The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism

The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism

by Clifford Bob

How do a few Third World political movements become global causes célèbres, while most remain isolated? This book rejects dominant views that needy groups readily gain help from selfless nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Instead, they face a Darwinian struggle for scarce resources where support goes to the savviest, not the neediest. Examining


How do a few Third World political movements become global causes célèbres, while most remain isolated? This book rejects dominant views that needy groups readily gain help from selfless nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Instead, they face a Darwinian struggle for scarce resources where support goes to the savviest, not the neediest. Examining Mexico's Zapatista rebels and Nigeria's Ogoni ethnic group, the book draws critical conclusions about social movements, NGOs, and "global civil society."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In a fascinating and important study, Bob shows that the extent to which a Third World protest or secessionist movement gains attention and Western support is not determined as much by its intrinsic merits or even strategic value as by the calculated use of NGOs. This careful account challenges many of our accepted notions of international politics and global civil society." Robert Jervis, Columbia University

"Clifford Bob cuts through a great deal of sentimental cant about global civil society. Even humanitarian NGOs, he demonstrates, must engage in a kind of commerce to stay in business. The Marketing of Rebellion offers a sober, well-documented analysis of this important trend in world politics. It is a model of what patient scholarship can achieve." Jeremy Rabkin, Cornell University

"[Clifford Bob] does an excellent job of showing the complexities involved in gaining international support for social movements in the developing world... This is an important book for its theoretical insights and use of case study methodology. Highly Recommended." Choice

"This book is well researched and enthusiastically argued. The Marketing of Rebellion is interesting, provocative, and well realized."
Ann Marie Clark, Mobilization

"[A] novel and very insightful perspective... Bob makes an important contribution to several literatures, including contentious politics, civil war, and globalization, as well as ethnic conflict and its international relations. The Marketing of Rebellion is quite useful for both undergraduate and graduate courses in comparative politics and international relations."
Stephen M. Saideman, McGill University, Perspectives on Politics

"In this extremely thoughtful and elegantly written book, Clifford Bob takes issue with this view of global civil society. Where others see all harmony and goodness, Bob sees Darwinian struggle, discord, and good old-fashioned politics. Bob is absolutely right that there is a morality market animating global civil society. In this thoughtful, well-researched, and accessible book, Bob establishes himself as our best guide for understanding it."
Paul Wapner, American University, Review of International Organizations

"Rarely does a book answer a question which is at once novel, interesting and important. . . . Bob's account . . . is erudite and plausible."
Pierre L. Van Den Berghe, University of Washington, Nations and Nationalism

"A fine contribution to the growing literature on the dynamics of global information flows, The Marketing of Rebellion clarifies how media-savvy movements can shape the political agenda of the emerging 'global civil society."
Scott L. Althaus, University of Illinois, Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics

"[A]n insightful and thought provoking contribution [on] domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and social movements. . . . His study shows us how self-interest, altruism, and sympathy intersect in global civil society . . . lay[ing] a strong foundation for policy-oriented research on the relationship between INGOs and local challengers. Both scholars and practitioners interested in the different dimensions of social movements will benefit from the theoretical and empirical insights provided in this book."
International Studies Review

"[T]his is a provocative book, one that challenges a number of evolving theoretical expectations about non-state actors, global civil society, and transnational relations in the post-Cold War era."
Jeffrey Ayres, Saint Michael's College, Contemporary Sociology

"[T]imely and refreshing . . . I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it very highly not only to academics in political science and sociology and communications, but also to social marketing professionals and public policy advocates who will find the ideas presented to be very thought provoking."
Abhijit Roy, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary & Nonprofit Organizations

"In The Marketing of Rebellion, Clifford Bob turns a world upside down. . . . The Marketing of Rebellion is a wonderful, rich and incisive study of . . . Southern social movements and the way in which they capture global attention. . . . Bob provides a service by helping future movements both understand the motivations in the North and weigh the costs and benefits of participating in the market."
Lisa Jordan, Ford Foundation, Cambridge Review of International Affairs

"[O]ne academic book. . . that could be unhesitatingly recommended to a local activist searching for transnational allies. . . [P]rovides an excellent method of analysis. . . [and] a harsh but not unrealistic picture of [global civil society]."
Tomás Mac Sheoin, Global Social Policy

"I highly recommend [it] for students of global studies, international and comparative politics, and especially social movement scholars interested in the transnational dimensions of popular struggles in the global South. The study offers a major contribution to our understanding of the conditions leading to the emergence of broad transnational linkages between poor challengers and better-off advocates in the age of globalization."
Paul Almeida, American Journal of Sociology

"[O]ne of the best recent books on culture and politics . . . "
James Jasper, Sociological Forum

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Cambridge University Press
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The Marketing of Rebellion
Cambridge University Press
052184570X - The Marketing of Rebellion - Insurgents, Media, and International Activism - by Clifford Bob


Insurgent Groups and the Quest for Overseas Support

For decades, Tibet's quest for self-determination has roused people around the world. Inspired by appeals to human rights, cultural preservation, and spiritual awakening, thousands of individuals and organizations lend moral, material, and financial support to the Tibetan cause. As a result, greater autonomy for Tibet's five million inhabitants remains a popular international campaign despite the Chinese government's 50-year effort to suppress it.

But although Tibet's light shines brightly abroad, few outsiders know that China's borders hold other restive minorities: Mongols, Zhuang, Yi, and Hui, to name only a few. Notable are the Uyghurs, a group of more than seven million people located northwest of Tibet. Like the Tibetans, the Uyghurs fought Chinese domination for centuries, enjoying brief periods of independence twice during the twentieth century. Like the Tibetans, the Uyghurs today face threats from Han Chinese in-migration, centrally planned development policies, and newly strengthened antiterror measures. If, as the Dalai Lama has warned, Tibetan ethnicity, culture, and environment face "extinction," the Uyghurs' surely do, too. And, like the Tibetans, the Uyghurs resist Chinese domination with domestic and international protest that, in Beijing's eyes, makes them dangerous separatists. Yet the Uyghurs have failed to inspire the broad-based foreign networks that generously bankroll the Tibetans. No bumper stickers plead for East Turkestan's liberation. No Hollywood stars or corporate moguls write fat checks for the Uyghurs. No Uyghur leader has visited with a U.S. president or won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In their quest for external allies, the Tibetans and Uyghurs are far from unique. In armed and unarmed conflicts throughout the world, challengers confronting powerful opponents seek support outside their home states - from international organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the media, and the broad public. But although many clamor for assistance, few draw the external backing won by the Tibetans. Instead, most remain as isolated as the Uyghurs. Whereas the world now knows about East Timor, similar insurrections in Indonesian Aceh and West Papua remain far less celebrated. Among environmental conflicts, a small number of cases, such as the Brazilian rubber tappers' efforts to save the Amazon, the conflict over China's Three Gorges dam, and the fight over the Chad-Cameroon pipeline, have gained global acclaim. But many similar environmental battles, such as the construction of India's Tehri dam, the logging of Guyana's rainforests, and the laying of the Trans Thai-Malaysia gas pipeline, are waged in anonymity. Whole categories of conflict, such as landlessness in Latin America and caste discrimination in South Asia, likewise go little noticed.

How and why do a handful of local challengers become global causes célèbres while scores of others remain isolated and obscure? What inspires powerful transnational networks to spring up around particular movements? Most basically, which of the world's myriad oppressed groups benefit from contemporary globalization?

Since the end of the Cold War, many have touted the emergence of a "global civil society" composed of formal and informal organizations with constituencies, operations, and goals that transcend state boundaries. Some believe that growing transnational interactions have fundamentally changed world politics, creating an alternative political space distinguished by sympathy and cooperation rather than the anarchy, self-interest, and competition that mark relations among states. In this rosy view, the media act as all-seeing eyes, pinpointing places in gravest distress. New technologies permit early warning of emerging conflicts. And compassionate organizations selflessly throw their services to the neediest cases. Emblematic of this brave new world are two entities: NGOs, private organizations operating across borders whose primary goals are political, social, or cultural; and "transnational advocacy networks" (TANs), loosely formed groupings of NGOs, activists, foundations, journalists, bureaucrats, and others, all of whom are bound by "shared values, a common discourse, and dense exchanges of information and services."1 Both NGOs and TANs are frequently heralded as "principled" forces in an amoral international system. For some scholars, such as Richard Falk, the recent proliferation of these ethical actors is creating a cosmopolitan democracy of "humane governance" and human solidarity.2 In this vision, cross-border activity holds special promise for domestic movements combating unresponsive or repressive states. In Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink's influential metaphor, harried movements generate transnational support "boomerangs."3 Using new technologies, they leap borders to contact the growing ranks of NGOs abroad. In turn, NGOs and the TANs they anchor altruistically adopt distant causes, volunteering aid, publicizing injustices, and pressuring foes.  Ultimately, no local struggle goes unnoticed, "empowering the have-nots of the world."4

From the perspective of activists in the developed world, this interpretation may appear sound. There are multitudes of worthy causes on which to lavish attention - so many that picking clients can present a quandary. But for social movements in the developing world - groups for whom international linkages are not just a calling, a career, or a diversion - contemporary international politics has a different feel. New technologies, actors, and institutions promise much but deliver little. As Moses Werror, a leader of Indonesia's Free West Papua Movement, complained on the group's Web site, "We have struggled for more than 30 years, and the world has ignored our cause."5 Or as a displaced person in war-torn southern Sudan recently cried, "Why do so many Americans care about saving seals and whales but not us?"6

At stake is more than a global popularity contest. For many challengers, outside aid is literally a matter of life or death. NGOs can raise awareness about little-known conflicts, mobilize resources for beleaguered movements, and pressure repressive governments. External involvement can deter state violence and force policy change. It can bestow legitimacy on challengers who might otherwise have meager recognition. And it can strengthen challengers, not only materially, through infusions of money, equipment, and knowledge, but also psychologically, by demonstrating that a movement is not alone, that the world cares, and that an arduous conflict may not be fruitless.

With so much at risk, challengers compete fiercely for transnational patrons. This book probes the reasons certain groups prick the world's conscience whereas others do not. Contrary to most recent scholarship, I highlight the action, innovation, and skill of movements themselves. Too often, their unexpected renown is attributed to their location in a strategically important region or to intercession by third parties such as the cable news network CNN. This book places local groups at center stage, focusing on the risky and difficult strategies they deploy to galvanize external help in the face of domestic despotism and international indifference. First, movements seek simply to be heard, to lift themselves above the voiceless mass of the world's poor and oppressed. To do this, they tap the media to raise international awareness and lobby potential patrons directly. Second, insurgent groups magnify their appeal by framing parochial demands, provincial conflicts, and particularistic identities to match the interests and agendas of distant audiences. In this global morality market, challengers must publicize their plights, portray their conflicts as righteous struggles, and craft their messages to resonate abroad.

In taking this approach, I make five arguments. First, winning NGO support is neither easy nor automatic but instead competitive and uncertain. Scores of challengers strive for overseas recognition even within a single country or region. For distant audiences, however, the ferment is invisible.  Journalists and academics focus on insurgencies that shine internationally. They seldom place these groups in a broader context - as rare stars in a universe of hapless aspirants. The efforts of the less fortunate are overlooked. Or, as international resources flow to the few, unsuccessful competitors  direct their energies elsewhere, join forces with the most flourishing, shift to the opposition, or die out. This analytic blind spot, compounded by recent enthusiasm about the beneficent effects of globalization and the  Internet, has made the growth of NGO assistance look deceptively simple.

Second, the development and retention of support are best conceived not as philanthropic gestures but as exchanges based on the relative power of each party to the transaction. On the supply side of this market are a small number of influential NGOs with no reason to choose one desperate movement over another. On the demand side are myriad local groups for whom international linkages hold the prospect of new resources and greater clout in their domestic conflicts. This disparity in need creates an unequal power relationship. As a result, movements must often alter key characteristics to meet the expectations of patrons. By contrast, in most cases, NGOs can be circumspect in picking clients and need not reinvent themselves to do so. To explain their choices only as the result of "morality" or "principle" affords little analytic bite when this larger context is considered. Certainly altruism plays an important role in these decisions, but given their organizational imperatives, NGOs have strong incentives to devote themselves to the challenger whose profile most closely matches their own requirements - not necessarily to the neediest group.

Third, competition for NGO intervention occurs in a context of economic, political, and organizational inequality that systematically advantages some challengers over others. These disparities, which insurgents have limited capacity to change, make it easier for certain movements - those with more resources, superior knowledge, and preexisting international standing - to promote themselves abroad and pigeonhole themselves into acceptable categories of protest. To put this in Keck and Sikkink's metaphor, many needy movements cannot afford a "boomerang" to petition for aid. Those that can have varying capacities, giving their appeals different reach, aim, and spin. As a result, many "boomerang throws" miss their mark, falling unheeded in inhospitable political, social, and cultural terrain.

Fourth, despite these structural biases, the choices of insurgents - how they market themselves - matter. Most analysts take a top-down approach, focusing on NGOs and suggesting that transnational networks form when intrepid activists in rich countries reach into the developing world to succor helpless "victims." In fact, however, local movements insistently court overseas backing, and their promotional strategies count. Although they have numerous variants, these strategies share two broad aims: raising international awareness of the movement and enhancing its appeal to NGOs.

Finally, because of this market dynamic, the effects of assistance are more ambiguous than is often acknowledged. For many scholars and journalists, overseas activism is an unmitigated blessing. Reflecting a penchant to idolize NGOs, analysts confuse the apparently altruistic intent of support with its effects. But when the latent sources of aid are considered, one can more easily assess its costs. On one hand, local challengers must conform to the needs and agendas of distant audiences, potentially alienating a movement from its base. On the other hand, the organizational imperatives driving NGOs mean that even the most devoted can seldom make a particular insurgent its top concern. The result can be problematic or even deadly: challengers, tempted into attention-grabbing tactics or extreme stances, may find distant stalwarts absent or helpless at moments of gravest peril.


The foregoing arguments reject the view that challengers who attract major backing are simply the lucky winners of an international crap shoot. Although chance plays some part, much can be explained systematically. The marketing perspective also denies that there is a meritocracy of suffering, with the worst-off groups necessarily gaining the most help. Every challenger faced with bloody state crackdowns or simple political exclusion rightfully depicts its troubles as deserving of the world's concern. Yet typically there is little relationship between a group's degree of oppression and its level of external acclaim. Everyday violence against South Asia's estimated 260 million untouchables has never made it high on the international agenda despite the vigorous efforts of Indian activists. And the appeals of the Sudan People's Liberation Army went unheeded for decades despite horrific human rights violations costing millions of lives.

It should be clear from the importance I place on groups whose efforts are ignored by NGOs that I reject generalizations about the impacts of "globalization." By themselves, economic integration, technological advances, and media penetration cannot explain why some worthy groups spark action whereas a host of others, often from the same locales, do not. A quick check on the Internet reveals scores of liberation groups, from Burma's Arakan Rohingya National Organisation to Ethiopia's Oromo  Liberation Front to Mexico's Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Countless environmental, labor, human rights, and other movements also dot the globe, some with Web sites but most others not. But in cyberspace as in physical space, only a fraction of contenders for the world's favor capture more than a niche following. New technologies dangle the prospect of internationalizing their causes before more groups than ever before, but these innovations by no means assure it.

Similarly insufficient to explain these disparities is the reputed rise of a new "global consciousness" and the more tangible explosion of "moral actors" on the world stage. The admonition to "think globally" has undeniable ethical overtones: that we are part of one world whose condition should concern us all. Although noble, this impulse runs into a hard reality. The scope of global suffering remains so great that even the virtuous must repeatedly choose among a multitude of deserving causes. Those who view NGOs primarily as ethical actors cannot explain how these choices are made, why a few supplicant groups are selected for major attention whereas most fall by the wayside. It is true that NGOs often act out of deeply felt moral conviction; many of their choices about issues to highlight and local movements to champion rest in part on these principles. Yet a little-studied strategic element also plays a central role. Given the context of scarce resources in which NGOs operate, omitting this element leaves analysts with no reliable means of explaining behavior.

More generally, many who think about these issues have been dazzled by an explosion of new actors at the international level. It is true that, in the final analysis, an editor at the BBC or a manager at Amnesty International can make the difference between international obscurity and celebrity for a movement. But focusing on these powerful players illuminates only the last phase of a complicated strategic process. It reduces the role of challengers, painting them as secondary figures in the formation of their own international networks. At best, it portrays them as "poster children" for the larger agendas of distant NGOs; at worst, it depicts them as passively awaiting third-party attention and resources. Yet movements aggressively pursue external aid, orchestrating their own international networks. Using sophisticated approaches, they seek to influence the media, NGOs, and broader publics. In this, of course, insurgents do nothing more than their opponents - governments, multinational corporations, and international financial institutions with huge resources and privileged access to the international press. But where the powerful buy the world's best public relations machines, challengers must bootstrap themselves to the fore.

Most fundamentally, focusing on the suppliers of transnational support misses the hallmark of all markets, competition. Challengers scramble for scarce resources in a setting thick with similar aspirants. Despite its promise, today's "global civil society" is for many a Darwinian arena in which the successful prosper but the weak wither. At any one time, there is room for only a few challengers on any issue. Tacitly and at times openly, needy groups vie with one another for the world's sympathy, elevating themselves above their competitors and differentiating themselves from similar causes.

Definitions and Plan of the Book

In Chapter 2, I detail the marketing approach, explaining the development of NGO activism for "challengers," "insurgencies," and "movements." I use these terms interchangeably to embrace domestically based social currents and organizations that oppose governments, elites, and other powerful institutions chiefly using protest and pressure outside conventional political channels.7 Although they have diverse foes, the movements I examine seek changes primarily in national rather than international policy. Such challengers vary widely in many respects. Beyond their obvious differences in goals, insurgents also span those that have widespread grassroots backing and those that do not. With regard to strategies, movements may deploy peaceful, "conventional" protest or violent, transgressive action.

"Activism," "support," and "adoption" mean sustained and substantial transfers of money, matériel, and knowledge by a foreign NGO or NGO network to a challenger, as well as provision of publicity, advocacy, and lobbying on its behalf.8 These actions may benefit the group directly, by strengthening it, or indirectly, by weakening its opponent, for instance through notoriety, opprobrium, or sanctions. (Excluded from this definition is media reporting; although it may alert NGOs to conflicts and serve as a tool of activist networks, journalism seldom has aid as its principal aim.) There is tremendous diversity among NGOs and the networks they form, but in this study I focus on two broad types, "advocacy" and  "solidarity."9 The latter, for instance today's "Free Burma" coalition or the Spanish Civil War's Abraham Lincoln brigade, openly take sides in distant conflicts, backing challengers because of ideological, religious, or other deeply felt affinities. Although they differ from diaspora organizations, which have blood ties to challengers in their ancestral homes, solidarity organizations nonetheless identify closely with their clients, and their members often form tight personal bonds with insurgents. By contrast, advocacy organizations, exemplified by human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International, champion principles, procedures, or policies rather than parties. In practice, however, the two categories of NGOs and networks often overlap. In the heat of conflict, it is difficult for advocacy NGOs to separate adherence to ideals from endorsement of groups. In addition, many "principles," such as those concerning environmental causes, are more political than moral. Conversely, solidarity NGOs wrap their partisanship in rhetoric that simultaneously upholds tenets such as democracy or human rights. Thus, the two types of networks are best viewed as different points along a continuous spectrum of support. (Although I do not examine diaspora organizations here, the marketing perspective probably also explains their behavior toward coethnics in their homelands.)

Chapter 2 describes the size, character, and dynamics of the transnational market, including both the "demand side," movements searching for patronage, and the "supply side," the NGOs that provide it. Illustrating my points with numerous examples, I identify common strategies as well as underlying structural factors that lift certain movements over others. Thus, the book presents both a causal argument explaining the growth of activism (or lack thereof) and a "cookbook" for movements and NGOs. Social scientists may quibble that the argument is too complex. I plead guilty with mitigation: In the real world of transnational networking, many overlapping factors play a role. Any comprehensive explanation of a particular case will therefore be "messy." To build broader insights, however, I emphasize the fundamental forces at work: power, exchange, and competition.

The book's empirical chapters use this framework to analyze several recent insurgencies that have electrified activist networks, comparing them with similar movements from the same states operating at approximately the same time that have failed to do so. Unavoidably, these comparisons are not fully balanced because there is more information about groups that have become causes célèbres than about those that have not. But, to the extent possible, each chapter focuses on the strategic and organizational differences between transnational winners and losers.

Measuring support precisely is difficult because it requires collecting large amounts of information about informal relationships from dispersed private organizations around the world. There are also conceptual  impediments. In principle, assistance may be gauged along two dimensions: breadth and depth.10 "Breadth" refers to the number of NGOs a movement draws, with wider patronage presumptively more desirable than narrower support. Much depends on the nature and power of the actors composing a transnational network, however. A small number of major NGOs may be more effective than a large number of weak and obscure ones. "Depth" refers to the amount of backing NGOs provide, with "more" of one type seemingly better than "less." As is the case between direct and indirect forms of aid, however, among different types within each form, it is often difficult to rank their values. Finally, there are trade-offs. Convincing an NGO to deepen its aid may require an insurgent group to make commitments that alienate other potential patrons. Despite such caveats, these indicators are useful, at least as heuristic devices, and they point to rough methods of comparison both for a single movement over time and between matched movements at a single time.

The comparative case study approach I use here is unabashedly qualitative. This methodology is not appropriate to all questions in the social sciences, but in seeking to grasp the motivations and strategies of two or more sets of political actors, particularly as they interact with one another, qualitative analysis is superior to quantitative or statistical methods. Using the fine-grained insights available through immersion in and comparison between cases, I have constructed a broad theoretical framework applicable to a diversity of movements and NGOs. In addition, I demonstrate its usefulness in explaining transnational relationships in important recent cases.

A word about the movements I examine in the empirical chapters is in order. The processes of concern here are most visible in "unlikely" cases, where unknown movements suddenly vault to prominence. Such groups may not gain the "most" international acclaim of any insurgency worldwide, but their surprising achievements illustrate causal mechanisms in stark outline. Accordingly, I focus on groups that at the outset of their quest for external backing seemed highly unlikely to gain it - small, remote, and weak groups. By probing such cases, and particularly by doing so in comparison with matched groups whose international quests failed, I reveal a diversity of factors and strategies affecting the rise of support. Not surprisingly given these purposes, the groups I examine come from states in the developing world and seek help primarily from NGOs based in the developed world. The scope of the marketing perspective is broader, however. With minor adjustment, the concepts of power and exchange at its heart should apply to movements in the developed world that also seek foreign connections - from the American civil rights movement in the 1950s to Spain's contemporary anti-dam movement to Japan's Burakumin minority.

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Clifford Bob is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Graduate School of Social and Public Policy at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA where he teaches courses on comparative politics, international law and organization, human rights, and ethnic conflict. He holds a PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Techology. His published work includes articles in Foreign Policy (cover article), Social Problems, International Politics (lead article), American Journal of International Law (co-author), Journal of Human Rights, PS: Politics & Political Science, and Social Policy. Dr Bob has won fellowships from the Smith Richardson Foundation (Junior Faculty Program in International Security/Foreign Policy), United States Institute of Peace, Social Science Research Council/American Council of Learned Societies, Albert Einstein Institution, Harvard-MIT MacArthur Transnational Security Program, and Duquesne University.

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