On 'Saving' Darfur… and Africa in General
There is a dirty little secret that operates in the battle to "save" Darfur. It is the same dirty secret that has plagued Africa for years. Its name is colonialism and in Darfur, this impulse is alive and well. It exists in the guise of many of the large advocacy organizations who seem to feel that only white middle class people can "save" the people of the region by extracting money on their behalf. In the last few days, Jerry Fowler of Save Darfur tells me that where the situation in Darfur is concerned: "This cannot stand. We will not allow this. This cannot happen." I am told that there are only hours left to reach the $200,000 target. If I donate $50 now, I can end the genocide in Darfur. Sadly however, nothing could be further from the truth.
The obnoxious reality is that there is a business to "saving" Africans in Darfur (and elsewhere for that matter). It is a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In this business Africans are portrayed as childlike, unable to save themselves, unable to advocate, unable to face up to their own problems or authoritarian leaders. This is indeed ironic in a country like Sudan where people have been jailed, tortured, murdered and abused since 1956 as they fought for their rights and to escape the dynamics created by authoritarian and colonial rule.
For the record, let's examine the outcomes of some of these organizations. The largest, Save Darfur, is virtually unheard of in Darfur. Why? Because the money they've raised hasn't been spent there. It has been spent on advocacy, marketing, entertaining, conferences, hotels and in fact, a whole variety of events that are of little consequence to those suffering on the ground. It has been spent to produce events that empower peripheral figures who have next to no chance of creating a sustainable program of change. Of course this situation is a source of confusion to the people of Darfur who can't understand why their views aren't important in producing a plan for their own survival. They're not the only ones. Frankly, it's also rather puzzling to me.
Despite endorsements from people like Alex de Waal, organizations like GI Net are also equally pointless. Besides engaging in advocacy, their claim to "intervene" in genocide has yet to be proven. To date, much of their money has been spent on AU or UNAMID forces - the very same forces that singularly failed to protect the people of the region. Looking at their website there seems to be a lot of information about the responsibility to protect and civilian protection. There seems to be rather less detailed information about precisely how they plan to accomplish this task, except, that is, by collecting more money.
Of course, if someone like me has the audacity to mention this fact we are told that such organizations only "do" advocacy. But what does this actually mean? Just to remind those involved, advocacy means the ability to support or speak in defense of another. With this role comes responsibility. In particular, it is impossible to advocate effectively for someone without engaging them first about what they want. Also, at the risk of stating the obvious here, there also has to be some assessment of how likely this is to succeed. It is not a matter of how many photo opportunities one has on the White House lawn, but rather a realistic assessment of the positions and interests of those involved.
One of the problems here is that there is an assumption that shouting louder will change the situation. Manifestly however, this is untrue. Foreign policy priorities of counties like the United States are mediated by a whole bunch of things that include, but are not limited to economics and other larger regional interests. It is hard to see how the US can take a really tough stance with Sudan when huge amounts of its national debt are held by China. If anything served to illustrate this fact it was Premier Wen Jiabao's recent comments about the value of US Treasury Bonds which sent the Department of the Treasury into a tailspin. Then there was Secretary Clinton's visit to the region when nothing was even mentioned about human rights. In the last few days, the US Special Envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration made the position abundantly clear by saying that "The United States and Sudan want to be partners and so we are looking for opportunities for us to build a stronger bilateral relationship" Diplomatic speak or not, the message is certainly not ambiguous.
Organizations who want to "save" Darfur might start with the basics like helping the people they purport to serve. To spell this out, they might help some of the organizations at the sharp end - such as The Sudan Social Development Organization (SUDO) or the Amel Center - who have served the people of Darfur for years. These organizations, who have had all of their belongings stolen by the egregious actions of the Sudanese state need help now. Moreover, since they are used to working in the incredibly politicized conditions of Darfur, they are far more effective in getting help to the people that need it. And to Mr. Gration, please dispense with the fiction that Sudanese government organizations will help local people. They won't.
Alternatively, organizations who want to "save" Darfur might help facilitate the peace process. Over the years I have been working on this issue, I have seen honest, decent Darfuris become increasingly impoverished, depressed and often lose all hope for the future. Unable to even afford the cost of flights to have some sort of dialogue about how to make change happen on the ground, they are trapped in a spiral which can only take them further into desperation. This is evidenced in the dangerous trend of acquiescing around JEM's position - a position backed by the resources and organizational ability of Chad. For those who are unfamiliar with JEM's position, this development is extremely dangerous. Khalil Ibrahim was the architect of the policy of using one marginalized group to annihilate another in the North-South war. Many others within the movement are also from the Islamist ranks, irrespective of how well they articulate their cause to others. Besides sucking Darfur into a larger regional war, these dynamics will ultimately result in the installation of a group of people that were behind the Jihadist movement in the first place. This is not what the people of Darfur want or need. It will not bring peace to the region.
Finally, organizations who want to "save" Darfur should engage in fiscal responsibility first. This means publishing your accounts so that the people you claim to help can see where the money is going. In this new era of financial transparency, it seems only fair that you subject yourselves to the same rules that everybody else has to abide by. Perhaps you should also think about changing your name to one that has a bit less of a colonial valence. As I've often said elsewhere, Darfuris can save themselves if they receive even a fraction of the money collected in their name and on the backs of their suffering. Maybe the day has come for these organizations to work with local people to do just this.
© 2009 Sudan Tribune