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Clifford Bob
08-06-06, 11:22
The Marketing of Rebellion

By Clifford Bob | Thursday, June 08, 2006

The rights of oppressed peoples around the world increasingly gain media and scholarly attention. However, for every group who gets worldwide recognition of their cause, there are numerous others who remain unnoticed. As Clifford Bob explains, even in the world of Human Rights, there is a marketing game to be played if one is to be successful.

For decades, Tibet’s quest for self-determination has attracted people around the world. Inspired by appeals to human
Whole categories of conflict, such as landlessness in Latin America and caste discrimination in South Asia, go likewise little noticed.
rights, cultural preservation and spiritual awakening, thousands of individuals and organizations lend moral, material and financial support to the Tibetan cause.

As a result, greater autonomy for Tibet’s 5 million inhabitants remains a popular international campaign despite the Chinese government’s 50 year effort to suppress it. But while Tibet’s light shines brightly abroad, few outsiders know that China’s borders hold other restive minorities. Mongols, Zhuang, Yi, and Hui, to name only a few. Notable are the Uighurs, a group of more than 7 million located northwest of Tibet.

Like the Tibetans, the Uighurs fought Chinese domination for centuries, enjoying brief periods of independence twice in the 20th century. Like the Tibetans, the Uighurs today face threats from Han Chinese in migration, centrally planned development policies and newly strengthened anti-terror measures.

A failure to find broad-based support

If, as the Dalai Lama has warned, Tibetan ethnicity, culture, and environment face “extinction,” the Uighurs’ surely do too. And like the Tibetans, the Uighurs resist Chinese domination with domestic and international protest that, in Beijing’s eyes, makes them dangerous separatists.

Yet the Uighurs have failed to inspire the broad-based foreign networks that generously bankroll the Tibetans. No bumper stickers plea for East Turkestan’s liberation. No Hollywood stars or corporate moguls write fat checks for the Uighurs. No Uighur leader has visited with a U.S. President or won the Nobel Peace Prize. In their quest for external allies, the Tibetans and Uighurs are far from unique.

Support from abroad

In armed and unarmed conflicts throughout the world, challengers confronting powerful opponents seek support outside their home states — from international organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the media and broad public opinion.
“We have struggled for more than 30 years, and the world has ignored our cause.” (Moses Werror)

But while many clamor for assistance, few draw the external backing won by the Tibetans. Instead, most remain as isolated as the Uighurs. While the world now knows about East Timor, similar insurrections in Indonesian Aceh and West Papua remain far less celebrated.

Among environmental conflicts, a small number of cases such as the Brazilian rubber tappers’ efforts to save the Amazon, the conflict over China’s Three Gorges dam and the fight over the Chad-Cameroon pipeline have gained global acclaim.

Little noticed conflicts

But many similar environmental battles, like construction of India’s Tehri dam, logging of Guyana’s rainforests and laying of the Trans Thai-Malaysia gas pipeline are waged in anonymity. Whole categories of conflict, such as landlessness in Latin America and caste discrimination in South Asia, go likewise little noticed.

Everyday violence against South Asia’s estimated 260 million untouchables has never made it high on the international agenda despite the vigorous efforts of Indian activists. And the appeals of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army went unheeded for decades despite horrific human rights violations costing millions of lives.

Causes Célèbres

How and why do a handful of local challengers become global causes célèbres, while scores of others remain isolated and obscure? What inspires powerful transnational networks to spring up around particular movements? Most basically, which of the world’s myriad oppressed groups benefit from contemporary globalization?

Since the end of the Cold War, many have touted the emergence of a “global civil society” composed of formal and informal organizations with constituencies, operations and goals transcending state boundaries.
For many challengers, outside aid is literally a matter of life or death.

Some believe that growing transnational interactions have fundamentally changed world politics, creating an alternative political space distinguished by sympathy and cooperation rather than the anarchy, self-interest and competition that mark relations between states.

In this rosy view, the media act as all-seeing eyes, pinpointing places in gravest distress. New technologies permit early warning of emerging conflicts. And compassionate organizations selflessly throw their services to the neediest cases.

NGOs and TANs

Emblematic of this brave new world are two entities. NGOs, private organizations operating across borders whose primary goals are political, social, or cultural. And “transnational advocacy networks” (TANs), loosely formed groupings of NGOs, activists, foundations, journalists, bureaucrats, and others all bound by “shared values, a common discourse, and dense exchanges of information and services.”

Both NGOs and TANs are frequently heralded as “principled” forces in an amoral international system. Using new technologies, they leap borders to contact the growing ranks of NGOs abroad. In turn, NGOs and the TANs anchor and altruistically adopt distant causes, volunteering aid, publicizing injustices and pressuring foes. Ultimately, no local struggle goes unnoticed, “empowering the have-nots of the world.”

The developing world ignored

From the perspective of activists in the developed world, this interpretation may appear sound. There are multitudes of worthy causes on which to lavish attention, so many that picking clients can present a quandary.
Challengers, enticed to attention-grabbing tactics or extreme stances, may find distant stalwarts absent or helpless at moments of gravest peril.

But for social movements in the developing world — groups for whom international linkages are not just a calling, a career or a diversion — contemporary international politics has a different feel. New technologies, actors and institutions promise much but deliver little.

As Moses Werror, a leader of Indonesia’s Free West Papua Movement complained on the group’s website, “We have struggled for more than 30 years, and the world has ignored our cause.” Or as a displaced person in war-torn southern Sudan recently cried, “Why do so many Americans care about saving seals and whales but not us?"

More than a global popularity contest

At stake, is more than a global popularity contest. For many challengers, outside aid is literally a matter of life or death. NGOs can raise awareness about little known conflicts, mobilize resources for beleaguered movements and pressure repressive governments.

External involvement can deter state violence and force policy change. It can bestow legitimacy on challengers who might otherwise have meager recognition.

Publicizing the struggle

And it can strengthen challengers, not only materially, through infusions of money, equipment and knowledge, but also psychologically, by demonstrating that a movement is not alone, that the world cares and that an arduous conflict may not be
No bumper stickers plea for East Turkestan’s liberation. No Hollywood stars or corporate moguls write fat checks for the Uighurs.
fruitless. With so much at risk, challengers compete fiercely for transnational patrons.

This book probes the reasons certain groups prick the world’s conscience, while others do not. In this global morality market, challengers must publicize their plights, portray their conflicts as righteous struggles and craft their messages to resonate abroad.

Some believe that the causes that “made it” are simply the lucky winners of an international crap shoot. Although chance plays some part, much can be explained systematically.

Difficulty in winning NGO support

First, winning NGO support is neither easy nor automatic, but instead competitive and uncertain. Scores of challengers strive for overseas recognition even within a single country or region. For distant audiences, however, the ferment is invisible.

Journalists and academics focus on insurgencies that shine internationally. They seldom place these groups in broader context — as rare stars in a universe of hapless aspirants. The efforts of the less fortunate are overlooked.

Looking deceptively simple

Or, as international resources flow to the few, unsuccessful competitors direct their energies elsewhere, join forces with the most flourishing, shift to the opposition, or die out.
New technologies, actors and institutions promise much but deliver little.

This analytic blind-spot, compounded by recent enthusiasm about the beneficent effects of globalization and the Internet, has made the growth of NGO assistance look deceptively simple.

Second, the development and retention of support are best conceived not as philanthropic gestures but as exchanges based on the relative power of the parties to the transaction.

Power exchanges

On the supply side of this market are a small number of influential NGOs with no reason to choose one desperate movement over another. On the demand side are myriad local groups for whom international linkages hold the prospect of new resources and greater clout in their domestic conflicts.

This disparity in need creates an unequal power relationship. As a result, movements must often alter key characteristics to meet the expectations of patrons. By contrast, in most cases NGOs can be circumspect in picking clients and need not reinvent themselves to do so.

Competition occurs in a context

Explaining their choices only as the result of “morality” or “principle” affords little analytic bite when this larger context is considered. Certainly altruism plays an important role in these decisions, but given their organizational imperatives, NGOs
Everyday violence against South Asia’s estimated 260 million untouchables has never made it high on the international agenda despite the vigorous efforts of Indian activists.
have strong incentives to devote themselves to the challenger whose profile most closely matches their own requirements — not necessarily to the neediest group.

Third, competition for NGO intervention occurs in a context of economic, political and organizational inequality that systematically advantages some challengers over others.

These disparities, which insurgents have limited capacity to change, make it easier for certain movements — those with more resources, superior knowledge and pre-existing international standing — to promote themselves abroad and pigeonhole themselves into acceptable categories of protest.

How do the insurgents market themselves?

Fourth, despite these structural biases, the choices of insurgents — how they market themselves — matter. Most analysts take a top-down approach, focusing on NGOs and suggesting that transnational networks form when intrepid activists in rich countries reach into the developing world to succor helpless “victims.”

In fact, however, local movements insistently court overseas backing, and their promotional strategies count. While they have numerous variants, these strategies share two broad aims, raising international awareness of the movement and enhancing its appeal to NGOs.

Ambiguous effects

Finally, because of this market dynamic, the effects of assistance are more ambiguous than often acknowledged. For many scholars and journalists, overseas activism is an unmitigated blessing. Reflecting a penchant to idolize NGOs, analysts confuse
And like the Tibetans, the Uighurs resist Chinese domination with domestic and international protest that, in Beijing’s eyes, makes them dangerous separatists.
the apparently altruistic intent of support with its effects.

But when the latent sources of aid are considered, one can more easily assess its costs. On one hand, local challengers must conform to the needs and agendas of distant audiences, potentially alienating a movement from its base.

On the other hand, the organizational imperatives driving NGOs mean that even the most devoted can seldom make a particular insurgent its top concern. The result can be problematic, even deadly. Challengers, enticed to attention-grabbing tactics or extreme stances, may find distant stalwarts absent or helpless at moments of gravest peril.

Excerpted from the book "The Marketing of Rebellion" by Clifford Bob. © Clifford Bob 2005.