Reclaiming activism – a response to Alex de Waal

Published: 18th June 2013 by Claire Hickson. Tagged in: , ,

Alex de Waal recently published an article condemning the hijacking of activism by “designer activists” who, as he sees it, position themselves as “protagonist saviours”, defining and pursuing solutions to the problems of the world without sufficient reference to the views of those affected. Such activists, as he described them, focus too much on the use of US power, celebrity and insider lobbying to push their simplistic solutions.

He goes on to set out three principles that, if pursued, could allow us to reclaim activism and return it to its true meaning: act in solidarity and support affected people (i.e. don’t impose solutions on them); be honest to the facts, open to inquiry into the facts and prepared to change your mind if the facts change; and be ready to challenge the biggest powers and its allies.

Alex’s case is argued with passion and conviction and I agree with a lot of it – particularly the point about working with those affected and making every effort to reflect their views and needs. What is currently important to high-profile campaigners, celebrities or celebrity academics is often only a small part of the much bigger picture. When I worked on peace and security for the Commission for Africa in 2005, for example, we were under considerable pressure from groups in western capitals who argued that ending conflict in Africa was all about troops and post-conflict reconstruction. Both are important and were picked up by the report, but the level of focus on these areas by campaigners in Europe and the US was not matched by the priorities of those we consulted in Africa or the complexities on the ground. We were therefore right to resist and focus on a broader set of issues.

That said, the risk of saying that one form of activism is better than another is that you can lose sight of what you are trying to achieve and the best way of achieving it.

While insider lobbying has its faults, standing on the outside and shouting isn’t always the right thing to do either. Campaigns can become stuck in attack mode not necessarily because decision makers’ interests and values are always opposed to their own but because some people enjoy being anti-authority in the same way that others enjoy jumping into a helicopter with George Clooney. Outsider tactics are equally prone to simplistic solutions and assumptions that don’t always stand up well to scrutiny.

The insider tactics by “designer activists” are often objectionable to others because they exclude other voices from the room but outsider tactics don’t promise equal access. Mass mobilisation of the public to the level needed to have an impact requires resources that many causes simply don’t have. You only have to look at the cancer research sector to see the brutal market that operates in public campaigning.

There is nothing about a more confrontational campaign that automatically protects it from taking a partial view on the needs of beneficiaries or the solutions to their problems.

Finally, if you are fighting for change to address genuine injustice then surely you are morally obliged to take the course most likely to have impact.

At no point does Alex suggest that it is more honourable to chain yourself to the railings than meet the president/prime minister/minister if they are ready to meet you but my point is that his principles apply equally to all campaigns and as much to those who see themselves as using the outside as the inside track. They should act in solidarity and support affected people. They should be honest to the facts, open to inquiry into the facts and prepared to change their mind if the facts change. And they should be ready to work with authorities and their allies – as well as challenge them.