The Ethical Obligations of Writing About Poverty and Conflict

The district Kailahun, where the crisis in Sierra Leone began. (Credit: Caroline Thomas)

The district Kailahun, where the crisis in Sierra Leone began. (Credit: Caroline Thomas)

I. A Long Way Gone

The other day I finished reading “A Long Way Gone”, the autobiography of Ishmael Beah, a child soldier during the country’s civil in the 1990’s. After his village was attacked by the rebel army known as the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), Beah remained in a small town called Mattru Jong, before fleeing another attack. Eventually, he made his way across the country to a village controlled by the national army, where he becomes a drug-addicted soldier who murders and tortures people who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in his path. After two years as a soldier, he was rescued by UNICEF, brought to the capitol city of Freetown, and rehabilitated. But the rebels soon invaded the capital, and Beah fled to the U.S., where he was taken in by a woman he’d met while speaking at the UN a year earlier.

The story is raw and violent. The book became a hit, selling well over a million copies and launching a career for Ishmael Beah as an advocate for child soldiers around the world. He has spoken before the UN and other international bodies, started an charity group called Children Affected by War (CAW), and become the most famous advocate for child soldiers in the world.

Yet, as it turns out, his story may not actually be true. In 2008 – a year after the book was published – an Australian newspaper published a 4,000 word expose claiming that the attack on Mattru Jong, which kicked off a chain of events leading to him becoming a soldier, occurred in 1995, not 1993 as he had claimed. This would mean that he was only a soldier for a few months, rather than the two years he discusses in the book. Beah and his publisher denied the accusations, and the two groups have been trading barbs back and forth ever since.

The specifics of the chronology are not that important. There are plenty of explanations, not least of which is that a 13 year-old addicted to drugs and brainwashed to kill might be granted a little leeway in ability to recall specific memories. But it did get me thinking about the role of narrative in shining a light on things that might otherwise go unseen.

II. Nicholas Kristof and the “Bridge Character”

This is a topic I have written about extensively in the past. At the time, I watched international development experts criticize Nicholas Kristof for writing stories that oversimplified complex conflicts and using “bridge characters” to widen the story’s appeal. Kristof would distill the war in the DRC to a fight over natural resources, leaving out the messier parts about the oppression by the Belgians during the colonial era, or the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the installation of pro-Western dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who drove the country into ruin, or, most recently, the fact that much of current conflict might be traced back to the Rwandans, who, up until a few months ago, were the darling of the international development community. If he took the time to explain the Byzantine web of cause and effect, people would simply tune out and go back to not being able to point out the DRC on a map, much less empathize for its people.

For writers like Kristof, good intentions justify the means. If you have 750 words every week through which you need to convince an audience of millions to care about something they don’t have the patience to really understand, then you do everything you can to pull at the heartstrings of your readers and draw them in not with discussions about the roots of the conflict, but about the young, usually white, recent college graduate who started a clinic serving victims of the war. Through their story, people begin to pay attention.

In an interview with Outside magazine, he explains how he decided to frame his stories the way he does:

So I turned to the field of social psychology, trying to understand how I could craft my writing so that it would generate a response rather than a turned page. Over the past 20 years, there have been many studies that shed light on this question, and, increasingly, I’ve come to believe that those of us who care about human rights and global poverty can do a far better job in our messaging. Like Pepsi, humanitarian causes need savvy marketing. Indeed, they need it far more than a soft-drink company.

Good people engaging in good causes sometimes feel too pure and sanctified to sink to something as manipulative as marketing, but the result has been that women have been raped when it could have been avoided and children have died of pneumonia unnecessarily—because those stories haven’t resonated with the public. So for God’s sake, let’s learn how we can connect people to important causes and galvanize a robust public reaction.

I think he has a good point. The cause du jour is often not always the one the demands the most immediate attention.

People demonstrate violently in the street in Bangui, demanding that President Djotodia steps down following the murder of a magistrate shot dead the night before. 30 minutes later, the Séléka arrived and fired into the crowd, killing two men and wounded one.  (Credit: William Daniels)

People demonstrate violently in the street in Bangui, demanding that President Djotodia steps down following the murder of a magistrate shot dead the night before. 30 minutes later, the Séléka arrived and fired into the crowd, killing two men and wounded one. (Credit: William Daniels)

Everyone, for example, knows about the civil war in Syria, which does not even have significant advocates. But very few people, I would guess, know that the Central African Republic, a small country in a conflict-ridden region of Africa, is about to explode into civil war, prompting fears of genocide and mass murder. This report is from the Guardian newspaper last week:

A massacre of the innocents is taking place in the heart of Africa as the world looks the other way.

One man describes how his four-year-old son’s throat was slit, and how he saw a snake swallowing a baby. A woman explains that she is caring for a young girl because her mother went searching for medicine and was bludgeoned to death with Kalashnikov rifles. A young man tells how he was bound and thrown to the crocodiles, but managed to swim to safety.

This is the world of horrors that the Central African Republic (CAR) has become. Thousands of people are dying at the hands of soldiers and militia gangs or from untreated diseases such as malaria. Boys and girls as young as eight are pressganged into fighting between Christians and Muslims. There are reports of beheadings and public execution-style killings. Villages are razed to the ground.

Never much more than a phantom state, the CAR has sucked in thousands of mercenaries from neighbouring countries and, France warned on Thursday, now stands “on the verge of genocide“. Yet many would struggle to find the country on a map, despite the clue in its afterthought name.

If you count yourself among the few people who knew this story, consider yourself among the most informed in the world. But, as I will explain in the next section, graphic descriptions of conflicts can sometimes become controversial as well.

III. The Fog of War in the DRC

A friend of mine, Laura Heaton, wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine a year ago called “What Happened in Luvingi?” It is about her trip to a rural village in the DRC that had been attacked by a rebel group, which allegedly raped 387 women over the course of the four-day attack. The conflict in the Kivu region of the Eastern DRC was notable for its violence, yet even by these standards, this was exceptinally brutal. Even worse, there was a group of UN Peacekeepers stationed nearby that failed to protect the village.

The village of Luvungi in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The village of Luvungi in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The event galvanized a massive response from the interational community. In many ways, it was a bellwether moment in the conflict, drawing the spotlight to rape as a devastating tool of war. It highlighted the ineffectiveness of the UN and its Peacekeeper program, and brought huge attention to the conflict as a whole.

When my friend went to the village three years later to investigate, she spoke to the village elders, who told her much of what she already knew, but refused to let her speak to any of the women. That night, her translator spoke to one of the women who had allegedly been raped and discovered something startling. It turns out, much of what was claimed never actually happened.

In reality, there were probably a few instances of rape, though it was probably closer to 10 than the 400 that was claimed. But by inflating the numbers, the notoriety generated by the event generated a tremendous amount of support for the community, in the form of money, healthcare, and supplies. If the true story came out, it would mean an end to all that.

This is an example of the slippery slope of hyperbole. Undoubtedly, the horrific nature of these crimes drew the world’s attention toward a problem that, up until that point, it had been able to ignore. The sheer scope of these mass rapes meant that people had to start watching and caring. But, at the same time, this particular village drew resources away from other affected areas that may have needed them more. The same ethical question remains: is exaggeration in the name of raising awareness justified?

IV. The Current State of the Debate

These three anecdotes highlight the complexities of the awareness debate. Does Ishmael Beah risk doing more harm than good to a cause if he exaggerates his experience? Does hyperbolizing an event risk diverting attention away from other, more pressing issues, or does it provoke outrage from people who would never have tuned in in the first place? Does the disproportionate attention given to particularly egregious events, like rape and crimes against children, create perverse incentives from groups in desperate need of support from the international community? These are complex and difficult questions to answer.

In the era of social media – of Twitter, Facebook, and the fast, fleeting, viral stories that circulate – you see general feel-good awareness-raising more and more. The website Upworthy shows feel-good videos of people doing the right thing in the face of adversity, allowing people to feel better and perhaps more informed about certain social issues. The story of Batkid in San Francisco, where 20,000 people helped turn San Francisco into Gotham City to make a five year-old’s wish come true, is another example. These are human issue stories that draw attention to a larger cause, but also, by their very nature, provide a narrow lens through which to view it. Childhood leukemia is something terrible that we should work hard to solve. But perhaps there are other more treatable ailments that are overshadowed by the story.

The marketing of causes by Upworthy.

The marketing of causes by Upworthy.

I think that, on-balance, simplifying issues to give them a wider appeal and increase the likelihood that action will be taken is a good thing. I don’t think that technocrats will base their policy recommendations on the writings of Nicholas Kristof, Bono, and other cause advocates. Instead, I think these advocates provide cover to policy-makers who face an electorate that needs a reason to care about these issues. Similarly, feel-good stories shared on Facebook and Twitter help to make people generally more compassionate. They expose them to real stories that allow them to experience empathy when thinking about controversial issues like gay marriage and immigration reform, where the basic rights of historically-marginalized groups are debated. The threat of being labeled a bigot carries more weight when the threat of your bigotry going viral on Facebook is real.

So, in conclusion, while I would love for the journalism of Jeffrey Gettleman and the research of Esther Duflo to have mainstream appeal, I know that will never be the case. In the meantime, if sharing Upworthy videos on Facebook makes people more compassionate, and Nicholas Kristof and Ishmael Beah inform people about injustices they would never have known otherwise, that is just fine with me.


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"Josh Weinstein is a visionary. I read his blog every day." - Bono
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2 Responses to The Ethical Obligations of Writing About Poverty and Conflict

  1. Francisco d'ancona says:

    very interesting. This has been done for years. The recent book “Lawrence in Arabia”, points to the same techniques that occurred in Palestine, Syria and Arabia during WWI, particularly inflating deaths and pillaging by enemies. Techniques were used by both sides.

  2. am says:

    Are you saying deception is fine as long as it does some good and threatens a self-imposed censorship.

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