The Advocacy Tax
Did you miss this excellent piece of journalism, exposing the oversimplified story of how conflict minerals are being stopped by international countermeasures such as the Dodd-Frank law (also see this INGO’s response)? My recent work touches upon the issue. A client’s project needs to be reshaped because its theory of change is based on a causal link between gold mining activities and conflict in DRC, a link that has grown questionable.
Underneath IRIN’s story of minerals, violent exploitation and INGO self-interest is a story to which we humanitarians might pay careful attention because it is a story of agility and adaptation. It is also a story of how institutions perpetuate themselves, and how this self-interest (unfortunately) helps militias to be better militias, but does not help advocacy teams to be better advocates.
The humanitarian sector has invested in a plethora of largely similar advocacy guidelines. (In itself, a small example of how self-interest – my wanting to feel that I am contributing to the good – produces extraordinary levels of duplication and churn). Advocacy forms a core part of our oft forgotten and misunderstood protection work. We know how to develop strategic goals, core problems, SMART targets, stakeholder analysis, etc., etc., and then implement a plan of action. Good advocacy can result in quite some achievement, with the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act’s Section 1502 a prominent example.
But what happens when you tax people for turning left? They turn in another direction. The aid industry’s advocacy sector functions much like a tax on ‘bad’ behavior. It imposes a cost. Noise, diplomatic pressure, public finger-pointing – if done well these can create a disincentive. In Congo, did it make the bad guys go away? I’ll leave that question for the Congo experts. But the ‘tax’ on conflict gold does seem to have shifted militari-economic exploitation to other minerals/resources and/or regions (either that or it generated more sophisticated bribery and disguise).
The first mistake here is seeing gold mining as a monolithic cause or driver of the conflict, as opposed to an interchangeable one, easily replaced. In fact, it is difficult to think of it as a driver at all – it operates more as a method of doing business for those with a gun. The second mistake is underestimating the bad guys and overestimating our importance. These are battle-hardened predators. It’s not as if they lack talent when it comes to circumventing the law.
Partly, this reflects their skill. Partly, this reflects our Achilles heel. The simplified narrative on which our advocacy industry is based (end exploitation of blood gold/diamonds = end massacres and conflict) is a donation-spinner, and maintains its narrative power long after it has lost its accuracy. We thus establish inadequate responses because we have not yet learned (not yet been taxed so as) to produce narratives that reflect the actual complexity.
Moreover, humanitarian advocacy structures rarely self-redeploy, as do the structures of exploitation and violence. The latter prove more agile and adaptive than us because they are products of the environment in which they act. We are not. We, as is has been so often discussed of late, are products of the environment in which we ‘sell’ our actions.
Such a political economy of aid work or advocacy explains much about the shape of our sector. When I look in the mirror, though, I see the other shaper. Not a political economy but a psychological and spiritual one. I see in the mirror my personal investment, my addiction to the humanitarian identity, my individual drip feed of self-esteem. Advocacy campaigns run on passion, on a genuine immersion in the cause, in the righteousness of hurling even one small stone at the forces of unconscionable brutality. How do you tax that? You don’t. Perhaps we should consider a healthy dose of blood-spilling greed?