The problem of success

Knowledge brokering01 Jun 2010

Among the issues picked up on by civil society in the run-up to the FIFA™ World Cup – make sure you don’t forget the trademark sign! – is human trafficking linked to the sex industry. Apparently, Germany faced problems of increased human trafficking when they played host to the previous FIFA™ World Cup. Now South Africa (or especially civil society in South Africa) is determined to learn from their experience.

Debates started a year or so back, when a typical heated discussion would revolve around whether or not South Africa should legalize sex work. This has now evolved to awareness-raising campaigns on human trafficking and its links to the (still illegal) sex industry. There is today perhaps more awareness about this issue among South Africans than ever before. From a layman’s perspective, campaigns to raise awareness can be deemed a great success.

So what, then, is the problem with that? Is human trafficking not a real problem? Of course it is! I am just wondering whether other equally important issues are obscured by a successful campaign.

Let me explain using a different example. One of the most successful civil society campaigns of the last decade or so is that against the sale of diamonds mined in war zones and sold. A phrase was coined – ‘blood diamonds’ – and a process launched to address the problem (the Kimberley Process). Hey, there was even a film! (That one with Leo DiCaprio, remember?) And yes, in some places, the problem would make for a good Le Carré novel, complete with manically charismatic rebel leaders and billion-dollar arms deals.

In other places, the problems are not as sexy, but just as real. They might involve children and adults digging through muck in the hope of finding a sparkly stone that they would then sell to an intermediary, who would sell it to an intermediary, who would sell it to an intermediary, who would etc … Many of them are not children who are forced to dig with a Kalashnikov pressed against their skulls. Many of them are digging because that’s what one does when the institutions on which most of us have come to rely fall away, and you simply have to make do.

Or take the case of the Congo Rainforest. Yes, there are industrial logging companies and yes they do cut down trees, sometimes unsustainably. Yes, there are cases when big companies are in cahoots with the political elite. And yes, these issues are important and it is great that awareness is raised and the issues are dealt with. But just as important is the fact that more trees are actually cut down to produce and sell charcoal in a region where there is often no alternative source of energy or income.

In this case, it is not as easy to point fingers or apportion blame. And, despite how we love to criticize the labelling of everything as ‘complex’ on this blog, this issue is complex. So are the touted solutions. If you don’t believe me, google ‘REDD’.

To get back to human trafficking and the FIFA™ World Cup: successful civil society campaigns are great. In some cases, they have even managed to change the world. I just wonder about the distorting potential such campaigns have; the potential to create the impression that ‘ … [insert BIG ISSUE here] is the issue’. How do we raise awareness about those issues that are less sexy, but no less real?

Any suggestions?