Condemned to Repeat the Past: Thirty Years of Understanding Ignored
Darfur has suffered more than most from the international community’s attention deficit disorder. It only commands that attention at times of crisis: the sahel drought of the 1968 to 1970, the Band Aid famine of 1984/5 and the current conflict. As each crisis recedes, important lessons are forgotten and the effort spent learning them is wasted. And every wave of international engagement is framed by a new set of assumptions and preconceptions about politics, society and development: assumptions that are not grounded in any knowledge of Darfur, preconceptions that lack depth and perspective. Making sense of Darfur is about replacing these assumptions with a real understanding of what is needed and, just as important, of what will work and what will not work in the region.
More is known about Darfur than most people realise. 1957 saw the start of a 30 year effort to understand the region, an effort that ended in the early 1990s, when the international community withdrew its support from the National Islamic Front regime of Omar El Bashir.
Darfur’s only livelihood is farming and work started with surveys of the soils, water resources and vegetation. It quickly extended to innovative efforts to monitor environmental change and to social and the economic research. In the 1980s, this led to ten years of agricultural research and development, to investments in rural infrastructure and to attempts to tackle social and institutional issues, such as the sustainability of public services and community development. Managing farm land and range land for sustainable improvements in productivity was a particular focus.
In south and west Darfur, Government of Sudan set up the Western Savanna and Jebel Marra Rural Development Projects, with support from the World Bank, the EU, the UK and Saudi Arabia: a commitment of some $100 million over ten years. In hindsight, the thought occurs that if the international community had maintained that commitment through the 1990s, the disaster that is Darfur today might have been avoided, or at least mitigated.
Yet none of the international agencies which spent so much on Darfur in the 1980s have sought to re-visit what they did. Among the things they might find if they made the effort to do so are:
Livelihoods: household surveys covering everything from farm labour requirements to access to education and other services, from food security strategies to the balance between male and female households.
Pastoralists: social organisation, range quality, livestock management strategies and market chains.
Farmers: family structures, farmer strategies to manage drought and maximise incomes.
Agricultural Research: Ten years of trials on new varieties, animal traction, mechanisation, agro-forestry, crop rotation, manuring and crop protection.
Basic Services: studies of rural water supplies, education and health and experience working with them.
Community Development: experience working with communities to manage rangeland and basic services.
Environment: detailed records of vegetation and land use changes, drawing from intensive and innovative fieldwork and early applications of satellite imagery and GIS techniques.
Land Management: Experience of an intensive 10-year effort to establish new forms of individual and community land tenure, to allow more sustainable farm and rangeland production.
Economics: From the profitability of individual crops to the development of Darfur since 1900.
Maps and data: population, geology, soils, vegetation, water resources, rainfall, land use etc.
Governance: from regional budgets to new models for rural service management.
From 1957 onwards, the primary aim never changed: to understand how the people of Darfur use their resources and to find ways to use them more profitably and more sustainably. The effort was concentrated on South and West Darfur, partly because higher rainfall gives them greater potential and partly because the people of North Darfur were already voting with their feet and moving south. Even in the southern provinces, perhaps only half was covered in detail, but that included the main populated areas. The data is hidden in the dry technical reports of working development projects and it will take an effort to draw out the understanding it holds. Nevertheless, it is a substantial body of information on Darfur and it records a range of lessons that were hard-learnt. To learn them again would be expensive and take more time than Darfur can afford.
Natural resources and the way they are used is an aspect of Darfur in which a number of assumptions and preconceptions can be found in the Making Sense of Darfur blog: that land use is polarising, that competition over natural resources is a driver of conflict, that cash cropping leads undermines food security, that a somewhat mythical underground mega lake can green Darfur’s desert, that merchants and commercial farmers have taken away the rural Darfuri’s assets etc.
Alex de Waal and Thomas Homer-Dixon’s debate about “Cause and Effect” is typical. Thomas says; “I don’t buy, I’m afraid, Alex’s “refutation” of Malthusianism. The assertion that Darfur is “overpopulated” doesn’t stand or fall on the number of deaths arising from famines in the region. In other words, a region’s population doesn’t need to collapse for the region to be overpopulated. We can quite reasonably operationalize “overpopulation” using a variety of other metrics, including morbidity, land degradation, per capita agricultural yields, trends in average income, etc.”
The development efforts of the 1980s, the Western Savanna Project in particular, were designed on a very similar set of assumptions, with an explicit expectation that the combination of drought and overpopulation threatened an environmental disaster. Thomas is right that overpopulation and the overcropping and overgrazing that go with it can be measured in many ways. But many of the metrics he calls for have already been analysed in ten years’ worth of detail. Yes, the detail is confusing and it requires engagement with technical complexities such as soil chemistry. And many of the answers are counter-intuitive or ambiguous. The fundamental lesson was, however, clear. That none of the standard solutions to over-population/cropping/grazing problem were in any way useful to the ordinary Darfuri.
I do not wish to argue here why that is or how the evidence should be interpreted. I merely urge everyone to make the effort to understand that evidence before they offer any prescriptions – new or old – about what must be done. Farming and herding in Darfur are among the hardest jobs in the world. (Perhaps that is why politics in Darfur is such a hard game.) Finding ways to make life easier for Darfuris is just as hard, in the sense that there are no easy answers, only a long slog with a high risk of failure.
We can start that journey again, with a clean sheet and the assumption that what went before was irrelevant, but Santayana tells us that “progress depends on retentiveness”; that without it, we are condemned to repeating the past. It is possible to avoid that, if we wish, by looking at the records of the 30 year effort I have described.
One company, Hunting Technical Services (now HTSPE Ltd), had a particularly long involvement, including both the major projects mentioned. Their archive is described on Huntings’ website, with some downloads, and is accessible at Cranfield University’s World Soil Survey Archive and Catalogue (WOSSAC). Material is also available for download from my own professional website.