The rumble over the roles of advocacy and aid in responding to Darfur continues. The blogosphere provides a great platform for this debate, which engages with some of the core dilemmas at the heart of human rights work. The discussion has brought together a series of interconnected, but very distinct, communities that care about war zones, but often have a tendency to talk past each other.
Within their own communities, activists, academics, and aid workers are all fairly mindful of the vexing ethical dilemmas involved in their work. If you talk with almost anyone in this line of work over a beer, you will get a frank acknowledgement of some of the hard trade-offs on issues such as the use of force, maintaining access for relief workers, or accountability versus justice. Equally true, when the debate is cast into the public sphere, lots of folks retreat to an unhelpful moral high ground rich with absolutes. Questioning the effectiveness of humanitarian aid is off limits. Academics, steeped in specialized discourse, maintain that only they can possibly grasp the complexities of any given conflict zone. Activists take umbrage at anyone who questions the utility of pointing out that a burning building is indeed on fire.
All sides have something to contribute, and all should recognize their own distinct limitations. Aid agencies have the greatest field presence, and often the best knowledge of what is happening on the ground any given day. But humanitarian organizations will almost always favor solutions that allow them to continue providing aid and frown on those that might disrupt their access. Thus, humanitarian organizations will often be reluctant to support humanitarian interventions, or things like no-fly zones, because even if they might end a war sooner, they will invariably cause things to become even more disruptive in the short run. And as long as we keep these things in mind, that’s okay.
Academics have peerless insights into very specialized subjects related to aid work and conflict analysis. We all would benefit from more study of the politics, economy, and anthropology of the conflicts we’re working on. But the ivory tower can also be a bit, well, academic, and it can be a challenge to extract practical recommendations from the academy. Academics have a tendency to explain why every policy will end in disaster without proposing an alternative.
As for advocacy organizations, there needs to be much better work done to make sure that policy recommendations and advocacy actions actually match up in a meaningful way. We need to avoid the temptations to dumb down policy prescriptions in the search for a snappy catchphrase. But when grounded in sound field analysis and targeted at the right levers, activism can make a huge difference in the priority different conflicts are given by politicians and policymakers. Also, activists should not apologize for trying to establish a broader international norm that civilians should not be massacred. That is a good thing for humanity.
Lest anyone accuse me of Rodney King-ism, this isn’t a call for us to ‘just get along.’ The more we subject ourselves to these tough questions, and the more we mix it up, the better off we will be.
John Norris contributed to this post