“Lost” Causes: Agenda Vetting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security

Author: Charli Carpenter

J. Steven Svoboda

Full disclosure: Charli Carpenter interviewed me at length for this book and she is a deeply respected colleague and a friend of mine.

University of Massachusetts at Amherst political science professor Charli Carpenter has published her latest book. As always with Carpenter, it contains superlatively written and trenchantly observed analysis.

Lost Causes builds on analytical structures and conclusions that Carpenter developed in her superlative earlier book, Forgetting Children Born of War, which was previously reviewed in these pages. How does it get decided which issues are accepted as valid human rights concerns and which are sloughed aside as less important? Carpenter shows that it is not an issue’s merits nor even the external environment’s receptivity that primarily determine its success. Instead, “relationships within the [human rights] network make all the difference—relationships between issues, between actors, between individuals, and between subnetworks themselves” [italics in original].

Issue definition by a norm entrepreneur (such as Marilyn Milos, Georganne Chapin, or I am in the genital autonomy world) is hopefully followed by the adoption of the issue by one or more major advocacy organizations. Carpenter argues that “issue adoption by at least one powerful actor within a preexisting network is a crucial prerequisite for successful agenda setting.” As a result, “many problems never get defined or, once defined, never spread because they are not endorsed by powerful gatekeepers….” Perhaps more intriguingly, and more pertinently to our work, decisions about how to pitch an issue affect the outcome. Is genital autonomy a health issue, a men’s rights issue, a gender equity issue, a sexual issue, a psychological issue, a religious issue, a medical issue, an ethical issue, a legal issue, or some combination of these? Carpenter observes that these choices matter greatly because “agenda-vetters place conditions on the way in which a problem can be articulated in order to receive their endorsement.”

Carpenter has come up with a number of pieces of information that may be of interest to our movement. For one thing, “adoption by hubs produces commitments by governments within an average of five years…” One point we want to bear in mind is our own potential for maximizing our influence since the author counsels, “resource-poor organizations new to the scene can compensate by positioning themselves as hubs in new networks.” Carpenter offers an example of “Global Witness, the first organization to brand itself in the new issue area of ‘conflict resources,’ focusing originally on diamonds… but more recently on timber, oil, water, and other natural resources…” Page 34 contains a list of forty-eight human security “non-issues” as identified by practitioners, including male circumcision.

An entrepreneur’s characteristics turn out to be surprisingly unimportant in the reception an issue receives. Much more critical are attributes of the issues and relations between actors and issues. “Entrepreneur ‘credibility,’ for example, appears to be based as much on the entrepreneur’s credentials, choice of allies, and relationship to the claimant population as on their actual expertise, advocacy skills, or the merit of the cause they champion.” More specifically, “ties between issues, issue areas, and organizations can result in conflict or competition among issues, and the way that issues are packaged structurally and mapped and mapped onto different organizations’ issue ‘turf’ affects the receptivity of the network to certain new ideas.”

Genital autonomy activists should carefully review Carpenter’s detailed account of how the movement by the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) for controlling wartime collateral damage to civilians won endorsement of its issue. Despite the salience and importance of the concern, it did not receive immediate attention. Like our topic, it fell between cracks in different networks’ respective mandates; “depending on which piece of the concept one focused on, it could be a humanitarian law issue, a human rights issue, a development issue, or a protection issue.” Another parallel with genital autonomy was evident in a perception of possible competition with other already accepted issues. Initial formulations of the issue suffered from less than ideal framing. Victory was eventually attained after a couple critical moves—relocating the geographic center of network ties from Washington DC to New York, and finding a frame for the issue in what Carpenter calls “the sweet spot between ‘something concrete’ yet ‘universal enough.’” Also, issues were damped down that “attracted push back from the wider human security network,” another step from which we may draw useful lessons. The concept of “norms” was deemphasized in favor of a focus on promoting respect and dignity, yet another potentially relevant consideration for genital autonomy advocates.

The next chapter performs a similar analysis of the movement to ban killer robots, which after some significant setbacks also proved successful. One instructive point from this chapter: a secret to the credibility with governments regarding military issues of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is its careful avoidance of ties with the peace movement. Another lesson with obvious relevance to our work is Human Rights Watch’s (HRW’s) long-standing success at reversing the burden of proof so that, for example, governments were required “to demonstrate in advance of deploying weapons that their use would not violate humanitarian standards.” Another conclusion worth bearing in mind: if an issue becomes too “sexy,” the willingness of established organizations to put their reputations on the line by adopting it may be reduced.

Then comes a chapter devoted to our movement and its failure to date to attract the attention of major human rights organizations. Carpenter reminded me of a fact I had nearly forgotten, how in the early years our movement explicitly acknowledged religious circumcision as legitimate. “However, intactivists gradually broadened their views under pressure from Jewish activists in the movement.”

ARC’s 2001 mission to the United Nations (UN), where the issue was first officially recorded in a published UN document as a human rights concern, is discussed in some detail. Carpenter provocatively concludes that “a key element of the explanation [for the failure to date of adoption of our issue] revolves around dynamics among organizations in the health and human rights networks, and perceptions of ties among human rights themselves.”

How a new issue is pitched in the existing issue space can be critical. “A new issue must be different enough from the current issue agenda to merit inclusion, but also similar enough not to conflict with or undermine an organization’s existing issue pool.” Accordingly, if an issue is seen as detracting from another already accepted issue, as some see the anti-male-circumcision movement as taking attention away from work to stop female genital cutting, this can produce roadblocks. Our success may also be rendered more elusive by the beliefs in some quarters in the existence of genuine health benefits to male circumcision and of problems of religious intolerance raised by opposing it.

Our issue has some undeniable pluses: a clear set of victims, relatively straightforward measurability, and an obvious set of perpetrators. Problematic, however, is the fact that the perpetrators may not be seen as morally blameworthy, and also the victims—especially if classed as adult males—are not those on whom human rights elites are accustomed to focusing.

The author notes that one of our movement’s pluses is that we have a high degree of professionalism in our movement among our entrepreneurs, with many of us “with field experience in the medical or legal community” and familiarity with human rights discourse.

Carpenter does eventually mention the issue of the gender of the victims as a barrier. The practice is prevalent in the social networks of the human rights elites! “A bigger problem was that to address circumcision, fingers would need to be pointed at global health professionals who had long accepted and perpetuated the practice.” Adopting the issue would pit human rights organizations against powerful players such as World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

As Carpenter deftly points out, female and male genital cutting may be comparable conceptually but not are not comparable politically. Moreover, our movement may have “appeared to UN insiders as an effort by adult men to steal thunder from the gender-violence movement, rather than a campaign on behalf of children.” Carpenter expands: “Intactivists are waging an uphill battle against an entrenched cultural practice embraced by the states in which human rights gatekeepers are headquartered and by whom their organizational partners are funded, as well as many practitioners within health and development organizations to which human rights elites are closely connected.”

“Ultimately, however, the support of leading human rights organizations is a crucial missing ingredient in the quest to consolidate this emerging understanding into an internationally recognized norm against the cutting of infant boys with resonance in the wider human rights network.”

One minor aspect of the book almost doesn’t bear mentioning but in the interests of completeness I will include it. Unfortunately a handful of typographical and factual errors slipped by the editors and fact checkers at Cornell University Press. For example, the names of Georganne Chapin and my own name are misspelled (which could slightly impede Internet searches for further information), and the year Attorneys for the Rights of the Child was founded is given as 1995 rather than 1997. It is also not quite true that the costs of ARC’s 2001 mission to the UN in Geneva was “cobbled together the funds out of pocket.” We ran a fundraising campaign that did produce financial support for the full costs of the initiative. Also, Dean Pisani is not a “billionaire.” The fact that the International Coalition for Genital Integrity (ICGI) is defunct is not mentioned. While this is not exactly an error, it would have been nice if this chapter had cited one or more of several concrete recent developments– the 2012 report from the International NGO Council on Violence Against Children that denounces male circumcision along with other forms of childhood genital cutting, the Council of Europe’s 2013 recommendation and resolution opposing male circumcision, and/or the 2013 report by the UN requesting further study by Israel of circumcision’s complications. Carpenter properly chronicles the shift from focusing on circumcision to framing the issue as one of “genital integrity” and also observes the shift from discussing gender, parental consent, and health to “a purely children’s rights frame.” Discussion of the recent switch to a “genital autonomy” frame would have been welcome.

Details aside, like all of Carpenter’s works, Lost Causes is simply brilliant, intellectually distinctive, painstakingly reasoned, with—as always with this author—a superlative, even artisanal quality of writing that is virtually never encountered in our hectic modern era. Charli Carpenter has published probably the most thought-provoking and original examination of challenges and opportunities for our success that has ever been published by an “outsider” to our movement. As always with this author, the writing is incisive and a pleasure to read, and the analysis and reasoning is crystal clear and easy to follow. Do not miss this indispensible book!