. These death toll figures get attached to conflicts as a representation of their scale, but by failing to distinguish between excess and violent deaths, the figures are extremely misleading. As bad as South Sudan is, Boko Haram’s insurgency easily could have led to more deaths than South Sudan’s conflict. While the lack of a study of excess deaths in Nigeria means we are unable to know, when we lump together excess and violent death tolls it then takes significant effort just to find out that we don’t know.

I spent some time going through the death toll figures most commonly referred to for various conflicts and attempting to trace them back to their sources. Many rely on questionable methodologies, but below I will clarify what the methodology is actually trying to measure.

Central African Republic, 5,000: This counts only violent deaths.

Darfur, 300,000: This counts excess deaths.

DR Congo, 5.4 million: Originating from a 2008 International Rescue Committee report, the figure counts excess deaths. Under 10% of deaths were violent.

Iraq: Likely due to U.S. involvement, the death toll of the Iraq War has been much more studied than many other conflicts, and there is no single most prominent figure. One of the most common is the Iraq Body Count’s 2013 figure of 112,017-122,438 violent civilian deaths. The Lancet found 654,965 excess deaths in 2006. However, it believed over 600,000 of those deaths to be violent.

Syria: Like Iraq, there are multiple figures used for Syria. The UN essentially stopped counting in 2013 with the toll at 191,369, only counting violent deaths. It has since offered estimates up to 400,000 but they are not official numbers. The Syrian Observatory on Human Rights has presented 271,138 documented violent deaths, with an estimate of 370,000 total violent deaths. Another prominent figure is the Syria Centre for Policy Research’s 2016 estimate of 470,000 excess deaths.

Yemen, 6,200: This figure comes from the UN and almost certainly only counts violent deaths.

There are a number of problems with conflict death tolls like these. Due to the extreme difficulty of obtaining information, they will always be highly unreliable. Numbers also tend to stick to conflicts even when they are years out of date, and there also is not enough emphasis on distinguishing between combatant and civilian deaths. Given these concerns, I think we should generally be more skeptical of the use of death tolls.

There also should be continued exploration of the merits of violent and excess death tolls. Excess death tolls may give a more complete reflection of the impact of conflicts. Violent death figures also tend to rely on documentations on violent deaths, leading to larger underestimates in contexts where information is particularly inaccessible. However, the methodological difficulties of calculating excess death tolls mean the numbers are arguably more unreliable. In some cases the difference between excess and violent death tolls will be relatively small, as is the case in Iraq and Syria. In others, particularly in poorer countries, it will be enormous. The failure to distinguish between excess and violent death tolls will be particularly influential in these cases. Cases like Nigeria are punished simply because no one has conducted an excess death study. That death toll would be likely be quite a bit higher, but right now it takes significant effort just to determine that the current figure of 20,000 counts only violent deaths.

There are extensive discussions of these issues in the scientific community, but outside of it there is almost no effort to even distinguish between excess and violent death toll figures. It took me quite a few hours just to figure out whether the numbers used in this blog were excess or violent death counts. To give another example, the Washington Post published an article in March specifically focused on comparing different estimates of Syria’s death toll but it fails to mention that some figures count violent deaths while others count excess deaths.

The failure to distinguish between excess and violent deaths is both avoidable and significant. If you only look at violent deaths, the DR Congo’s death toll is still unthinkably tragic, but it is under 540,000. That is significantly more than Syria but in the same ballpark, while the excess death figure rivals the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Of course, attention on conflicts is not directly proportionate to death tolls or even humanitarian concerns more generally, but death tolls still do play an influential role. To the extent that it does play a role, we should actually know what the numbers we are using mean.

Improving the Advocacy Agenda

I recently read “Explaining the Advocacy Agenda,” a 2014 article by Charlie Carpenter, Sirin Duygulu, Alexander Montgomery, and Anna Rapp. The article studies the advocacy network surrounding human security issues, looking for insights into why certain issues are adopted by advocates. To frame the article, the authors write, “Organizations in such networks appear to be highly selective in the issues they choose to champion and the populations whose grievances they choose to frame as human security problems. For example, landmines and cluster munitions have been the subject of widespread campaigns, but explosive weapons and depleted uranium have attracted less opprobrium. Internal wars are an important concern for conflict-prevention analysts, but gangs and urban violence are on the margins of the global security agenda. While HIV/AIDS is championed as a health issue, other communicable diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhea, despite the number of lives they claim, get limited attention.”

They study issue selection through several methods, including surveys, hyperlink analysis, and- for me, most interestingly- focus groups. The authors divide reasons for issue adoption into five categories: issue attributes, entrepreneur attributes, adopter attributes, broader political context, and intranetwork relations.  Ultimately, they found that entrepreneur attributes and adopter attributes were not as influential as the others, and also conclude that advocacy networks both respond to structure and exercise agency.

While not a major focus of the paper, I found some of the discussion on issue attributes particularly interesting. The authors say that the appeals of issues include particular effects on individuals, including Keck and Sikkink’s idea of deprivation of basic rights and physical harm as being especially salient. However, the authors also write that “advocates emphasized the problem’s inherent measurability” and its “quantifiable evidence.” I think it’s pretty clear that quantitative evidence can provide powerful, macro-level support for advocacy proposals. Duncan Green has written about “killer facts,” and though he leaves this point more implicit, these are almost all quantitative. Yet this focus on quantitative evidence closes off a number of issues that don’t lend themselves to measurability. To give one example, although issues of dignity and shame are central to the experience of poverty, they are rarely the focus of advocacy efforts. I would guess a major cause of this oversight is that they are very difficult to measure.

The authors also note that advocates’ views on issue selection differed in discussions in the abstract and discussions on specifically proposed issues. When discussing specific hypothetical issues their organizations could adopt, advocates were more likely to bring up relationships with other organizations. The authors find that “meritorious issues may be eliminated if they conflict with partners’ preferences.” The result is that advocacy is often the result of inertia, following on the precedents set by advocacy organizations largely because that is what advocacy organizations are understood to do, whether or not they are covering the issues where they could have the most significant impact. This importance of inertia certainly matches my experience in the atrocity prevention sphere.

Still, while intranetwork relations can serve to stifle innovation in issue selection, it also provides opportunities. The authors write that “intranetwork relations can facilitate diffusion of an issue once it is adopted by an organization central to that network: practitioners reported that issues quickly proliferate within the network most closely associated with the organization that legitimized it.” Thus, there is a large responsibility on BINGOs (Big International NGOs), and I would also think UN agencies, to help adapt the advocacy agenda.

One last danger with the importance of intranetwork relations is the predominance of NGOs in issue selection. While the reaction of other NGOs to the adoption of a new issue may be a primary consideration, the views of people affected by the issue are certainly less prevalent. Figuring out how to more effectively incorporate these voices into issue selection is an enduring, pressing, and too frequently ignored challenge.