I didn’t forget. Before heading out to last week’s Clinton Global Fun Week—I mean, Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting—I promised you something about Ashley Judd. So let’s get this over with before I launch into something (or two things) about Haiti and Wyclef, and Sean, and Misha, and….
But I promised you something about how wrong Ashley Judd would be. I promised you that because she’s a celebrity and an activist and so absolutely destined to be wrong. Celebrities are wrong and I am right. It’s the way the world works.
Turns out Ashley and I were both wrong.
But we were also both right.
I know, I’m trying to have it both ways. Haven’t you noticed? I always try to have it both ways. I want to criticize how aid works, but I want smart aid to increase, too. I want to criticize Misha Collins, and I want to have my way wi—you know, I’ll just leave it there.
Back to the A-lister, Ms. Ashley Judd. Like so many celebrities, she serves on the Board of Directors of a large international relief organization. In her case, it’s Population Services International. As part of her duties, she’s traveled the world and visited impoverished people. This, obviously, allows her to sit in fancy New York City hotels and talk to fancy people about empowering less fancy people out of poverty and, I suppose, into fanciness.
Okay, see? That’s what I’m talking about. That’s why I thought Ashley Judd would be so, so wrong. Poverty tourism is just weird, even—and maybe especially—when celebrities engage in it. How could Judd’s two-week jaunt through the Democratic Republic of the Congo lead to informed activism?
Thing is, Judd showed up to a fancy CGI panel making sense. She didn’t say buying laptops causes rape in the DRC and that a ban on minerals would end the conflict in there. She said there’s no magic bullet that will end the conflict in the DRC and that solutions will include economic, political, and judicial reform.
And then came the crazy part. The part where had I not been a vegetarian, I would’ve been eating some crow. Judd said solutions to ending the conflict exist at the grassroots level, individuals in their local context know what those solutions are, and we, as activists, need to get their local solutions to our policymakers. She advocated a bottom-up approach, not a top-down one.
A celebrity. Promoting local, grassroots solutions. She even name-dropped HEAL Africa, a local Congolese NGO. She was just so right. (I still can’t believe it.) We should listen to what local, grassroots organizations are saying. We should acknowledge that ending the conflict in the DRC is going to involve structural change at the national level. It won’t be easy.
So I was wrong. I expected Ashley Judd to just parrot Enough Project talking points and claim my iPhone was raping innocent civilians as she spoke.
But I was also right: Ashley Judd was wrong, too. Because while she didn’t just say there’s a correlation between my cell phone and rape, she did say it. Sort of. Judd said the mineral trade is behind the horrific number of rapes in the DRC. When asked how people in the U.S. could get involved, she directed people to Enough.
The problem is the dichotomy. On the one hand, Ashley Judd knows the issues driving conflict in the DRC are complex and so require complex, local solutions. On the other hand, she directs people to an anti-mineral campaign from Enough that, if the new ban on mineral exports is anything by which to go, could do more harm than good.
As a celebrity, Judd has a powerful voice. People like Judd (or Misha or Wyclef) can turn the uninformed into the informed or the uninformed into the ill-informed. We need more voices like hers talking about the HEAL Africas of the world, about the myriad origins of conflict in the DRC and realistic solutions so the minions listening become informed activists, not ill-informed ones.
But we need outlets for informed advocacy. When Judd, who knows the issues, has to point people to a website that will tell them to “buy conflict-free electronics,” then we’re doing something wrong as advocates. We’re not offering outlets for informed activists to take meaningful action.
Buying “conflict-free electronics” is not going to end the conflict in the DRC. Women like Mama Muliri, traveling throughout her country and educating her fellow citizens about women’s rights under the law, will.
We need to support the Mama Muliris, we need to support her solutions. Ashley Judd knows this. Other celebrities could know this, too, but right now the only campaign for the Congo is about luxury items and global corporations, not local contexts and practical solutions.
Like celebutants drawn to flashbulbs, celebrities flock to the conflict minerals meme as a panacea for the DRC. It’s easy, it’s simple. The problem is, even when we have celebrities who understand the complexities, who are in the deep end, we don’t have a high-dive for them to jump off. Professor Seay at Texas in Africa has explained what the high-dive might look like, but the advocacy framework in Washington and New York doesn’t exist. We don’t have a campaign for the Congo promoting local solutions and empowering local organizations, but we desperately need one. (And if you’re a celebrity looking for a niche issue and an advocacy coordinator, email me! Especially if your name rhymes with fleece…uh.)
Just think, once all of the celebrities, from A-list to C-list, are promoting local solutions and no longer funding orphanages, I can finally get around to talking about the lack of nominations for Assistant Administrators at USAID and their importance in enacting bureaucratic stopgaps—
Hey… where are you going? I promise to use lots of sports metaphors…!
Bets on when or if Ashley Judd shows up to counter-rant in the comments start at $5. Date and time, please. I’ll start an Excel spreadsheet.