That the contest for content about Africa is controversial is nothing new. But in the world of popular media aided by conflict activists, such content usually offers up little more than incomplete portrayals about the realities of life on a vast continent of close to a billion people.
Sadly, such complexities seem to elude John Prendergast of the Enough Project, who (ironically with George Clooney in tow) used Hollywood movies as a mechanism to anchor his rather lightweight discussion about the “good news” in Africa.
Looking at the posters announcing Prendergast’s program, one might imagine that he was offering a self-critique of his own celebrity within the activist world. In one poster, Prendergast is pictured as a paternal Jesus figure next to two anonymous African kids. (Suffer the little children to come unto me, indeed.) Hubris or not, romantic images such as these raise real questions as to how far “outsiders” can go to extend help to the needy—especially in situations of dire political conflict.
Unfortunately, despite its “charm,” most conflict activism in the West has painfully little to show by way of successes. As a long-standing journalist who has made a career covering conflict in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa, my sense is that such activism fails in part because those who direct it know very little about the politics, players and appropriate policy mechanisms that, if undertaken, could create real political space within this region of the world.
Having observed student life at Stanford this fall, my sense is also that such activism can lull well-meaning advocates into a false sense of “doing something purposeful”—whether they are, in fact, or not. The result is a dangerous “placebo effect” that allows activists the luxury of not taking full responsibility for the myriad political consequences of their actions.
Last Thursday, when Prendergast—known as JP to his friends—gave the S.T. Lee Lecture on the “Good News from Africa,” he expressed a strong conviction that activists should not be held responsible for the successes or failures of policies for which they advocate. It was a shocking pronouncement from a man who has spent his professional life engaged in efforts to make the world a better place. It’s almost like saying, “We wrote the play, the actors suck and the audience is bored to tears, but heck, who cares! Our hearts are in the right place.” And sadly for the continent of my birth, all evidence seems to suggest that it’s the place to go to study the spectacular failures of a great many policies—a tragic comedy.
Activists like Prendergast should be held more accountable for the consequences of their policies, but the fact that they aren’t speaks volumes about the bereft state of political discourse on Africa that currently exists within the United States. Given Prendergast’s access to the levers of power in this country—something that allows him to hold policymaking hostage—his brand of conflict activism, as the Glenn Beck of interventions, overtakes other more informed views, and ultimately marginalizes those who could serve as important allies. Worse, such activism gives a false impression that serious things are being done about serious problems.
More than anything, it seems as if the idea of “Africa as crisis” attracts conflict activism, but without the benefit of the serious political scholarship that one finds about places like the Middle East, for example (I have seen 21-year-olds shipped to Uganda to write policy recommendations for groups like the Enough Project—policy recommendations that were then delivered to important lawmakers in D.C.)
By way of example, one can look to the latest tactic deployed by Prendergast and his minions at the Enough Project—an effort to target two important U.S. constituencies: congressmen and consumers. By picketing lawmakers in Washington and launching product campaigns to purchase “rape free” laptops, groups like the Enough Project give us a prime example of how misguided and ill-informed these groups can be. The intended aim of Enough’s campaign is to cut off the financial economies that some militias in eastern Congo use to continue their campaigns of pillage, rape and plunder. But given the fact that many of these rebel and militia groups only obtain a fraction of their revenue from minerals, if the mineral trade were to somehow stop, these groups would readily find other sources to finance their activities (from the taxation of local land and domestic agricultural produce to the illicit weapons trade).
“Conflict mineral” campaigns like Enough’s tend to overstate their impact and oversimplify the complex political and security alliances that structure conflict in places like eastern Congo. If Africa has friends like these, does she need enemies? Enough said!