Details Key In Online Campaigns
Around two months ago, a friend asked me for help: she wanted to apply for a job with Avaaz, a non-profit that describes itself as ‘the campaigning community bringing people-powered politics to decision-making world wide.’ To prepare for her interview, she was looking for some suggestions for campaigns.
I didn’t do very well with this, mostly because, I told her, I was a bit over foreigners campaigning on behalf of Kenya unless it was something that involved foreigners. Maybe a campaign against the campaign not to buy Kenyan produce on account of air transport miles? After all, Kenyan growers don't use greenhouses, so their output is probably more energy-efficient than that of British firms. And the jobs – often maligned, but at least there are jobs, and people with jobs might need foreign do-gooders less.
Either way, I clearly wasn’t very useful. But I was reminded of this when my aunt in Germany forwarded an Avaaz email asking for support for a campaign to stop the Tanzanian government from throwing the Maasai off their land. She wanted to know whether the story had any substance. The appeal was, I thought, a bit of a lightweight:
‘At any moment, a big-game hunting corporation could sign a deal which would force up to 48,000 members of Africa’s famous Maasai tribe from their land to make way for wealthy Middle Eastern kings and princes to hunt lions and leopards. Experts say the Tanzanian President’s approval of the deal may be imminent, but if we act now, we can stop this sell-off of the Serengeti.
The last time this same corporation pushed the Maasai off their land to make way for rich hunters, people were beaten by the police, their homes were burnt to a cinder and their livestock died of starvation. But when a press controversy followed, Tanzanian President Kikwete reversed course and returned the Maasai to their land.
This time, there hasn’t been a big press controversy yet, but we can change that and force Kikwete to stop the deal if we join our voices now.If 150,000 of us sign, media outlets in Tanzania and around the world will be blitzed so President Kikwete gets the message to rethink this deadly deal.’
You take a few seconds, digitally sign the competition, and done with your internet activisms. Pat yourself on the shoulder. The forwarded email had a bit more detail, mostly a few links from 2009. But the story seemed full of holes to me. A journalist friend pointed out that they probably got the official’s name wrong, and according to her, Avaaz claimed that they had received the story from local NGOs, but refused to name them or provide contact details for them.
How do you then follow up on this, especially given that they had asked for media support? I also emailed them and asked a few questions: Which big-game hunting corporation is looking to acquire the land? Did they contact them? Did they ask them if they would have to evict the pastoralists whilst using the land – if indeed land was being sold? And, most importantly, had Avaaz sought any feedback from the Tanzanian government on this - Ministry of Lands? Tanzania Tourist Board? President Kikwete's office?
Land is difficult, and land is particularly difficult when it comes to a government having to balance the rights of an indigenous community with the needs for the country’s wider development and the treatment of investors. In writing about economic policy, I keep coming back to this issue.
There will never be any easy answers, and it’s even more complicated when you have a pastoralist indigenous community with less clearly defined land rights (by modern technocrat understanding, in any case) and a government with entrenched corruption in land and other public affairs management (and indigenous communities aren’t always innocent bystanders either).
The case that Avaaz were campaigning for may well have a lot of substance, but it’s not obvious from their appeal, and the online appeal doesn’t even have the handful of 2009 links. I can’t see much evidence of an investigation, and haven’t received a reply to my questions yet. Ultimately, I think, this is irresponsible and dishonest. Avaaz’s campaign doesn’t help anyone understand the many complexities involved, and it’s shamefully vague (also my pet hate with anything that involves celebrities and ‘awareness raising).
The UK Guardian cites George Matiko, spokesman for the resources and tourism ministry: ‘Such a move cannot be taken by the United Republic of Tanzania in the Serengeti as it is a national park where people do not settle.
Moreover, no eviction exercise has been planned for the Serengeti district, which is one of the districts in Mara region. In the Serengeti there is no hunting bloc allocated to Middle Eastern kings and princes to hunt lions and leopards.’ To which Emma Ruby-Sachs, campaign director at Avaaz, responded: ‘Rather than address the substance of the Avaaz campaign and the concerns of the Maasai, the Tanzanian government is playing cynical word games.’ Ummm - substance of the campaign?