International Activism: Past to Present

International activism is extremely grand in scale today, still riding the human rights movement but also encompassing a newer field of social entrepreneurship; however, the form of activism has begun to root itself in the technological hype of our current society. While the past has shown activism in the form of international law (i.e. Geneva Conventions), today’s form is geared more towards the internet-tech era that integrates human rights and humanitarianism under the social media platform. Take for example, the movement that continuously promotes raising awareness for hundreds if not thousands of causes. Whether it’s the Twitter #YesAllWomen tag or the Facebook photo filter for the Paris attacks this past year, social media has changed the way the international community responds, and the speed at which it responds, to global crises. Michelle Obama’s “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign was, in my opinion, one of the most powerful in recent years in terms of humanitarianism. The campaign essentially called for the government to rescue the 219 Chibok schoolgirls abducted on 24 April 2014. The social media world erupted with the #BringOurGirlsBack movement, uniting the public around the cause and encouraging those who did not know about the situation to tune in and raise awareness. While voices on social media may not have made much of an obvious difference, especially since a year following the campaign the girls were still missing, it did manage to aid world focus on the issue at hand and stimulate a sense of urgency within world leaders. Of course, international law and the U.N. still play vital roles in how we view things like human rights. Last year, approaching the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, international human rights lawyers like Amal Clooney laid their cases before the European Court of Human Rights against a Turkish politician who denied the 1915 Armenian Genocide. This demonstrates how the worldwide community is still cognisant of past and present mistakes and is, at the very least, attempting to remedy those wrongs through court trials and through drawing upon international human rights laws. Today’s worldly activism, as already exemplified, does a phenomenal job at creating a following, bringing millions together under one cause. Nevertheless, the biggest problem with our global society is our fleeting attention span. As said earlier, a year after the movement, only a few girls managed to escape back home.

History continually proves the same trends in generating a following, for but only a brief time. In the Armenian case, the international community knew much about the situation in years prior to the Genocide. During the late 1800’s, newspapers across America were calling out to garner humanitarian aid for the Christians living in the oppression of the Muslim Ottomans. The movement was effective in that people were willing to give to a cause they could relate to (in this case, religiously) and continued to follow the situation even throughout the Genocide. However, after WWI, the Armenians received increasingly little amount of attention. Their time, in international terms, was over. People were moving on to other causes and worrying about their own states. Armenia was left a failure, both in the sense that the goal to create an Armenian nation-state had failed and the fact that even though the international community was well aware of the genocidal attacks against the Armenians they managed to forget that such an atrocity had even occurred (the U.S., which had supported the Armenians in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s has still not recognized the Genocide). So maybe we haven’t changed all that much internationally? Maybe the form and role of media in our campaigns change but the people’s mindset does not?

In any case, the human rights movement is not irrelevant but still very much a growing international field. Looking at today’s headlines, we see countless appearances of “human rights.” For instance, on 20 April 2016, CNN published an article delineating how mass murderer Anders Breivik’s human rights were breached in prison. Specifically, the court ruled that the defendant was treated inhumanely/degradingly while in prison. It’s interesting that human rights today really is applicable to every person, whether that is you or me or a convicted murder of 77 people. The Breivik situation reminds me of the Nuremberg trials in that the trials were the most groundbreaking point in terms of how individuals were punished. Of course, in Nuremberg the situation was completely different–individuals were tried as perpetrators of genocide–while in the Breivik case human rights were being used in defense of a convicted man. This goes to show that today all men are held to the same standards no matter their past situations. Human rights, therefore, is really applicable to all humans.

Still, human rights is not the only current humanitarian “trend.” Social entrepreneurship has taken a fast ride in popularity in recent years. For many people, this is great as they can turn their passion into profit for a cause. The welcoming entrepreneurship industry also promotes change for social issues and places the power of change into the hands of the individual entrepreneur, who is granted a sense of freedom and courage to take initiative. Not to mention, people are more willing to spend time and money on a company if it is giving back to the community. For example, Kiva.org allows any person to give a micro-loan of at least $25 to a business owner or entrepreneur in a developing country. Hence, social platforms can be used for both brand awareness and giving back while encouraging inspiring solutions without having to necessarily report back to a boss. For social entrepreneurs, communities become the solutions and not beneficiaries of their given product or idea. With different people tackling different issues, the international world is granted a wider range of solutions for more problems. The government, too, is aided by the generation of innovative solutions and the testing of new theories for social change by these entrepreneurs.

But though the phrasing of “social entrepreneurship” is recently popularized, the history of humanitarianism shows examples of it growing within the past two centuries. In 1881, Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross, which even today remains true to its mission of providing emergency assistance to people in need. Almost immediately after its founding, the Red Cross supported global issues reaching into the depths of Eastern Europe to Armenia, where Christians were suffering. The Cross’ founder even paid visit to the region herself, demonstrating the committed initiative of this entrepreneurial corporation. In the second World War, the Red Cross again went to Holocaust concentration camps to help those in need. Nearly a century after the conception of the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch sprung up in 1978. In the end of the 20th century, the Watch served an important role in detailing the Rwandan Genocide. The 1994 Human Rights Watch World Report, which covered news from Mexico to Estonia to Nagorno Karabakh, wrote of the Rwandan Genocide the following:

On February 8, the RPF violated the ceasefire in effect since the previous July and drove Rwandan troops farther south. After this resumption of the conflict, Rwandan soldiers took vengeance on Tutsi civilians and opponents of the regime.

Although this passage is merely part of the long report on the proceedings of the genocide, it shows that the organization was attuned to what was happening in Rwanda and taking initiative to show the international community this side of the world.

What’s interesting to me is how selective attention comes to play in world events. In the 1994 report, I noticed that there was a report included on the Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijani conflict (one that even in 2016 has created disruption in the region). The first line of the report states that the conflict was at the time in its fifth year. I searched every world report preceding the 1994 one. None mentioned this on-going conflict in the region. The lack of notice for tension–even during a war–in this region attests to the fact that we, as a community, are unaware of many major conflicts throughout the globe and that no matter how much we try, our selective attention will get the better of us, maybe at a point when it’s too late. (Sidenote: Having traveled to the Nagorno-Karabakh region many times, it still amazes me how the region–though having much progress–is still suffering from the after effects of this war. You can still see the remnants of bombed villages, you can see the caves where people would hide and use as shelter from raids, and most importantly, you still hear of soldiers captured near the borders of Karabakh and Azerbaijan).

Social entrepreneurship initiatives like the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch ultimately set the path for today’s organizations that aim to bring about social change. SmileyGo, for instance, is a data-driven philanthropy platform founded in 2014 whose mission is to “empower corporations to give smarter” by revolutionizing the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) industry for more educated means of philanthropy. Within a few months, SmileyGo was able to expand from its origins in the Bay Area to eight other countries, where it connected U.S. corporations to nonprofits in the developing world. Thousands of companies and organizations like SmileyGo have sprung up and with initiatives by schools, like Duke University, the possibilities of social entrepreneurship are endless.

Limitations are also prominent in social entrepreneurship, however. For instance, The individual is elevated and less attention to the team. We seem to place greater emphasis on those who are in charge (CEOs, Founders) than the actual team that makes things happen. It’s also interesting to think of the scale of social entrepreneurship in terms of economics. Growing up in the Silicon Valley especially, I realized how much individuals feel the need to start their own companies rather than joining or partnering with ones that already exist. Therefore, many different organizations essentially work separately towards a common goal, thus not paying attention to current efforts towards the issue at hand and wasting valuable money and resources that could be put to better use by solving the social problem together. Looking back at the past, we see the impact of joint effort. In the Second Sino-Japanese War, seven agencies conjoined to form the United China Relief and provide aid thereby strengthening their support in the region. If organizations like Mission for Orphans, a grassroots organization reaching out to orphans, and Rizikitoto, a very new startup that connects iOS app revenue to orphans living in Uganda, perhaps the efforts of both would be more pronounced.

Part of the problem also resides with the word “entrepreneur.” Many of those who start businesses consider themselves entrepreneurs. However, an entrepreneur is someone who takes a risk in an area of innovation–with many of today’s social entrepreneurs tackling societal issues in similar manners (as I discussed earlier), are these people really entrepreneurs? Also, I don’t believe that one has to have their own business to be considered an entrepreneur. While several of today’s “social entrepreneurs” including those at Duke do start their own companies, it’s important to note that even within bigger corporations (i.e. Google, Facebook) individuals can be entrepreneurs through their contributions. For instance, Facebook’s product design team created photo filters that essentially bring awareness to social causes and allow people to show their solidarity with events like the fairly recent Paris bombings.

Lastly, ideas of social entrepreneurship are often implemented before any sort of testing or extensive research in the field. While it’s great that new approaches are considered for existing problems, the scope of the innovation’s sustainability and the ends of the idea are often less thought out compared to the primary conception. NanoFOD is a newer tech startup that is dedicated to providing more effective means of radiation measurement (i.e. in radiation therapy, nuclear events). However, due to their limited ability for testing, the accuracy of their product is uncertain even to the researchers and engineers of NanoFOD. This means that, say, if there was a nuclear explosion, only then would we be able to truly test the impact of this product when it’s already too late. In the past, we’ve also seen how humanitarian efforts (not necessarily through social entrepreneurship) have failed. A notable crisis is the aid given during the Ethiopian famine when the international community did not give the conflict much thought until a BBC reporter provided footage of suffering people in the region. Following this, millions came together behind this movement, even celebrities such as Bob Geldof. However, what many thought to be a drought-driven famine was actually a measure taken by the Ethiopian government. Unknowingly, therefore, aid was provided straight into the hands of the government instead of the actual suffering populations in the region. Hence, this misguided deliverance of aid prolonged the tragic situation in Ethiopia. While these two examples are extremely different in terms of context, they both show that to actually make an impactful, accurate, and successful impact, you need a means of intensive research and testing.

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