Darfur: Who Has The Right to Advocate for It?
There is an interesting online debate on activism on the humanitarian relief site for www.change.org. It takes the form of a three-part exchange between Neha Erasmus and Michael Kleinman. Neha asks, “what right do we have to advocate on Darfur?”
In part 2 of the exchange, Neha argues that the most effective movements for rights draw their strength from the mobilization of the people who are themselves directly affected. The classic example of this is the civil rights movement in the U.S. and other cases are anti-colonial movements. In response, Michael asks, does this mean that the only people who can mobilize against a wrong are those who are suffering?
“I am definitely not saying that only sufferers can speak out. Indeed all movements have had ‘outside’ or ‘non-homogenic’ participants and supporters. What was different was that they worked within the framework and beliefs of local movements and visions. White Americans lobbying for civil rights went on strikes with black Americans and put themselves in the same positions of danger – a true and equal partnership… However, the French, let’s say, did not decide to run their own campaign for American civil rights (and without taking their cue from civil rights activism in the States I might add). My point was that your best chances of politically, socially, economically informed advocacy will be from local actors. This does not exclude external expertise, but emphasises the need to validate local forms of knowledge.”
I would go further and argue that all successful movements are, in one way or another, coalitions of groups which sit in different relations to the challenge. There is the “primary” constituency of people who are directly affected, and various “secondary” groups which contribute through organizational skills, media, and the professions including law, and which may mobilize external constituencies as well. The “secondary” groups may also provide resources, both for the campaign and also in the form of material assistance to the affected people. Part of the skill of leading a campaign is combining the diverse motivations and capabilities of different people and groups. But the fundamental challenge””as Neha indicates””is to ensure that the goals and strategies of the campaign are determined by the “primary” constituency.
Neha’s comments reflect the unease about international advocacy that is felt by many Sudanese activists:
“In terms of the strengthening of Sudanese voices, if you look at the Amel Centre or Khartoum Centre – how many people not intimately involved with Sudan have heard about them? How much power do Darfurians have in expressing their vision for the future of Darfur, compared with Save Darfur? There are very real challenges to successfully organise in Darfur and in Sudan in general. A lot of division has been created and manipulated, and civil society is generally very weak, mainly through disunity as well as the international donor community.”
One of the constraints on primary activism is resources. But providing funds and building skills, can easily become an exercise in control or in redirecting the priorities of grassroots activism. Neha writes: “an interesting way to look at capacity building is that it helps people meet an external standard of normality rather than genuinely assisting people to meet their needs.”
“In order for Sudanese organisations to be heard, they have to have resources. In order to have resources they have to be very good at playing the organisational game of writing proposals (in a language which is not their mother tongue), planning projects, creating indicators etc. etc. What this does is stymie any real motivation, passion and drive that people have and create bureaucrats who are bent on sustaining their livelihood. If we want Sudanese to solve their problems, we should try to help them face these challenges.”
I would add that in analyzing campaigns and movements for rights, we should distinguish activism“”which covers the breadth of political engagement and can often be conducted with a minimum of noise””from advocacy“”which is by definition a public activity, and which can slide into agitation–merely making noise. One of the problems of activism at a distance is that it can do rather little in the way of “primary” mobilization and instead inevitably focuses on publicity and policy advocacy.
In part 3 of the exchange, the question shifts to “Who gets to define justice?” Neha coins the term “equitably distributed justice.” It’s a provocative thought. Michael challenges her:
“Does the fact that we are unable (or unwilling) to speak out about genocide or war crimes everywhere invalidate our efforts to address such actions in any one place? Or, put another way, does our inability or unwillingness to speak out about American or British or Israeli (or Chinese or Indian or Russian, etc etc.) war crimes mean that we cannot speak out about Darfur?”
“I don’t think the question is about validation, or the “˜right to speak out’, but about what will work best and that looks to what the means are. Indian thinking emphasizes that means are not [just] important, they are everything. Leadership by example will work every time, whereas we cannot count on success if we do not practice what we preach.”