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The Practical Politics of Turning Problems Into International Causes

Locals look at the wreckage of a Lusaka bound passenger service minibus that resulted in the death of 17 people after it collided with a heavy goods truck in Chibombo on April 30, 2013.

Locals look at the wreckage of a Lusaka bound passenger service minibus that resulted in the death of 17 people after it collided with a heavy goods truck in Chibombo on April 30, 2013. (Chibala Zulu, AFP, Getty Images)

Did you know that traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in the developing world? Or that more children there die from burns than from malaria? Chances are you didn’t. The organizations you depend on to tell you these things—like Amnesty International or the UN Commission on Human Rights or the Red Cross—haven’t talked much about them.

Why do these groups champion some causes but ignore other, equally significant, problems?

R. Charli Carpenter, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, set out to find the answer. The result, Lost Causes: Agenda-Setting and Agenda-Vetting in Global Issue Networks, will be published next year by Cornell University Press.

It turns out that nongovernmental organizations, government agencies, and others who work in human rights and development—what Carpenter refers to as global issue networks—are performing a deliberate calculus when they decide where to spend their energies. What matters isn’t necessarily the urgency of the cause, but whether they think they can sell it to the public and muster the resources to run an effective campaign.

Perhaps that’s not surprising. Nobody wants to waste time at work, whether for a nonprofit or a corporation. But Carpenter’s research provides a nuanced look into this complex decision making. In an e-mail interview, she says she hopes that her work will help advocates, scholars, and policy makers develop a more realistic understanding of how these networks operate and “will attune global elites to what is falling between the cracks.”

Carpenter used surveys and focus groups to ask leaders of advocacy groups about the factors that come into play in deciding whether to turn problems into causes.

Responses were blunt: There needs to be a victim and a perpetrator. Some issues are “too complex” to advocate for. And if no clear solution is in sight, the problem is that much harder to rally around.

“People need to be able to feel like they can make a difference,” said one participant.

How issues get promoted also has a lot to do with who is promoting them. Carpenter divides advocates into two camps: “issue entrepreneurs”—those tireless individuals who champion causes and ideas not yet on the global radar—and established organizations. Both are needed for successful campaigns. The entrepreneurs provide the spark to get a problem talked about in the first place, but the powerful actors, groups like Human Rights Watch, are the engines that drive the cause.

She notes, for example, that the worldwide campaign against land mines began with a few hardy souls in the early 1990s who worked with a handful of nongovernmental groups in Cambodia.

‘It’s About Relationships’

Carpenter’s main argument is that connections are the most powerful influence of all.

“It’s about relationships: how that issue is perceived to be networked to other issues, how the entrepreneur is connected to other actors, how the ‘gatekeepers’ are partnered with issues or allies in the network,” Carpenter says.

Some groups may not want to take on a problem because they think it’s the purview of other organizations. In other instances, they’ll want to jump on a hot topic, like climate change, because everyone else is doing so.

“All of this,” the professor says, “shapes perceptions about whether an issue is ripe for advocacy, how credible an issue entrepreneur is, and whether a specific organization feels it can add value to a campaign at a reasonable cost.”

Clifford Bob, a political-science professor at Duquesne University, calls Carpenter’s research “provocative.”

Bob, too, has studied the ways in which certain issues get on the international advocacy agenda. One of the most interesting findings of Carpenter’s work, he says in an e-mail interview, is that attention to one issue of human security can reduce attention to some other one because of the limited resources that nongovernmental and other organizations have to work with.

Issues also can conflict with one another, he says. “For instance, Carpenter shows that recent attention to rape victims has blinded some in the human-security network to the needs of children born of these rapes.”

By providing a more realistic view of the way networks operate, Carpenter’s work “is very relevant not only to theorists,” he says, “but also to practitioners and policy makers—a refreshing and important thing for scholars to do.”

Is there hope for causes that aren’t sexy or don’t have a clear villain? Will people come to realize that eye care, for example, is one of the major neglected issues of our day? Carpenter is an optimist: “Nothing is preordained in global advocacy, and no issue is ever doomed.”

She also warns advocacy groups against being too cautious out of fear that “their hands are largely tied by states, donors and the media.”

Plenty of campaigns have proven such fear wrong. Anti-land-mine efforts, she notes, won against “enormous intransigence by powerful governments.” A campaign begun in April to ban autonomous weapons, or lethal military robots, could turn out to be another success.

“Here is an issue where all the great powers have a horse in the race, where media sensationalism threatens to trivialize the issue, and where funding for the campaign is not expected to be easy to get (because donors tend to channel money toward problems where the bodies are already piling up),” she says.

“But campaigners have decided to push for a ban anyway, and I think it’s likely they will succeed, precisely because the big ‘gatekeepers’ in human rights and humanitarian disarmament are now on board.”

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