Activism in central Africa was on the minds of 30 students who gathered in St. Anthony Hall Wednesday afternoon to hear Jason Stearns GRD ’16 share his passion for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Stearns’ talk, “The Ethical Quandaries of Activism,” grappled with the challenge of providing tangible humanitarian aid to a nation ravaged by war like the Congo. Stearns, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, witnessed firsthand the tragedies of the Second Congo War in the late 1990s as a writer and human rights activist, later serving for a time as the coordinator for the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“I want to talk about death,” Stearns said, and the talk began.
Stearns went on to discuss the disparity in how human deaths are valued differently around the world. Terming this disparity “the scales of death,” Stearns emphasized how some nations, including the United States, put more value on deaths within their own societies and cultures than elsewhere in the world. This affection for one’s own society leads Americans to see countless deaths in Syria, Kenya or the Congo as “faceless.”
Stearns argued that a collective indifference to this human suffering — over 5 million people were casualties in the Second Congo War alone — coupled with the complex underlying factors of the Congo Wars, led to international hesitation to aid to the Congo. In the absence of international support, many activist groups have come to the aid of central Africa as it is ravaged by civil strife, he argued.
Activism in this region, however, is not as simple as sending support, Stearns said.
“We need to understand the problem before we can act,” Stearns said. “Anything less would imply that we care more about the symbolism of the gesture we are making than the people who are suffering.”
Stearns described the efforts of a number of activist groups, including the Enough Project, that are helping the Congo in constructive and significant ways. While an understanding of the Congo’s predicament is necessary before stepping in to help, Stearns argued understanding is only one piece of the puzzle.
“Activism should be empowering to those it is supposed to benefit, not disempowering,” Stearns said.
Stearns described what he sees as a pattern of outside groups projecting their assumptions onto nations like the Congo. Instead, Stearns encouraged the audience to consider how the Congo citizens feel. Intervening in dire situations is not always problematic, Stearns continued, but it is important for Western cultures to consider the how their nations are geopolitically different from central Africa, and these differences should be preeminent when determining a course of humanitarian or political action.
Stearns also discussed how European and American international policies towards central Africa tend to be shortsighted and fail to recognize the complexity of the situation there. Policies regarding the Congo, Stearns added, simplify the Congo’s political climate which ultimately leads to ineffective assistance and international misjudgment.
As the “confusion of the Congo” continues to perplex the world, Stearns called on global leaders to fully engage with the complex local disputes, civil war and mass rape that occur in the Congo.
Students interviewed after the talk said they enjoyed hearing about issues in central Africa, which often go undiscussed in academia.
“The important thing is understanding the complexity in different issues driven by blind actions and not assuming that you are right, or that you know the most,” Anna Lipin ’18 said of activism on Yale’s campus, which she tied to the broader discussion of international activism.
Irina Gavrilova ’17 shared a similar sentiment and said she thinks activism is often employed instead of insightful decisions.
St. Anthony Hall will host its next lecture, “A Time for Reflection,” on Oct. 8 at 4 p.m.