Beyond Good Intentions: Responsible and Effective Advocacy in the Digital Age

This review essay will appear in Humanity volume 9, issue 1.

Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism
Alex de Waal, editor
Zed Books, 2015

Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data Is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response
Patrick Meier
CRS Press, 2015

Dangerous Trade: Arms Exports, Human Rights, and International Reputation
Jennifer Erickson
Columbia University Press, 2015

On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake shook Haiti, leading to the collapse of much of its infrastructure, burying hundreds of thousands beneath the rubble. At a distance, a group of good Samaritans in the United States catalyzed a new kind of internet-based humanitarianism, seeking to map social media and text message expressions of need to assist emergency response.

Two years later, the U.S.-based advocacy group Invisible Children released a short film that depicted Joseph Kony, the leader of an obscure Ugandan rebel group, as a psychopath who needed to be made famous for his crimes and brought to justice. Within a week, the video had 100 million views on the web, particularly popular among young people. The film was credited with reinforcing the Obama administration’s decision to send more military support to capture Kony, who remains at large. The film also triggered considerable backlash for its over-simplifications.

That same year, the United Nations General Assembly began negotiations on an ambitious new treaty to regulate the arms trade. The Arms Trade Treaty (or ATT as it was called) was inspired by previous efforts to ban landmines and cluster munitions. As before, transnational advocacy organizations were among the leading champions of the ATT, which entered into force in 2014. It remains to be seen whether this relatively weak agreement has much impact on the trade itself.

Three important new books explore events like these and the dynamics of transnational advocacy and humanitarianism in the Internet age. They range from a critical quasi-scholarly evaluation of transnational activism—Advocacy in Conflict—to a practitioner’s reflections on the new Digital Humanitarians to an academic assessment in Dangerous Trade of why states might be inclined to commit to a new arms trade treaty.

In these three books, several crosscutting themes about transnational advocacy emerge. One is the locus of advocacy and what role international actors can and should play in supporting local actors on the ground. A second theme that the books tackle in different ways is the place of norms and treaties as the vehicle for achieving change in the world, relative to each other as well as other forms of action such as entrepreneurial service provision. A final theme that comes through strongly in some of the books more than others is the role played by technological change in facilitating the extraterritorial reach of transnational advocates and humanitarians. Before coming back to these currents that cut across the books, it is worth reviewing the central claims of each of them individually.

The Search for Responsible Transnational Advocacy

“Nothing for us without us!” is the rallying cry of the provocative edited volume, Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism. Edited by Alex de Waal with contributions by scholars and practitioners from around the world, the volume offers a normative and analytical critique of much transnational advocacy.

The overarching theme is that much transnational advocacy is Northern-led and imposed from above on intended beneficiaries, leaving affected populations from the global south under-represented, whether it be disabled people, ethnic groups, or others. What is more, the solutions offered by campaigners and asked of decision-makers often over-simplify the situation (kill and capture Kony, regulate conflict minerals) in ways that may be politically attractive but unworkable and counter-productive in practice. In this, the book has echoes of Cliff Bob’s work The Marketing of Rebellion and Charli Carpenter’s Lost Causes on how gatekeepers can determine which campaigns get supported through their funding choices.[1]

The critique in the de Waal volume is more trenchant and scathing. The answer that emerges from the edited volume is a politics of liberation, emancipation, and true collaboration. For example, Roddy Brett’s chapter asks why international efforts to support conflict resolution and democracy in Guatemala did not provide more robust support for indigenous groups after the civil war ended. He blames international advocates for being unwilling to take on the power structures in Guatemala, writing that:

While broader rights formed the mainstay of the demands of indigenous activists, they contradicted the undergirding framework of Liberal Peace politics and thus were rejected as part and parcel of the peace settlement (87).

At times, this critique assumes a sort of sinister form of international neo-colonialism at work and makes sweeping generalizations about globalization and neo-liberalism. Chaitaka et al.’s chapter on disability activism asserts:

It is noteworthy that most programme aid is not bilateral, but is channeled through multilateral funding agencies, and thus circumvents national governments to go directly to implementing partners, especially global institutions, international NGOs and local civil society organizations, thereby ensuring a neoliberal hegemony (191).

That strikes me as a weird argument since multilateral aid may reflect more technocratic, mission-driven activity compared to bilateral projects, where donor political priorities can be imposed on recipients more readily.

One difficult question that comes out of this challenging book is what would an emancipatory politics look like? Given that international actors possess superior resources and political connections than local advocates, more egalitarian collaboration requires more than token representation.

At times, the implications are that this sort of reclaimed activism might require deference to local campaigners’ wishes. This inattention to what local actors want and think is similar to the critique Séverine Autesserre offers in her criticism of international-led conflict resolution in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).[2] However, privileging local campaigners is potentially fraught given global and domestic inequalities, corruption, and illiberal governments. Who locally represents the authentic voice of the south? What if local actors have unworkable ideas?

Rachel Ibreck’s chapter on land grabs, foreign acquisition of local land in Africa, is sensitive to these issues but is normatively grounded in acceptance that land rights may trump other considerations. She writes:

We can identify, then, at a minimum, an emerging regional norm relating to the right to land…In certain circumstances, the provision of land may be necessary to fulfill the right to food, cultural and indigenous rights, the right to adequate housing, and indeed the rights to water and work (254).

On a continent that is food insecure and where agricultural productivity has been disappointing for a half century, elevating land rights as the sine qua non of agricultural policy might be problematic.

Other solutions that emerge from this work do focus on these structural inequalities. Yet, the proposed remedies may be unrealistic. For example, in the chapter on the arms trade by de Waal and former South African politician Andrew Feinstein, they fault campaigns that focus narrowly on specific weapons such as landmines for insufficient attention to structures like the military industrial complex that perpetuate war. However, challenging or upending that system seems utopian. They acknowledge the challenge of developing a “focused campaign” for such a broad issue:

This raises the question of whether it is feasible to create a global campaign to tackle the basic structure of the business. This would need to target the center of gravity of the problem itself: the unaccountable nexus between industry, politics, and the military and the security establishments (236).

Similarly, the final chapter praises the Occupy Movement for addressing wider structural inequalities; “One thing that differentiates Occupy from the DRC and LRA campaigns described in this volume is that it addresses the problem of unemployment and the financial crisis by focusing on the broad structural issues systematically reinforcing inequality” (275).

Here again, the authors acknowledge that Occupy’s “broad focus” made it harder to achieve specific policy changes. In my view, the Occupy campaign failed to articulate political asks and largely fizzled out without achieving transformational change (though perhaps it laid the groundwork for Bernie Sanders’ political campaign and the increased political salience of inequality).

There is a tension in the advice to heed the claims and ideas of local campaigners and simultaneously address global structural inequalities. What is more, at times the book reads as an indictment of well-meaning external do-gooderism. “Do no harm” is an important theme that emerges from this work, requiring transnational actors to take more care before they embrace bad policy solutions such as the blind eye turned to malfeasance in South Sudan by the new government after independence. If transnational supporters are incapable of doing no harm because of intellectual blinders or political constraints of their own, perhaps the answer is to do less rather than more.

However, if external actors recognize their own limitations by disengaging, that could lead them to walk away from problems like climate change that they are largely responsible for. What responsibility do international actors have to right previous wrongs, and how can they realistically do so?

This conundrum for transnational activists becomes all the more difficult given the temptation and necessity to simplify when seeking to mobilize and motivate their own polities to do something. As Laura Seay writes, how to end the violence in the DRC ends up focusing on conflict minerals, not because it necessarily is a solution appropriate to the problem but is one around which northern countries can rally. She writes: “The logic underlying the advocacy groups’ conflict minerals narrative is based on a misperception of what motivates Congolese armed groups and what they do with the money they earn from the mines” (131).

Perhaps the best case scenarios for transnational advocacy are ones in which northern actors make common cause with southern campaigners who are far-sighted and wise, as AIDS treatment activists from the U.S. and Europe were able to do with groups like South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign. A chapter or two on where international advocates have gotten the balance right would have inspired confidence that conscientious advocacy is possible.

The Rise of Armchair Altruists

Where Advocacy in Conflict provides a dark and cautionary set of narratives about international activism, Patrick Meier’s book Digital Humanitarians asserts a positive vision for how international crisis response can save lives and be improved.

This book is an authoritative take on how a variety of innovations including crowd-sourcing, micro-tasking, social media, and machine learning have disrupted the disaster response business. Along with his many collaborators, Meier has been at the center of these innovations, first as a graduate student at Tufts University where he catalyzed the mobilization of digital humanitarians in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and later at the Qatar Computing Research Institute where he served as the Director of Social Innovation. (I first met him in the mid 2000s when he was still working on climate change and security concerns as a graduate student.)

In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, Meier and a team of volunteers, many of them Creole-speaking members of the Haitian diaspora, sorted through social media postings and text messages to map where people needed help in Haiti. He describes how the work got started:

By Saturday afternoon, about 100 hours after the earthquake struck, we had trained well over a hundred volunteers, both in person and via Skype. All of them were now digital humanitarians, able to help map the damage and urgent needs being reported from Haiti across multiple media. My dorm room had become a “nerve center” of sorts for these digital humanitarian efforts (4).

Those crowd-sourced maps were useful for disaster response agencies, including the U.S. military. Over time, other establishment humanitarian agencies warmed up to the upstart mapmakers and partnered with them.

After that effort, Meier sustained his enthusiasm, mobilizing volunteers after the 2010 Chilean earthquake and then again in successive crises. Motivated by an entrepreneurial zest for doing good better, Meier then went on to pioneer a variety of innovations in this space as new emergencies presented themselves. He founded the Standby Task Force to have a volunteer group of digital Samaritans at the ready. To become more efficient at using volunteers, he worked with others to divvy up the workflow of analyzing social media through Micro Mappers. To deal with the problem of too much Big Data for volunteers to sort, he and others worked to establish an approach for machine learning through the Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR) platform.

The innovations continued, with protocols to verify correct information to sort out rumors and lies, ethical standards for the use of social media and new technology, image recognition software, the use of drones for humanitarian relief, and more. Meier is a gifted storyteller and relentlessly optimistic. The narratives of continuous evolution in disaster response in the face of difficult work and setbacks are inspiring. The ideas Meier and his colleagues come up with are invariably ingenious:

You may have seen prompts like the one in Figure 10.1 when surfing the web. More than 100 million of these “ReCaptchas” get filled out every day on sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and CNN. Google uses them to filter out spam…. What if we used ReCaptchas to support digital humanitarian efforts? Instead of asking someone to type in the words they see in a ReCaptcha, we could display pictures posted to Twitter during a disaster and ask that someone to click on the pictures that showed disaster damage (188).

If one steps back, though, the portrait is a bit darker, as Meier frequently acknowledges. The sheer volume of information is impossible for a few well-meaning volunteers to efficiently wade through. At the same time, there is the potential for fraud, making the challenge harder for humanitarians to sort credible information from rumors and deliberate misinformation.

Meier only briefly touches on the potential for on-line vigilante justice. He notes that in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, users on the Reddit platform tried to use the videos and photos of the race and backpacks to identify the culprits, leading to the misidentification of a subject. Meier attributes this to the lack of training of Reddit users and the platform itself (though does not elaborate).

Much of Meier’s book focuses on the virtues of the wisdom of crowds, but more attention could be paid to the potential for cyber-shaming run amok. In some cases, such as the dentist who in 2015 illegally poached Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe, we might agree the target deserved international opprobrium. In other cases, individuals might be targeted for bullying such as the GamerGate episode in 2014 where women were subjected to online harassment. The same technologies that enable digital humanitarians to organize also permit electronic mobs to form.

As Meier documents, the difficulties for humanitarians go beyond Big Data to Big Brother as one moves from natural disaster response to political crises like the Arab Spring. Here, authoritarian governments have learned to use the same techniques of micro tasking to unmask and locate dissidents. Governments can potentially use the maps campaigners use to self-organize to find their foes. Meier is aware of these challenges, but the discussion is somewhat cursory. For example, Meier writes about the challenges of deploying crisis mapping in Libya:

We also questioned whether the SBTF should engage in humanitarian crises that are marred by violent conflict. We were by no means data security experts, leaving us unable to guarantee that private crisis mapping data could not be hacked. Our experience in Libya eventually led the SBTF to discourage deployments in conflict zones and in countries under repressive rule (60).

This observation raises a wider concern about the efficacy of digital activism and humanitarianism more broadly. The optimism of online activists involved in the Arab Spring now has to be tempered by the aftermath, which includes an authoritarian revival in Egypt, a failed state in Libya, and a devastating civil war in Syria. Iran’s aborted Green Revolution presaged all these developments to suggest the limits of mobilization and political change through social media.

At the same time, we are seeing the whole humanitarian aid edifice under tremendous strain, the subject of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. Designed for short-term crises, the humanitarian system has increasingly become bogged down in prolonged commitments in places like Syria and Dadaab, a sprawling refugee camp near the Somali border that the Kenyan government has recently proposed closing.

These mobilizations of indefinite length blur the line between humanitarian and development assistance. The temporary mobilization of digital humanitarians is potentially a sideshow to the larger challenge that emanates from state incapacity to prepare for emergencies. In the absence of a functioning state in Haiti, improving disaster response through machine learning or drones may miss something fundamental.

Here, my criticism perhaps echoes the concerns of the contributors to Advocacy in Conflict. Are these efforts to improve the humanitarian system good but insufficient without dealing with persistent, structural deficits in weak states? Maybe that challenge of state-building is a bridge too far. Efforts in Afghanistan suggest as much. Perhaps the best we can do is make better band-aids.

This concern aside, Meier’s book provides moral uplift and an antidote to cynicism. The experimentation and problem-solving ethos throughout appeals to both techno-optimism and an unapologetic form of fellow-feeling and empathy. Even if Meier is a pivotal figure in this landscape, the emphasis is on partnership and local adaptation, just the sort of demeanor and praxis that authors in Advocacy in Conflict asked for.

The Arms Trade and Human Rights: From Commitment to Compliance

The third book in this trio, Dangerous Trade, offers a methodologically and analytically eclectic take on efforts to impose human rights concerns on the arms trade. It is an easy read and a good contribution to the academic literature on transnational advocacy.

Erickson brings in social reputation, what others think about you, to explain why states might sign on to efforts to regulate arms exports. She suggests that social pressures by states and NGOs might encourage countries to commit to agreements to make the arms trade more ethical.

However, this commitment incentive she argues does not explain variation in compliance, which she ascribes to different levels of transparency and civil society mobilization in different states. In her view, democracies possess levels of transparency and NGO mobilization that can periodically lead to scandals and the political salience of the arms trade. Even among democracies, she notes variation along both dimensions.

Erickson argues that states may commit to new norms and agreements knowing that they might not comply because their leaders can reap rewards by signing on to socially popular programs. Since compliance is difficult to observe or will occur after signatories leave office, decision-makers know they are less likely to be punished for noncompliance. This is particularly true in non-democracies where it may be difficult for advocates to know of violations and mobilize meaningful pressure even if they find out.

The Feinstein and de Waal chapter in Advocacy in Conflict overlaps with Erickson’s substantive focus. They raise the tendency of activists to confuse commitment with compliance:

The campaign and the ATT itself therefore replicate similar shortcomings to those of the Ottawa Convention: they assume that the treaty is in itself an achievement, rather than a tool towards a further goal (235).

Erickson’s distinction between commitment and compliance helpfully avoids such conflation. This discussion resembles a similar debate in environmental politics on regime effectiveness. As Ronald Mitchell and others have argued, we need to evaluate advocacy and policy success based on whether policies lead to improvements in the world rather than whether an agreement has been ratified.[3]

That debate in environmental politics has led to a new policy and research agenda based on public-private partnerships and private governance schemes.[4] If critics of the ATT are right, the limited enforceability of the agreement means that we shouldn’t expect major substantive reforms. The implication might be the need to look for alternative venues and platforms for progress, such as partnerships with arms companies to make their products less deadly such as fingerprint recognition.

Erickson lays out why her reputation-based argument explains the gap between commitment and compliance better than alternatives. For scholars in the constructivist camp of international relations, Erickson argues there should be no daylight between commitment and compliance. In her view of constructivism, states embrace norms-based policies championed by transnational advocates out of conviction.

That point is debatable if we think back to the now classic take on the norms life cycle from Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink. In their argument, norms are introduced, embraced by a handful of states, diffused to a wider number of actors, and then finally become taken for granted. Finnemore and Sikkink readily acknowledge self-interested motives might drive some countries’ support for norm-based policies, particularly as social pressures mount.[5]

This quibble aside, Erickson’s theory is appropriately cautious about the power of reputation as a driver of behavior. States care about many things, and the opinions of others may be a modest motive in terms of explanatory power.

I find another piece of Erickson’s theoretical set-up somewhat problematic, particularly in the way she writes about interest groups. Her argument for domestic preferences is fully material. That is, states only commit and comply if it is in the interest of domestic industry. However, domestic political calculations reflect more than the interests of manufacturers. Domestic actors motivated by norms (whether they be advocates for a more ethical arms trade or anti-abortion protesters) can be important political constituencies.

While advocates of restrictions on immoral arms exports are mostly politically insignificant, Erickson’s argument relies on the emergence of scandal that can periodically make politicians in democracies vulnerable to campaigners’ claims. This too is partially a domestic preferences argument, yet one that does not privilege material interests.

Thus, non-state actors, both transnational and domestic, have the capacity to influence the international agenda and state behavior in two main ways. They can make the regulation of weapons socially desirable at the international level in terms of agenda-setting, and they can mobilize domestically in democracies to hold states to account for hypocrisy.

What then does the evidence say about whether these strategies have worked to regulate the arms trade? Erickson provides both quantitative and qualitative evidence. In chapter 3, she explores the arms exports of 22 of the world’s top arms exporters, which includes the United States, many European democracies, as well as China and Russia. She tracks arms exports of small and light weapons (such as machine guns) and major conventional weapons (such as tanks). She examines export trends both over time and by human rights scores. She complements this descriptive work with regression analysis.

Her main conclusion is a sobering one for transnational advocates of human rights. For most of this period 1981 to 2010, state sovereignty and economic interests trumped normative concerns. This is still true when we reach the high water mark of NGO and state concerns about morality and the arms trade in the 2010s when the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was negotiated. The ATT, which regulates the legal trade of conventional arms, passed the UN General Assembly in 2013 and entered into force in 2014. Of the 22 leading arms exporters, all but Russia and China supported the ATT, though the United States has yet to ratify.

As she periodizes the progression over time, Erickson finds modest evidence that the worst human rights abusers apparently received lower proportions of small arms in the mid 2000s. However, these findings go away in her moving-window regression analysis. Her conclusion is that while there is increasing commitment to ethics in the arms trade, compliance is relatively weak and exhibits considerable variation.

In chapters 4 and 5, Erickson then explores the commitment and compliance patterns in a series of case studies of four European democracies (Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) as well as the United States. Because Erickson expects transparency norms and civil society mobilization to explain variation, she limits her cases to democracies. These case studies are enriched by meticulous fieldwork, including 67 interviews of government officials, NGOs, defense companies, and experts from the core countries and a few others.

This rich case material unpacks the domestic dynamics at both the commitment and compliance stage. Through quotes from her interview material, Erickson is able to substantiate her claims that reputational concerns drove commitments by states to the ATT and more ethical arms trade practices.

One challenge is defining what constitutes commitment and compliance. Since the ATT only recently entered in to force in late 2014, Erickson evaluates country commitment to and compliance with norms before they were embodied in the ATT. Though the EU reached a common position on arms exports in 2008, it is not clear what commitment and compliance standards are being evaluated, especially since the United States is one of the cases. Even for the European cases, this is a challenge since the cases cover an extended period of time when a variety of standards were being proposed. In my first book, to make the analysis tractable, I distinguished between norms and norms-based policies that tend to be specific asks by campaigners that we can evaluate, even before they are embodied in formal agreements.[6] That insight might have been helpful here.

In Erickson’s view, only states that have high transparency and high NGO activity are scandal prone and thus subject to greater pressures for compliance. The two by two table in chapter 5 locates the five core studies along both dimensions (as well as three others briefly explored in the conclusion).

She finds that in the United States and France, despite transparency, pro-control NGOs are not especially active. In Brazil and South Africa, despite active NGOs, neither state has much transparency about arms exports, making both countries largely immune to scandal. Israel possesses neither transparency nor significant NGO activity. The countries that are scandal prone—with high NGO activity and high transparency—include the UK and Germany. Belgium, with its federal system, has elements of high scandal sensitivity (in Flanders) and very low sensitivity (in Wallonia).

I would have liked more detail on the coding rules for concluding high/low NGO activity and what constitutes a threshold for high or low transparency. Since three of the cells yield “low scandal sensitivity,” there could be some unpacking of whether dynamics are the same in countries that possess transparency without NGO activity, NGO activity without transparency, or those that lack both.

Erickson’s choices of case selection—based in part on importance—are defensible. She does not expect her argument on compliance to travel to non-democracies since they lack both transparency and civil society to hold leaders accountable. However, by focusing so heavily on four European Union members, I was surprised that there was not a more lengthy discussion of social pressures in the EU. National dynamics of the four European states loom large (such as France’s aspirations for global leadership and fraught relationship with former colonies and Germany’s historical memory of World War II).

However, as Erickson herself writes, “states whose self-images are strongly tied to international institutions are more likely to respond to social pressures…” (142). This dynamic seems to apply especially well to EU countries but raises questions about the generalizability to other democracies and even the European Union as its social fabric frays.

The short case studies of Israel, South Africa, and Brazil in the conclusion are welcome. Erickson writes that South Africa became a supporter of the ATT as it sought to enhance its reputation internationally. This raises the larger question of what kinds of states are likely open to these social pressures. Are non-democracies fully immune to these social pressures? China and Russia abstained on the ATT but did not oppose it out right. As Erickson acknowledges, states can acquire reputational benefits from supporting or at least not opposing arms exports.

What kinds of states would be vulnerable to these social pressures to improve their reputations, not simply by committing to agreements but actually implementing them? Are any of the states vulnerable to social pressures important arms exporters? As Emily Hafner-Burton argues, state vulnerability could be enhanced if leading states are prepared to complement social pressure with material pressure such as trade sanctions.[7] Might regimes in transition to democracies be particularly vulnerable because they need international support?

Erickson notes that the salience of social pressures may also be related to which government officials are sent to global negotiations. Most negotiators of the ATT come from ministries of foreign affairs that are more sensitive to international reputational concerns than actors from the ministry of trade.

The arms trade is, as Erickson notes, largely low salience to the mass public, save for the occasional scandal and for particular interest groups like gun rights groups. Can countries acquire a bad reputation if most of the public is unaware of the behavior? It may require us to be a bit more circumspect and acknowledge reputations are mostly an elite phenomenon, especially salient to certain diplomats from specific agencies embedded in particular institutional settings. Erickson’s cautious conclusions about the efficacy of arms trade advocacy point us in that direction.

Common Themes

What do these books collectively say about transnational advocacy?

The Locus of Action

The premise of Advocacy in Conflict is that well-meaning human rights activists from the north often use their superior resources and connections to press for policies that are fundamentally unworkable and that reinforce local hierarchies. The answer is thus to trust local advocates who have a better grasp of realities on the ground and who are prepared to challenge systemic inequalities.

Digital Humanitarians shares the confidence in local actors but is more optimistic about the possibility that outsiders can successfully ally with them and make a positive difference. For its part, Dangerous Trade is narrowly pessimistic about regulating the arms trade through a treaty-based mechanism because states can commit without complying. Only in democratic societies do they potentially pay the price for hypocrisy, and even among democracies, there is variation in their susceptibility to scandal.

Norms and Treaties

The books in different ways also speak to the challenges of addressing human rights abuses both through norms as well through treaties and formal policies of governments and inter-governmental organizations. While Meier’s Digital Humanitarians collaborate with state actors and organizations like the UN, the initiatives he describes are entrepreneurial, where advocates learn by doing with the aim of being more efficient and effective undergirded by ethical codes of conduct.

Formal approaches, including treaties, at times seem a million miles from Meier’s world where advocates, driven by norms of altruism, take the situation in to their own hands rather than wait for states to implement agreements. That said, while his efforts were initially ad hoc responses to crises, Meier describes the increased formalization of digital humanitarianism over time, as the practice became mainstreamed, routinized, and in need of guidelines to avoid breaches of privacy and error.

Advocacy in Conflict is less about the direct actions of activists than about how their demands are mediated and implemented by states and the international community through laws and executive actions. As in Meier’s book, norms serve as a powerful motive for advocates, but their good intentions are not enough to prevent them from supporting policies that often do more harm than good.

Erickson’s portrait is different, recognizing that when advocates champion new norms, states may embrace them for strategic reasons but with limited intent to apply. In this sense, most international treaties may not be fundamentally different from norms, given that they rarely are accompanied by strong enforcement. Rather, the ability of activists to influence their polities depends on how organized they are. This may have implications for human rights internationally but the focus of Erickson’s book is on arms exporting countries rather than the impacts upon recipients.

As suggested earlier, if focusing on states and treaty-based approaches to arms control has had limited effectiveness, campaigners may have to think about other targets to enhance the effectiveness of their work. In the forest conservation space, campaigners frustrated by the slow pace of international negotiations began to work directly with the private sector to establish codes of conduct to certify sustainable harvested timber. Private governance in arms exports may face other barriers, given political sensitivities, but it could be worth consideration. However, given the success arms control advocates have had focusing on landmines and, to a lesser extent, cluster munitions, advocates may continue to push treaty-based solutions in the arms trade space.

Technology and Politics

The trio of books also speaks to the role played by technology and advocacy. The paradigmatic perspective on transnational advocacy is that low-cost travel and the Internet have lowered the costs of organizing, making it possible for allies from different countries to make common cause. While that logic sets the stage for Advocacy in Conflict and Dangerous Trade, the permissive role or emancipatory potential of technology is no substitute for politics. In Advocacy in Conflict, success is a function of whether transnational supporters will back local actors’ demands for liberation (the answer too often is often no). In Dangerous Trade, authoritarian regimes are largely free to do as they will, able to take advantage of social pressures for ethical action if they wish without an expectation that they will change their behavior. Even democratic countries, where advocates can mobilize through the Internet and find follower travelers, may find themselves largely immune to much pressure for change.

Of the three, only Digital Humanitarians embraces the disruptive power of technology to upend humanitarian practice, though Meier is honest that technology and transnational altruists cannot transform societies where crises last for a longer time or are more deeply rooted in state failure or illiberal governments. Meier, in his eternal optimism, nudges these concerns aside, for fear, perhaps, that recognition of these forces could prove too emotionally dispiriting to deal with.

These three books help us understand the pitfalls, possibilities, and limits of transnational advocacy. Advocacy in Conflict is a broadside that provides a fairly radical critique of status quo advocacy. Digital Humanitarians also poses an implicit departure from traditional ways of doing business, but the disruptive technological agenda of crowdsourcing and mapping has been more readily appropriated by humanitarian organizations. Finally, Dangerous Trade provides an empirical counter-weight to both of the others, as it recognizes that even a narrow attempt to regulate conventional weapons through a treaty may yield a lowest common denominator agreement. The next generation of scholarship and practice will have to both understand what is happening in the world of advocacy but offer some guidance on how the practice can be more effective and just.


[1] Clifford Bob, The Marketing of Rebellion : Insurgents, Media, and International Activism, Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Charli Carpenter, “Lost” Causes: Agenda Vetting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Ithaca ; London: Cornell University Press, 2014).

[2] Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[3] Ronald B. Mitchell, “International Environment,” in Handbook of International Relations, ed. Thomas Risse, Beth Simmons, and Walter Carlsnaes (London: Sage Publications, 2002), 500–516.

[4] Jessica F. Green, Rethinking Private Authority: Agents and Entrepreneurs in Global Environmental Governance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013); Matthew J. Hoffmann, Climate Governance at the Crossroads (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[5] Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change,” International Organization 52, no. 04 (Autumn 1998): 887–917.

[6] Joshua W. Busby, Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[7] Emily M. Hafner-Burton, “Trading Human Rights: How Preferential Trade Agreements Influence Government Repression,” International Organization 59, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 593–629.

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About Joshua Busby

Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is a Distinguished Scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and a non-resident fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Dr. Busby has published widely on transnational advocacy movements, climate change, global health, and other topics for various think tanks and academic journals including International Security, International Studies Quarterly, Security Studies, and Perspectives on Politics. His first book, Moral Movements and Foreign Policy, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2010. His second book AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations with Ethan Kapstein was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013 and won the 2014 Don K. Price Award (the APSA award for the best book on science, technology, and environmental politics).

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