by Selena Simmons-Duffin
It’s precisely because activism can make a difference that we need to be honest with ourselves when we assess what has succeeded, what hasn’t, and what has had unanticipated side effects.– Alex de Waal, Fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard
Every once in a while, a violent conflict in a far off place gets to us. We care, we want to help, we want to do something. These days, the conflict that has moved us is the one in Darfur. And these days, doing something can mean any number of things.
“Dolls for Darfur” sends to senators thousands of tiny paper dolls representing the victims of the conflict, while “Designers for Darfur” puts on cutting-edge fashion shows. Students from Aviation High School in Seattle formed “Flying to the Rescue!” to raise money for Darfur, and the county of Westchester in New York spent a whole day organizing for and conversing about the issue. The crisis has also entered into new technological realms. In the online video game “Darfur is Dying,” users can play a refugee who goes to fetch water for the camp and learn how their character dies (which is likely). Darfur is everywhere; the urgency evident in the rhetoric and quantity of activism is palpable.
What is the goal of all this activism? About “Darfur is Dying,” Douglas Thomas, Professor of Communications at USC, suggested to the BBC, “Even just the idea that there is that game out there, that makes people say, ‘Oh, there’s a problem in Darfur,’ even if it provokes that kind of discussion, we’re miles ahead of where we were.” A similar sentiment was expressed in 2005 when Stanford’s STAND group dressed in black and lay down in a “die-in” that blocked the so-called “Intersection of Death.” A Stanford Daily article quoted one of the founders of Stanford STAND as saying, “Was the ‘die-in’ met with typical objections? Yes. But more importantly, did it make people say the word Darfur that wouldn’t otherwise [have said it]? Absolutely.”
Although getting people to speak the word ‘Darfur’ together with ‘crisis’ might generate a widespread, superficial awareness of the conflict, where does it lead from there? Some of these activities are— dare I say it?— silly. Their tenor creates a strange contrast with the gravity and complexity of the conflict they are designed to address.
Much of this activism works using a simple emotional formula: generate enough anxiety to compel action, while assuring that participation can make a difference. At best, this leads us to act in a productive, informed way for what we believe is right. At worst, we are turned off from the accusatory tone and do nothing. In reality, many of us settle somewhere between the two: vaguely informed, undirected, and a bit turned off. On confronting the Stanford “die-in” for Darfur, one freshman responded, “My automatic thought was that it was slowing me down on my way to class, and my second thought was that it was pretty superficial of me to have had that first thought.”
Where did all of this activity come from? Since 2003, the crisis in Darfur has emerged as the highest profile humanitarian issue of today. Around 2004, a positive feedback loop between media coverage and advocacy led to increasing awareness of the crisis. Advocacy organizations began to proliferate. In July 2004, the Save Darfur Coalition was formed as a collaboration of those groups interested in advocating for peace in Darfur. The coalition represents around 130 million people in more than 175 member organizations, ranging from Amnesty International to American Jewish World Service to the American Society for Muslim Advancement, to, of course, Aviation High School’s “Flying to the Rescue!”
Since the Coalition has been formed, it has dominated the Darfur issue. Last year members sent more than one million postcards to President Bush in favor of a UN peacekeeping force. In rallies put on by the Coalition, 75,000 activists gathered in Washington and New York City.
As the crisis in Darfur persists, advocacy work continues to grow. Large-scale campaigns have been created which give their members to lists of Darfur supporting activities, from postcards to car washes, from concerts to poker tournaments. The “Instant Karma” campaign is one of the newest of these large campaigns, in this case put out by Save Darfur Coalition board member Amnesty International. For this campaign, participants buy an album of various artists covering John Lennon songs whose profits go to helping resolve the Darfur crisis.
The title, “Instant Karma” is significant as a marker of the direction high profile advocacy for Darfur has gone: in purchasing this album, it is suggested, one may be instantly absolved of all of their guilt for not having acted in the past and for probably not acting in the future to help “save” Darfur. This intimation alone is problematic inasmuch as it constructs a commodity as a spiritual cleanser— it’s almost reminiscent of the indulgences of pre-Reformation Catholicism.
But this particular effort also stands out because of the way it epitomizes the tactics of similar high profile Darfur campaigns: a blend of low-commitment participation with shock-factor. In keeping with similar advocacy campaigns, “Instant Karma” is ripe with drama. One section on the website called “Who are the victims?” opens with, “In the remote, parched landscape of Darfur, in western Sudan, the rhythms of everyday life are a distant memory. Now there are days and nights filled with the dread of ‘evil horsemen’… They charge into villages on horseback and camelback and in trucks, armed with automatic weapons and murderous intent.” This rhetoric is compelling and moving, which is a mark of good advertising. However, the simplification of the complexities and the clear editorializing of this information makes it resemble entertainment— a tragic, easy to follow story we can observe with vague sympathy and interest while we listen to our CDs.
What’s lost is actual engagement with the issue, an understanding of what your participation in these flashy campaigns does or does not accomplish. “Instant Karma” rewards a small contribution with substantial return, streamlined information, and minimal contact with the political ramifications of the act. Is this a productive way to address the issue?
Save Darfur organizations generally take the tact that a conflict this desperate requires no nuance, and there is a moral imperative for intervention. An issue this horrific requires the loudest condemnation our voices can muster, and we must rally everyone possible around us. If simplification is the only way to do this, then so be it. It is better than nothing.
That is the key question: if flashy simplification helps to end the crisis, then what does nuance matter? Isn’t silly, oversimplified advocacy better than nothing at all? Yet when thousands of paper dolls are merely getting recycled by interns, never even making it to a policymaker’s desk, when money from high profile campaigns never gets applied on the ground, and when activist policy petitions enrage groups that carry out relief for Darfuris, then it may well be that our energy and sentiment are misplaced.
A closer look at the role of this type of high profile advocacy work is in order. Investigating just below the superficial level unearths complexities and more questions: How exactly did the conflict originate? How are we being encouraged to act on behalf of victims of the conflict? What is Darfur advocacy doing and what is it failing to do?
With endless acronyms and constantly shifting rebel groups, round after round of peace talks, declarations and demands, and conflicting analyses, the situation in Darfur is hard to follow. Media often offers information incrementally— that is, assuming background knowledge and context for developments in the conflict— so it’s difficult to find material to get up to speed. Even if we’ve signed petitions and read some newspaper articles, we may still be missing a basic understanding. What follows is a summary of key points of the origins and development of the conflict, as well as a sense of how the international response has grown over the past few years.
The current situation in Darfur has its roots in inequality both between Darfur and eastern Sudan, and within Darfur. The conflicts within Darfur are not new— for centuries, non-Arab farmers and Arab pastoralists have struggled to negotiate use of the very limited primary resources in the region. In the late 1980s, Darfur began suffering from drought, which exacerbated tensions over resources. During this period, the Arab Sudanese government, headed by President Omar al-Bashir, helped the Arabs in the struggle for resources by arming them.
In the spring of 2003 newly formed groups from Darfur, called the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), accused the government of abandoning and oppressing the non-Arabs of Darfur. These rebel groups attacked a sleeping army garrison at the Chad border. The Sudanese government was caught off-guard and enlisted the local Arab militia called the janjaweed— armed twenty years before by the government— to combat the forces on the ground.
In a method reminiscent of the civil war within the south of Sudan, the Sudanese government enlisted and armed the janjaweed to combat the rebel forces. However, in lieu of paying them, the government authorized them to loot and pillage whatever they wanted from the villages. Thus, instead of fighting a war specifically against the rebel forces, the targets of the janjaweed were the non-Arab civilian villages thought to be the base for the insurgents.
The next few months after that first attack, several ceasefire agreements were drawn up but quickly failed, and in their wake, fighting surged. By December of 2003, hundreds of thousands of Darfuri refugees were pouring into the neighboring country of Chad. The fighting escalated through 2004, and the number of people killed and displaced continued to rise.
In late May 2004, the first international observers were allowed into Darfur, and their reports were bleak. There were descriptions of brutal killings, dismemberment, systematic rape, and thousands of children sickened from malnutrition and disease due to poor health conditions in the camps. It became clear that in this conflict, non-violent deaths of those people displaced and not adequately cared for would be a significant proportion of this conflict’s toll.
Resisting international intervention, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir denied access to humanitarian assistance to some of the worst affected areas. The janjaweed was said to be destroying food and water sources, leaving many in the camps without access to relief. In April of 2004, the African Union deployed 7,000 troops to assist in keeping the peace. They were ill equipped, under-funded, and had a limited mandate, all of which greatly hindered their efficacy.
In July of 2006, due to the janjaweed’s threats of violence, the UN and several relief organizations began to pull out of Darfur. At the same time, because of funding cuts, the World Food Program halved its rations for Darfur, leaving 350,000 people in the region without food. On top of this, the Chadian government accused Sudan of arming an attempted coup and cut off diplomatic relations, further complicating aid to refugees settled there.
At this point, the UN Security Council began to discuss augmenting the African Union troops with 17,000 UN peacekeeping troops. Their first attempt at deploying these troops failed because the Sudanese government refused to cooperate— complaining that this intrusion was related to a US anti-Arab agenda related to the Iraq war and support for Israel.
Recently, however, the Sudanese government has agreed to these UN forces. A UN resolution made on July 31st of this year will send a combined African Union and UN peacekeeping force to Darfur by the beginning of 2008. The hope is that, finally, this international response will be significant enough to make a difference. Some worry that, with the fighting spreading into Chad, the conflict has the making of a civil war as long and brutal as the twenty-year war in the south of Sudan.
To complicate things even more, there is also a messy economic element to the conflict. The UN has recommended sanctions to pressure Sudan’s government to resolve the fighting, but so far they have been unsuccessful. China, which owns a huge portion of Sudanese oil reserves, has refused to comply, and has even expanded drilling into neighboring Chad. The US has enforced sanctions, but this has little actual influence on the Sudanese economy because the portion of the Sudanese economy that the US ceases to invest in will simply be taken up by other countries.
There still remains the question of what constitutes an ethical mandate for intervention. In 2004, the United States Congress unanimously voted to term the conflict in Darfur a “genocide,” but the UN has since fallen short of calling it that, favoring “war crimes.” The basic line of reasoning in favor of the term is that the Sudanese government arms and sponsors the janjaweed, who selectively murder, rape, pillage, and burn non-Arab villages, leaving untouched the nearby Arab villages. President al-Bashir is indignant at these allegations, claiming that the government is simply fighting with rebel groups and is unaffiliated with the actions of the janjaweed, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
Alex de Waal, Darfur scholar and Fellow at the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard, argued in a Newsweek article against addressing the Darfur crisis as a genocide:
If we applied the letter of the convention, any attempt to inflict harm on members of a racial, religious or ethnic group, with the intent to destroy them in whole or in part, would be genocide. That would mean that at least half a dozen episodes in the Sudanese civil war would be genocide, as well as episodes in Ethiopia in the 1980s, Uganda in 1983, Somalia in 1988 and 1992-3 and again in the last few months, numerous episodes in the DRC and various others would all be genocide… Many scholars prefer to use a narrower interpretation of the genocide convention to apply to projects of racial or ethnic annihilation— which Darfur is not.
There is a compelling logic behind ceasing the arguments: No matter who is being killed for what reason, no matter what government agencies declare, the situation in Darfur needs a huge push from the international community so that peace can be attained as soon as possible.
ADVOCACY vs. RELIEF
You may have managed to glean some bits of this history already, despite the necessity to filter through the huge amount of articles, fact sheets, and emails on the subject. The truth is, communicating about another violent African conflict in a clear and compelling way is difficult.
As an American, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Even if we would like to make a gesture towards peace in Darfur, most of us don’t feel informed enough to call Capitol Hill or to donate to a relief agency, and all the Darfur fliers and events get lost in the shuffle.
There is a place for advocacy here. The idea is that groups make understanding an issue and acting on that understanding easy. Grassroots advocacy work— from the polio vaccine to apartheid— makes clear that rallying the pressure of the American people can make a difference. However, contrary to the maxim of public relations, not all publicity for a humanitarian cause is good publicity. In this kind of work, content and quality do matter. Galvanizing Americans on a humanitarian issue is touchy, not only because it’s difficult to do effectively, but also because it’s hard to then know how to most effectively direct that attention.
When it comes to advocacy, the basic goal is to build a member base. Members contribute to the advocacy organization by giving them money that they raise in their local activism, and by giving the organization leverage in lobbying for particular policy points. Because of the dominant position held by Save Darfur organizations in advocating for this issue, it’s worth taking one campaign like “Instant Karma” and asking: What does this campaign do with the money and attention they have raised?
In a press release, Amnesty’s executive director Larry Cox said he is very hopeful about the “Instant Karma” campaign for this reason:
We know music’s power to unite and inspire people… The “Instant Karma” campaign combines John Lennon’s passionate desire for us to imagine a more peaceful world with Amnesty International’s expertise in achieving justice. “Instant Karma” allows ordinary people to lend their hand in saving lives— a notion we think would make John proud.
It is an attractive notion, but how true is it that the money from this campaign actually saves lives in Darfur? Although Save Darfur groups tend to clump themselves with relief efforts, funds for these campaigns primarily stay in the US, coming no closer to Darfur than Capitol Hill. Advocacy groups are different from relief organizations— while the former works to garner public pressure for policy changes, the latter carries out services for Darfuris on the ground. Both advocacy and relief organizations have their ultimate goal as saving lives, but money for one does not infer money for the other.
According to their website, Amnesty International uses the proceeds from “Instant Karma” albums to conduct research on the situation in Darfur, contact news media about developments, and lobby Congress. Although they may send canvassers to Darfur, they do not stay long; instead they focus their efforts on informing people here. This is good work, but it is not the same as “saving lives,” as Larry Cox implies. The Coalition’s budget last year was $15 million; none of it went to relief groups working on the ground in Darfur.
In a very roundabout way, money from an “Instant Karma” album does affect the relief Darfuris receive. The proceeds from your album go towards Amnesty’s lobbying Congress on behalf of the people of Darfur. Each fiscal year, Congress sets out a budget for foreign aid that is sent to the US Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID is in charge of figuring out how to best use the money that Congress allocates for international aid. This budget stipulates how much money goes to a given country, and how that money should be spent (e.g., water wells, food donations, medical care, etc). Your “Karma” dollars end here, trying to convince Congress to favor Darfur in this process.
There are still several steps before anyone in Darfur benefits from this effort. Once USAID receives its budget, it must find effective and reliable organizations to carry out the relief itemized in the budget. The agency receives grant proposals from organizations to set up programs to implement the relief. In the past, the money went directly to foreign governments; however, because of certain incidents this slightly more circuitous route of giving foreign aid is now the norm.
The organizations that do the relief work are often large international non-profits, such as Save the Children, World Vision, and the World Food Program. Although the method of giving aid to the organizations cuts the local government out of the money equation, often they enlist the help of local people and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for implementing their projects. These projects, with the funding from USAID, then move in to Darfur and Chadian refugee camps and carry out help for the people there.
To recap, you buy a CD; your money pays for Amnesty International to lobby Congress; Congress makes a budget giving money to Darfur; USAID takes that budget and enlists relief organizations, who carry out aid on the ground. That, at least in basic terms, outlines what the money from “Instant Karma” does for Darfur.
The real impact of advocacy lies in using American public and media pressure to influence policy. Through petitions to President Bush and Congress, advertisements listing demands, press releases to put pressure on the media to continue coverage, etc., advocacy groups try to rally the American public to cry out to end genocide.
One way to get the American public’s attention is through celebrity support. Enter Bono. For that matter, enter Mia Farrow, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and others. These are people who America pines to see in their bathrobes, having their hearts broken, and paddling in the oceans with their kids. The idea of turning that indefatigable attention towards issues that deserve it is commendable. Many of them have been hailed by experts as doing genuinely good work and being well-informed. And many of them have chosen Darfur as their issue.
Celebrity involvement is designed to focus the media’s attention on the issue, so that people are continually exposed to the word “Darfur.” After meeting with Sudanese President al-Bashir in December 2006, actor Don Cheadle told the UN News Centre that he hoped he could use his celebrity status not so much to influence the leaders of Security Council members and other individual nations, but to maintain the public pressure and ensure that the media stay focused on Darfur.
Several who have met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir report that he follows American media and has a sense for how he is being portrayed. In the Save Darfur-sponsored meeting with Governor Bill Richardson, President al-Bashir told him that he felt he was being unfairly represented. If media coverage and public pressure compel President al-Bashir to end the conflict, then that is certainly a worthwhile effort.
With the attention of key policymakers on the issue, how is the Coalition working to direct that attention? The sudden influx of money, attention, and responsibility passed onto the hastily formed coalition has raised some questions about its efficacy. In June, a New York Times article by Stephanie Strom and Lydia Polgreen, called “Advocacy Group’s Publicity Campaign on Darfur Angers Relief Organizations,” examined the recent criticism of the Save Darfur Coalition:
The organization that helped bring the conflict in Darfur to the world’s attention is in upheaval, firing its executive director, reorganizing its board and rethinking its strategies. At the heart of the shake-up are questions of whether [David Rubenstein], the former executive director of the organization, the Save Darfur Coalition, wisely used a sudden influx of money from a few anonymous donors in an advertising blitz to push for action.
The advertising blitz in question listed “international relief organizations” among supporters of policy recommendations, such as forced deployment of UN troops into Darfur and a no-fly zone over the region. Many relief organizations were angered by being abstractly clumped into supporters of these policy plans, worrying it might anger the government and put in jeopardy what little aid was allowed to go to Darfur. The Strom and Polgreen Times article relates an exchange between aid groups and the Save Darfur Coalition:
Sam Worthington, the president and chief executive of InterAction, a coalition of aid groups, complained to Rubenstein by e-mail that Save Darfur’s advertising was confusing the public and damaging the relief effort. ‘’I am deeply concerned by the inability of Save Darfur to be informed by the realities on the ground and to understand the consequences of your proposed actions,’’ Mr. Worthington wrote.
One relief group, Action Against Hunger, stated that unilateral deployment of United Nations troops “could have disastrous consequences that risk triggering a further escalation of violence while jeopardizing the provision of vital humanitarian assistance to millions of people.” Some relief groups also argued that the creation of a no-fly zone above Darfur would interfere with the distribution of aid to millions of people depending on it.
Relief groups were also concerned that, if they were associated with advocacy groups that preach a hard-line with the Sudanese government, then the relief work would become even more difficult. Sudan’s government is notorious for making life difficult for relief workers— delaying visas, confiscating supplies, etc.
This is a very worrisome situation. Although advocacy groups have done a remarkable job of getting public, media, and celebrity attention on Darfur, the money they have raised and the policies they endorse do not seem to be helping the victims of the conflict.
The final question about this overproduction of advocacy is: why Darfur? How did we arrive with all our advocacy efforts focused there?
All around the world there are atrocities that do not garner a fraction of the media coverage or advocacy attention given to Darfur. To address this problem, Doctors Without Borders puts out an annual report of the ten most under reported crises of the year. For 2006, the list included Colombia, Haiti, Chechnya, the DRC, and tuberculosis— a health issue that suffers from lack of novelty but still claims the lives of two million people a year. But who would go to a car wash for tuberculosis or for Chechnya? Darfur seems to have gained the position of an “in-vogue” crisis. Why does Darfur deserve our attention and grassroots mobilization more than any number of other equally serious humanitarian issues?
There are a number of possible answers. In an article called “How will History Judge Us?” Slate Magazine’s Anne Applebaum observes:
I can offer no scientific explanation for why the tragedy of Darfur conjures up the specter of history’s judgment and why other tragedies do not. But the answer must lie in the fact that this conflict has so few strategic or geopolitical implications. Because it seems to be in no one’s “interest” do so, a call for a U.N. intervention in Darfur surely feels— at least to Americans and Europeans who haven’t followed China’s involvement in Sudan’s oil industry— like an act of real charity and not more evidence of the West pursuing its interests.
Although this is a rather cynical view of the reason for our intervention, it does raise the point that there are non-altruistic forces that play a role in the attention being paid to Darfur.
Related to this is the issue of an unequal balance of power between organizations and the causes they serve. NGOs that do both humanitarian and advocacy work have to decide which crises receive their limited attention and support, decisions not based purely on need. This issue is discussed in an intriguing way in The Marketing of Rebellion, by Duquesne University political science professor Clifford Bob. In a related essay for the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, he says:
While many have good intentions, NGOs carefully choose where they devote their scarce money, personnel, and time. In addition, they have internal needs–pleasing funders and constituents while sustaining and expanding their organizations. Therefore, NGO views of what constitutes a major problem, NGO predilections for certain tactics, and NGO demands for accountability— themselves a reflection of Northern perspectives or fads— profoundly shape the field on which needy groups compete for support.
With the level of attention focused on Darfur, it’s sometimes difficult to remember the number of humanitarian crises that are not in the spotlight. Although in 2004 Darfur was declared the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, it’s possible that the overproduction of advocacy is obscuring other issues from the international frame of view.
There are daily developments in Darfur. In the time it has taken to compose this essay, already the facts here have become dated. Eventually there will be news that peace is imminent, the fighting will cease, and people will be able to return to their homes and begin to rebuild and recover.
In the coming weeks and months, the American people galvanized by Save Darfur advocacy need to consider carefully how we may fit in to the effort of bringing this conflict to a close. Sudan is a country where we have, in the last 40 years, born witness to what internal strife can turn into when inadequately addressed by the international community. Yet every conflict is different. The desire to recompense past failures— like the drawn-out civil war in the South of Sudan or the brutal genocide in Rwanda— must not blind us to the particularities of this place and these people, the history of this conflict, and the various external pressures that threaten to complicate any best intentioned work for peace.
The number of people saying the word “Darfur” is a start, but now we must direct that awareness towards action that is effective— first of all— and conscious of the stakes involved. We cannot just act to alleviate our guilt that people in a far away place are suffering. We cannot just act for the sake of acting.
Download “Acting on Guilt” as a PDF.