Is the devil making work for idle hands now that the two key publicity drivers for the ‘Darfur cause’ – food in the internally displaced camps and fighting between government and rebel forces – have both passed the worse for quite a while now?
It sure looks that way.
Following hot on the heels of its knuckleheaded “Fast the Eid” campaign, the Save Darfur Coalition rolled out its latest hare-brained initiative at the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings in Istanbul and G-20 Pittsburgh Summit: a campaign against debt relief for Sudan’s crushing US$34 billion external debt.
Save Darfur Coalition’s latest publicity campaign was, as usual, big on pizzazz, small on truth.
Take just a couple of schoolboy howlers in its website about Sudan’s foreign debt. Yes, the Save Darfur Coalition is right: Sudan’s debt has leapt massively under President Al-Bashir (it stood at US$13 billion in 1989). But the explosion has been almost solely down to a build-up of repayment arrears to bilateral and multilateral creditors – not new disbursals since 1989 as Save Darfur says – on foreign debts incurred during the rule of the late President Nimeiri from 1969-1985; the last time Sudan had untrammeled access to international loans from the IMF and World Bank, and Western donor states.
Err, right terminology, wrong reason, guys: Sudan’s foreign debt is indeed “odious” as the Save Darfur Coalition states; yet not because those loans financed war in the south or in Darfur under President Al-Bashir as it claims. They didn’t. Rather, the odiousness reflects that the money got creamed off by the ‘Nimeiriists’ and did virtually nothing to improve the lot of ordinary Sudanese.
The Save Darfur Coalition needs to employ some economic historians. Quickly.
Most galling of all, however, the Save Darfur Coalition states with huge fanfare on its website that supporting its anti-debt forgiveness campaign will, wait for it, “Save Lives in Sudan”.
In fact, Darfur, southern Sudan, and other ordinary Sudanese in the so-called ‘periphery’ where economic and social development lags far behind Khartoum, stand to gain most if international creditors did what they had repeatedly promised to do following the signing of the Comp- rehensive Peace Agreement and then the May 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement: cancel Sudan’s foreign debt.
Crucially, Sudan’s (pre-1989) external debt must get wiped off immediately because it needs wiggle room urgently to take on new foreign loans to lay down the roots of an economic take off and, in turn, come finally to grips with the pattern of inequitable economic development in Darfur, south Sudan and other areas of the ‘periphery’ that lies at the heart of Sudan’s history of instability.
Any visitor to Sudan would be acutely aware that there is a huge backlog of urgent, basic and ‘big-ticket’ economic development needs throughout the country, which, realistically, can only get financed through recourse to international borrowings; public goods like railways, rural feeder roads, schools, and hospitals. In other words, projects that would provide the climbing frame for millions of ordinary Sudanese to escape from poverty, and would also have the additional bonus of strengthening nationhood: the three states of Darfur, the whole of south Sudan and many other regions in the country currently function as de facto land-locked states, with all the associated challenges it entails for jump-economic growth and improving infant mortality rates and other key socio-economic indicators nationwide.
Put simply, supporting Save Darfur Coalition’s ill-conceived anti-foreign debt forgiveness campaign means saving less, not more, lives of Darfuris and other ordinary Sudanese; namely, harming those whose very interests the coalition claims to defend.
I, like many, had at first tipped my hat to Save Darfur when it came into being, and commended the movement for bringing the hitherto neglected humanitarian plight of ordinary Darfuris caught up in the war to the world’s attention.
But now I feel that it has let itself down badly.
Save Darfur has rapidly become trapped, and undone, by its cognitive dissonance to the structurally profound changes in the humanitarian and security situation in Darfur today (and indeed over the past few years). Evidence? Just take a look at the Save Darfur Coalition’s ongoing anathema – without presenting a viable alternative – towards the only game in town: giving ‘politics’ a chance to succeed through US engagement with ‘Khartoum’ and a Sudanese-driven political process for reaching comprehensive peace in Darfur and the rest of Sudan.
Yesterday The Save Darfur Coalition was a small part of the solution. Today, sadly, it’s a big part of the problem.
For a more nuanced discussion on Sudan’s foreign debt issue, see these recent postings by Ibrahim Adam on the IMF blog: (IMF Direct on Sudan’s foreign debt – a discussion).
The author has written and advised extensively on country risk on Sudan at The Economist Intelligence Unit, Dun & Bradstreet, and Fitchratings. He is also the former Middle East and Africa spokesperson for the International Finance Corporation (IFC), Washington D.C. He was also the speechwriter for the Government of Sudan during the north-south Sudan peace talks.
Currently, Ahmed Badawi is an advisor to the Government of National Unity, Sudan, and Chief Consultant to the Global Relations Centre, based in Khartoum.