–by Abigail Agosta–
Slavery still exists in the world today. International Justice Mission (IJM) is a global organization working to stop the cycles that create unsafe environments and put people in vulnerable situations. They seek to accomplish their mission by rescuing and restoring victims of violence, bringing criminals to justice, and working with communities to build better justice systems. While this organization has a clear goal, an effective setup, and good intentions, much of their marketing relies on imagery and storytelling that toes––and often crosses––the line of ethical and moral marketing strategies. While seeking to rescue and empower individuals entrapped in a cycle of slavery and trafficking, IJM focuses most heavily on victims and survivors, relying on their stories and photographs to call supporters to action. This paper will look at the problematic nature of this marketing practice while also discussing IJM’s method of intervention in select African countries and communities.
Slavery still exists today, all over the world and in numerous forms. International Justice Mission (IJM) is a global, evangelical Christian organization whose mission is to stop cycles that create unsafe environments and puts people in vulnerable situations. IJM was founded in 1994 by a human rights attorney, Gary Haugen. After conducting an investigation on Rwandan genocide in the U.N., Haugen began to believe that the community there did not need missionaries, food or financial aid. Rather, they needed systemic violence to stop. The organization seeks to accomplish this through interventions in communities around the world. This entry will look at whether these interventions are conducted in ethical and moral ways, with local cultures taken into consideration, and whether or not victims and survivors of violence are treated with respect. IJM employs over 900 people, worldwide, including lawyers, law enforcement, and social workers who, according to IJM, partner with local counterparts and police to assist victims. These individuals receiving assistance may be experiencing slavery, sexual violence, or land seizures.
The key to IJM’s work is harnessing power to bring justice to those in need. This approach and narrative create power dynamics within communities and between the organization and local people––both with counterparts and the general populace. This article will look at IJM’s interventions in Uganda and Ghana, specifically the engagement with land grabbing, intimate partner violence, and child labor trafficking.
Methodological approaches and intentions for humanitarianism are built around a framework of imperialistic and colonial theories. Africa, as an entire continent, is too often reduced to negative stereotypes, shaded by Western imperialism, racist tropes, and relationships clouded by power dynamics. Parker and Rathbone (2017) describe this problem, saying that there is an assumption that the continent is unified by more than geography, “a unity that not only binds it together but sets it apart from other parts of the world” (p. 2). Western perspectives and interpretations, carried down by historically colonial stories, have shaped understandings of Africa and its people. Rather than allow Africans to tell their own histories, varied cultures, and social norms, the West has decided what the continent is and what the people need. And what they need is rescuing, help, and aid. Iweala (2007) blames this on the West’s self-image, one that is a “sexy, politically active generation” that likes seeing “celebrities pictured in the foreground, forlorn Africans in the back”. Humanitarian organizations oftentimes fail to listen to local needs and cultures, instead relying on imperialistic narratives that have been historically constructed by racist structures and cycles. International Justice Mission walks a fine line with their presence in African continents. While they claim to take ethical steps to get to know the communities that intervene in, the organization can come across as a “pornographer of death”, constructing a heroic image of themselves for the consumption of their supporters and the media, rather than an organization solely dedicated to empowering communities (Barnett & Weiss, 2008, p. 6).
Land Grabbing in Uganda
According to Charity Navigator’s 2018 report on IJM, the organization and its partners rescued 4,660 individuals, convicted 195 criminals, and trained 29,851 people. In 2008, “IJM started assisting Ugandan widows whose land had been taken…the organization created a mentorship program for duty bearers on cases of property grabbing” (p. 18). Those duty bearers refer to local community leaders, police, and justice officials. The organization first intervened in Mukono County, a rural area outside of Kampala, where IJM claims to have “helped restore more than 1,200 widows, orphans and their family members to their land; trained more than 10,000 police, judges, officials, church leaders and other community members on property grabbing; and contributed to the arrest of more than 100 suspects for land theft-related offenses” between 2012-2017 (p. 18). At the beginning of the intervention, IJM conducted surveys throughout Mukono country, speaking with widows to learn about their lived experiences with property grabbing. Workers from IJM also reviewed case files and conducted focus groups with key stakeholders in the community (p. 18). By conducting these reviews and surveys before and after their programming launched, IJM found a nearly 50% decrease in property grabbing crimes in the Mukono county (p. 19).
An interesting, and rather telling note within the 2019 Justice Review, is a line that states:
“Criminal property-grabbing cases (as opposed to administrative cause-property grabbing cases) are still mediated by inappropriate parties (e.g., family members or local leaders) instead of legally recognized duty bearers. Police or other duty bearers discontinue investigations due to the complainant’s “lack of follow up,” indicating that some of the burden of the investigation of these cases is still (wrongly) the victim’s responsibility.”
This suggests that IJM’s interaction and partnership with local agencies and individuals may not be without a sense of superiority and a desire to impose particular practices upon communities, with some level of disregard for their local social practices and culture. The tradition in Mukono county seems to be that where family members and local leaders are mediators, whereas IJM wants to see police and justice officials as primary investigators. The 2019 Justice Review also states that “officials continue to push for civil remedies over criminal charges” (p. 19). This also jumps out as a very Western/US critique. Rather than see civil and social steps taken to deal with perpetrators of violence, as per practice in this particular community, IJM is still pushing for using power and criminalization tactics. Finally, the 2019 Justice Review states that there are “tensions between the customary and formal justice system…due to persistent cultural norms and performance issues in the formal justice system” (p. 20). These “performance issues” refer to informal marriages. This, again, is a complaint from a Western organization and does not signal that IJM is always willing to tailor their programs and interventions in a way that is overwhelmingly understanding, inclusive, and respectful of traditional practices.
Intimate Partner Violence in Uganda
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is an issue across the globe and a pandemic in Northern Uganda. While 35% of women, globally, have survived IPV, in Northern Uganda “70% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 experience some form of violence by their spouse” (2019 Justice Review, p.22). In a pilot project, IJM went into the communities in Northern Uganda, specifically in Pece region of Gulu, to learn about IPV in the region. IJM claims, within its 2019 Justice Review, that the workers maintained steady dialogue with key stakeholders in Gulu in an effort to receive the trust and support of the community, while learning about problems and solutions around IPV. If “violence is perpetuated by social norms, beliefs, and practices that encourage and validate intimate partner violence”, where is the line between respecting local social norms and helping to enact positive change (2019 Justice Review, p. 23).
One way IJM worked to walk this fine line in Gulu was to maintain engagement with key stakeholders within the community and work to “build investigative strategy and skills to ensure sufficient evidence had been gathered and victims consulted before prosecutions were initiated” (2019 Justice Review, p. 23). By taking these steps, IJM kept local practice in mind while respecting what victims of violence were comfortable with, before launching any sort of prosecution. The key to working well with local agencies is to learn and understand the local culture and power structures while establishing a positive rapport with leaders, agencies, and individuals. A danger of going into communities, such as Gulu, as an international humanitarian organization, is that there is a power dynamic between the agency intervening and the community. This dynamic is compounded by the racial element of white, highly educated individuals seeking to alter current and traditional practices. IJM seeks to combat these unfair power dynamics by employing individuals from the regions where they are working, breaking down some barriers to providing education and support. Through their engagement with local council leaders and law enforcement, IJM learned that the leaders’ and police’s “view that IPV survivors should have the choice of how to proceed with a case––whether through mediation or prosecution” (2019 Justice Review, p. 26). This knowledge allowed IJM to tailor their plan to the needs and desires of the local community, focusing on ensuring that victims knew their rights and felt empowered to take whatever route they felt most comfortable with.
Slavery on Lake Volta
A current story that is featured with IJM is Lost in Slavery on Lake Volta. The story focuses on a girl, Esther, and a boy, Geoffrey, whose parents were promised she would receive education from a family near Lake Volta. Instead, they were taken to work on an island, fishing or preparing fish. However, looking at the page (linked above), readers will note that the entire story is dotted with little boxes that say, “send rescue today”. While donations and fundraising are an integral and necessary aspect of 501(c)3 nonprofits, dotting these buttons in the midst of the story and photos of an African children, is disconcerting. Arguably, a life being saved is the most important thing, at the end of the day, regardless of how the funding was obtained. However, there are more ethical ways to share the organizations’ stories, successes, and calls to action, especially when it comes to children. As Cheney and Rotabi (2014) say, “children often come to represent the tragedy of suffering and the motivation for the restoration of peace” (p. 2) Whether or not the photos used within the story are actually Esther and Geoffrey, IJM is still using photographs of African children in poor conditions to try and gain support.
While the intentions are wholesome, there are power dynamics at play, even more so with children than with adults. Children are minors and therefore cannot consent to their stories and likenesses being advertised. This type of imagery and storytelling reemphasizes the trope of the sad, helpless African child. While this is obviously an effective tool to raise money and awareness, it fetishizes the conditions the child is in while reemphasizing the negative narrative that follows Africa throughout the media. It also ignores the larger problems that facilitate labor trafficking in the region. Economics, access to education, and social norms are playing a larger role than IJM is acknowledging. “Rescuing” children from enslavement is not the final step towards their freedom and independence. Protective social services, reunification, long-term support, and much more are needed to stop the cycle of violence and ensure that children are no longer vulnerable due to the institutional and social functions.
Victimization is an issue throughout IJM’s marketing and website dialogue. It is easy to fall for the ease of marketing based on images of “rescued” and “saved” women and children. But this method of marketing fetishizes the lives and circumstances of the survivors of violence and strengthens stereotypes about Africa and Ugandans, from state to individual. The term “victim” carries a lot of connotations. According to Cole, author of The Cult of True Victimhood: From the War on Welfare to the War on Terror (2007), using the word “victim” often reduces an individual’s autonomy. This is even more hazardous when discussing individuals from regions that are already seen as “underdeveloped” and “vulnerable”. “Victim” signals that someone is weak or passive, putting a black mark on that person’s character, making it seem as though something is wrong with them rather than with the injustice they have sustained. Looking at the Uganda cases, labeling the widows as victims fails to acknowledge the perpetrators and structures that allowed the violence to happen. Labeling survivors of sexual violence as victims fails to acknowledge the intricacies of familial and social norms that perpetuate the cycles of violence.
Victimization also emphasizes power dynamics, especially when looking at cases of Western humanitarian organizations’ interventions. The video linked here is a 2015 video IJM posted called “IJM: Fighting to End Slavery. For Good.“ It shows videos of children and young women in deplorable conditions, at the lowest points of their lives, in order to show the rescue work that IJM does. While it can bring awareness to the problems of slavery and trafficking, it victimizes and dehumanizes the individuals it features. The shock factor from images and videos, such as the 2015 IJM video, comes from focusing on remnants of absolute devastation. “The emphasis on pity and guilt reinforces negative racial stereotypes” (Hudson, et al., 2016, p. 5) This “pornography of poverty”, may be an effective fundraising tool for humanitarian organizations, but it victimizes its subjects to the point of dehumanization and reduces their agency in ways that not only could harm psyches, but in ways that play into negative and racist stereotypes (Plewes & Stuart, 2006).
So, who is the justice for? Is the justice for those widows and families who are victims and survivors of land grabbing and intimate partner violence? Or is the justice for IJM and its staff? It is necessary to “question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one’s cultural superiority” (Iweala, 2007)? International Justice Mission believes that it is their mission to serve children, families, and communities – that they “owe it to them” (Studies: International Justice Mission). Where is the line between that need to help and a true desire to enact institutional change that breaks down unjust systems that act as barriers to basic human rights? IJM has, historically, received a significant amount of backlash for their interventions. In her article, The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking (2016), author Thrupkaew notes that IJM is “dedicated to a “casework” model, IJM staff work to remove victims from exploitation”. In a sharp critique of the organization’s approach to combatting sex trafficking in Thailand and Cambodia, Thrupkaew discusses the problematic nature of brothel raids and quest to find “the one” to hold up as a trophy of their success. The original setup of the organization was that of a vigilante. An agency that identified human rights violations and went in and “rescued” women and girls from their plight. They did this with zero cultural context or understanding that the women and girls in the brothels were often foreign and did not speak local languages, much less English. IJM also failed to understand the diplomacy of international transport and long-term social services.
Hauge, CEO of IJM, is quoted by Thrupkaew as saying “I have an opportunity to bring heaven on earth in places that are already hell on earth” (The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking, 2016). That motivation is self-serving and savior-esque, eschewing the moral obligation to understand the intricacies of local cultures, practices, and institutions. In the Ugandan cases, more attention is paid to local cultures. Since those brothel raids, IJM has adapted its structures, opting for more on the ground learning prior to forceful action. Rather than immediately conducting aggressive interventions in Ugandan communities, IJM went in with staff, some familiar with local norms, and assess the violence and determine how best to help the justice system respond to it. With this knowledge and understanding, IJM workers can ensure that the adjustments will actually reduce crime rates and be sure that the “improvements are actually making vulnerable people safer from the targeted form of violence” (Studies: International Justice Mission). In this way, IJM’s approach to combatting violence looks more at the roots of violence, finding the gaps in policy, policing, and the justice system. While it is difficult to really understand and know if they are carefully taking ethical steps in order to carry out their mission, their publications – such as the Justice Review: A Journal on Protection and Justice for the Poor (2019) details the methodological approach and dedication to engagement with local communities.
International Justice Mission has, undoubtedly, saved lives through their interventions in countries across the globe. While we can acknowledge this, we can also hold humanitarian organizations, such as IJM, to higher standards and codes of conduct. Good intentions are not enough because individuals can still be harmed, victimized, and left in insecure and vulnerable situations, even when intentions to help come from good hearts. Regardless of IJM’s intentions, the organization must be accountable for its positionality as a Western humanitarian organization. One that has been and still can be easily hindered by its perspectives on African states and individuals. The lack of cultural awareness was evident in the land theft cases when IJM pushed for harnessing governmental power and criminalization when the community was not necessarily looking for that nature of a solution. The case of intimate partner violence in Uganda demonstrated more of an effort to learn about local practices and desires, but power imbalances still exist between organizations offering “help”. Finally, in the case of slavery on Lake Volta, we saw extremely problematic practices of marketing and storytelling, a strong example of poverty pornography and using “rescue” to paint the organization as heroic.
The rhetoric used throughout IJM’s videos and stories is one that reemphasizes colonialist ideas regarding Africa and Africans. It plays into the objectification and dehumanization of the subjects in the particular stories, but also of the general population. Much of IJM’s methodologies for storytelling presents a very racist and narrow look at Africa and ignores the areas of success and positive growth. It also ignores the roles that local actors play as well as the institutions and systems that allow poverty and insecurity to exist in some regions or areas and this “reinforce(s) the perception that more charity is required rather than fundamental political and economic change” thus leading to “a sense of hopelessness and helplessness” (Plewes & Stuart, 2006, p. 7). All of this ignores what really needs to be done and dumbs down the larger problems, for the sake of fundraising. The overarching problem may not even be known, yet, due to the impossibly complex set of local, state, national, and international hierarchies and politics of power and economics. IJM shows promise, particularly in its methodologies for supporting and empowering systems in Gulu. But in order to continue to be ethical, IJM must commit to reducing its use of “poverty pornography,” acknowledge the complexities of the problems it seeks to combat, and be willing to listen and learn about local practices and needs.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
Barnett, M., & Weiss, T. (Eds.). (2008). Humanitarianism in question: politics, power, ethics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Hudson, D., vanHeerde-Hudson, J., Dasandi, N., & Gaines, N. S. (2016). Emotional Pathways to Engagement with Global Poverty: An Experimental Analysis, 1–29.
IJM. Fighting to End Slavery. For Good. (2015, October 27). Retrieved January 15, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKXSKJrOxbI&t=26s
International Justice Mission. (2019). Justice Review: A Journal on Protection and Justice for the Poor. Justice Review: A Journal on Protection and Justice for the Poor. Retrieved from https://www.ijm.org/documents/IJM-JusticeReview2019-compressed.pdf
Iweala, U. (2007, July 15). Stop Trying To ‘Save’ Africa. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/13/AR2007071301714.html.
Lost in slavery on Lake Volta. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2020, from https://www.ijm.org/stories/lost-in-slavery-on-lake-volta.
Parker, J., & Rathbone, R. (2007). African history: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Plewes, B., & Stuart, R. (2006). The Pornography of Poverty: A Cautionary Fundraising Tale. Ethics in Action, 23–37. doi: 10.1017/cbo9780511511233.002
Rating for International Justice Mission. (2018). Retrieved January 12, 2020, from https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=5496.
Studies: International Justice Mission. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2020, from https://www.ijm.org/studies?types=&year=&country=uganda&subject=#filter.
Thrupkaew, N. (2016, June 8). The Crusade Against Sex Trafficking. Retrieved from https://www.thenation.com/article/crusade-against-sex-trafficking/.