13 Dec 11

Accountability in advocacy: What we can take from the ‘Unwatchable’ debate

By Sharukh Mirza

The development and humanitarian blogosphere is abuzz with discussions about a recent advocacy film that aims to raise awareness about the use of conflict minerals in mobile phones. The film, ‘Unwatchable’, has drawn forth a barrage of criticism from a number of bloggers including Wronging Rights, Shotgun Shack and A View from the Cave. However, Jonathan Glennie at Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog and George Grant at the Commentator have spoken up in support of the film, which they see as a provocative but justifiable advocacy strategy.

The campaign behind Unwatchable will not be unfamiliar to those acquainted with the DRC: the production of mobile phones requires tin, tantalum and tungsten, supplies of which exist in eastern Congo. The lucrative mining trade has drawn the attention of armed gangs, who are often behind acts of extreme violence against civilians. The role minerals play in the violence afflicting the DRC has been the driving agenda in several high profile organisations, including the Enough Project and Global Witness. The film itself depicts the true story of a woman who was brutally raped and her family murdered, but changes the premises to a white family in a prosperous Western setting, presumably to make the point that we would not be so apathetic to atrocities closer to home. It then asks viewers to sign a petition calling on the EU to ensure that European companies use responsible sourcing guidelines in procuring minerals from the DRC, but the campaign is directed particularly at phone companies (the website’s tagline is ‘Is Your Phone Rape-Free?’).

Much of the criticism of the film is directed at the intensely graphic and violent nature of the video. Although the point is to create a lasting impression, commentators question whether such heavy-handed shock therapy is necessary. Criticism has also been levelled at how the story of Congo’s conflict has been represented by the campaign (see Tom Murphy’s post at A View from the Cave and AidThoughts). Unwatchable’s campaign is centred on conflict minerals, specifically armed groups fighting for control of supplies while using rape as a weapon to clear mining areas of civilians. The problem many have with this claim is that it reduces a multifaceted conflict to a simple mineral-violence link. As those who know the Congo well including Laura Seay, assistant professor of political science, and Jason Stearns, a Coordinator of the United Nations Group of Experts on the Congo, point out that the situation in the DRC is of a highly complex nature, involving disputes over land and citizenship rights, fuelled by weak institutions and state collapse. While minerals do play a large part in the conflict now, giving the impression that it is the primary driver of violence detracts from more realistic accounts that require engagement with a series of complicated underlying factors. Interestingly enough, this is briefly acknowledged by Unwatchable in their FAQ section, which states that, ‘the rape of women, persistence state of conflict, insecurity, impunity and humanitarian crisis can be considered as both cause and effect of the failure of the Congolese government,’ before immediately returning to supporting bans on the use of conflict minerals in the next section- ‘What do you want people to do?’

In the case of the DRC, advocacy on mineral issues is a particularly sensitive topic, especially given the debate surrounding the recent Dodd-Frank act, a piece of legislation that requires American companies to disclose sources of metals from the Congo. The effects of the law on the local economy have been highly detrimental, as documented by the Economist amongst others.

While the debate over the film continues, it is worthwhile to take a step back and consider what lessons the furore surrounding Unwatchable holds for advocacy more broadly. How do we distinguish good advocacy from bad? How far should we push boundaries in our attempt to grab attention, and how do we present a balanced viewpoint while doing so?

The answers may not be as far off as would appear. The use of well-defined advocacy standards could prove extremely valuable in setting guidelines for industry-wide responsible behaviour. The One World Trust’s extensive database of Civil Society Organisation (CSO) Self-Regulatory Initiatives indicates that some of the groundwork for this is already in place. For example, the ICRC’s Code of Conduct requires that victims of disasters should be portrayed as dignified human beings and not hopeless objects. The Irish Association for Non-Governmental Development Organisations also has a Code of Conduct on Images and Messages that provided guidelines regarding publicity materials on poverty issues. These include mandates such as accurately representing situations in their ‘immediate and wider context’ to inform public knowledge of the realities and complexities of development, as well as to avoid messages that can ‘stereotype, sensationalise or discriminate against people, situations, or places’.

However, it is evident that such standards need to become more prevalent to effect any serious sector-wide push for more accountable advocacy. Research on accountability in NGO advocacy by the One World Trust (Hammer et al. 2010) finds that only 32 out of over 300 self-regulatory initiatives for CSOs and NGOs address advocacy issues, and do so mostly in generic terms that are unhelpful in reviewing actual performance. Existing initiatives also have little or no provisions in certain areas that could be highly important in identifying good advocacy. For example, none of the initiatives identified requires disclosure of the full evidence base behind an advocacy campaign. On a related note, no initiative requires that CSOs disclose the evidence on the basis of which a particular cause is selected and prioritised above others (Ibid., p. 15-19). While there may be a contradiction between framing advocacy issues as simple emotive messages that grab attention and representations of complexities on the ground, access to the evidence guiding campaigns could be a way for more nuanced interpretations to be made available more widely, while creating space for informed debate on the content and quality of a campaign. As the paper points out, ‘The fullest possible publication of the evidence base for a particular advocacy campaign would be an important step in allowing the interested public to make their own judgments and or challenge findings and methods as otherwise customary in the research community’ (Ibid., p.18).

Another area that could potentially benefit from the establishment of standards is feedback and evaluation. While it is clear that there are significant challenges to comparing evaluations across varying causes and contexts, standardising the use of evaluation in advocacy campaigns would mean debates over the use of controversial material such as Unwatchable would be better informed about whether similar campaigns had worked before. Alongside, increasing usage of feedback mechanism would allow beneficiaries, policymakers and the public to respond to advocacy campaigns, thereby compelling advocates to address any concerns that stakeholders may have. While existing initiatives do not include binding commitments on instating feedback and evaluation systems (Ibid., p. 21), there are agreements that broach these issues in a non-binding fashion. An example comes from the Code of Good Practice for NGOs Responding to HIV/AIDS, whose self-assessment checklist provides a comprehensive questionnaire on how to determine if advocacy strategies are working.

Amongst the numerous opinions on Unwatchable, there is one unambiguous lesson. There is a need to establish what is good advocacy— what is accountable, what is evidence-based, what works. While advocacy standards have the potential to lead on this front, they are yet in the very early stages of development and suffer from gaps that severely limit their functionality. If we choose to leave them as such, however, we risk misrepresenting and potentially harming those we seek to support. A timely reminder of this comes from Tom Murphy, who cites an important report by VSO that follows up on public perceptions in the UK of the developing world since Live Aid. The foreword provides a sobering insight- ‘Misunderstanding on this level breeds arrogance, fear and inequality in our relationships with other cultures at home and abroad.’


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Posted by Sharukh Mirza

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