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.”
I totally agree with you that it is better to have sudanese organisations able to carry out humantarian and advocacy activities in the country, but more than that I hope soon no one in Sudan needs relife e or humantarian assistant, Sudan is a very rich country which suppose to be the food basket of the world but due to their inability of Sudanese to utlise their natural resources to their best and the best of the world as whole. Sudan has been facing stravation or shortage of food (as the government like to call it) for the last 30 years, which is due to lack of creditable economic strategy and the adoptation of the wrong policies. Most of the crisis which faced the country were man made, all the successive government always look for the international community to provide aids and assistant to people affected by those crisis, I have never seen a national contingecy plan able to face such crisis, and most of the time the government complain about outside intervention in itâ€™s internal affairs( beggars cannot choice) if you are not able to feed yourself you cannot ask to be left alone , every grant or assistant comes with it is conditions.
Many commentators talk about allowing the local NGOs to curry out the humanitarin assistant to people in need, but they are missing very important point which is the national Sudanese organisations have the ability to do that , financially or have the needed experience to offer relief and medical assistant to people in need, the answer is clearly no. If we examine the situation in Darfur and look at the percentage of the assistants delivered by the Sudanese NGOs it is minimal.
Currently we have two types of national NGOs in Sudan, the first ones which have resources are linked to the National Congress Party( NCP) they get their funds either directly from the government or through other ways but totally supported by the ruling party eg ( Al Zabair , and AL Shahid). The other ones which have no link to the NCP and they mainly look for funds from abroad or grants from the UN agencies and some western Embassies inside the country and most of them been established to secure means of living to their founders more than serving the causes which they meant to support they called them hand bags organisation in most cases they design their programme according to the need of the funders more than what they estabished to serve. The three national NGOs which the government withdraw their licences recently ( SODO, Amel Centre and K hartoum centre)used to get most of their funding from abroad and some of them were implementing partners of foreign NGOs ( the link between Khartoum Centre , Amel Centre and Sudan Organisation Against Torture SOAT London based)those were the only professional Sudanese NGOs they have full time staff well paid in comparison to the average wages in Sudan .
I established civil soicety organisaiton 1983 with the name of Tagoia Devepolment organisation the main objective of it was to inlight the locals in the eastern part of South Kordfan region we used to organise Summer camps for students to help the locals by teaching illiterate adults and help in schools maintence etc. the committee members included Commendor Abdul Aziz Adam Al hilo ( Current Deputy government of South Kordan) We had never written any proposal for fundign we used to totally depend on our members subscriptions and some small donations.
But civic activism becomes a commerical business in Sudan it all about getting funds to finance the founders remunerations more than serving a certain cause.
If we look at the role which is been played by the western advocacy organisations in influencing policies in the case of Darfur like Save Darfur, Enough , Darfur Consortium and Not in our Watch, they lunch a very high profile campign which succeed in bring attention to the current crisis in the region.
I totally agree that in some cases they got their facts wrong and they concentrate mainly in the issue of justice more than first brining peace to the region then seek justice, by perusing justice you will not stop the killing and at the same time not bring the parpariates to justice.
But my main question is if those groups didnâ€™t existed what were the situation in Darfur be, will the killing in Darfur stopped by now and we have peace and prosperity in the region, and will the local sudanese organisations be able to highlight the difficulties facing the victims of the crisis, I think the answer is clear.
You cannot have free and active civic movemens in a country where there are laws which curtailing freedom of expression and associations, with a security organ intervene in all their peacuful activities.
The issue of who has the right to advocate and who hasnâ€™t, I donâ€™t think there is anyone who has monopoly over the advocacy as far as you believe in the cause and not using to achieve something else or have other agenda. Those days there are not geographic boundaries as the world become a global village, the case of Darfur people inside Sudan were the last to know what happened there, as the local media were not allowed to cover the events there only highlight what the government want them to talk about the only free sources of information was the international media either radios or televisions. That why the campaign of the western pressure group gather momentum and force the Sudanese government in defensive position instead setting the agenda they just reacting to it.
For the government of Sudan to hide behind the issue of sovereignty to prevent the outside world from intervening in Darfur issue will not resolve the issue, as they have surrender part of their sovereignty when the join the international and regional organisations (UN, AU) and become member of the club you either accept the club rules or leave it you cannot have them both ways.
Afshin Rattansi interviews media consultant , Ali Gunn, and Collette Valentine, TV producer recently returned from Darfur.
George Clooney, Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Cindy Crawford, Bono, Michael Caine, Claudia Schiffer, Bob Geldof, Hugh Grant, Mia Farrow, Mick Jagger and so many others have expressed their solidarity with the people of the oil-rich region of Darfur. A few weeks ago, Democrats John Lewis of Georgia, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Lynn Woolsey of California, Donna Edwards of Maryland, and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts were all arrested as they demonstrated against the Sudanese government. When Colin Powell used the word genocide in 2004, it kicked off $1 billion-a-year international aid program, much higher than that afforded Somalia or Congo. But why?
In the past few months, the International Criminal Court has charged Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with crimes against humanity and war crimes. The ICCâ€™s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo is appealing the setting aside of genocide charges, claiming that there is “ongoing genocide” in Darfur. The Sudanese government has expelled a number of foreign aid groups, accusing them of espionage. They include Oxfam, Save the Children and Medecins Sans Frontieres. According to the Save Darfur Campaign, it was the relief organizations that provided clean water, food, and medical attention to roughly 1.5 million people. The Sudanese government claims these aid-agencies deliberately exclude Arab Darfuris in their ranks, exacerbating sectarian tensions.
And at the moment, President Obamaâ€™s Special Envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration is on a diplomatic tour and Britain is sending $185m in aid and $140m to pay for â€œpeacekeepingâ€ operations.
Collette Valentine, a TV producer visiting from the United Kingdom, and Ali Gunn, a British political and media consultant, last week returned from Darfur where they attended the first â€œInternational Conference on the Challenge Facing Women in Darfurâ€ in Al-Fasher in the north. Valentine says that reading articles about Darfur in the international press make her feel as if she had visited a completely different region, a completely different country. It all adds weight to the thesis of Columbia Universityâ€™s Professor Mahmood Mamdani that there is something very murky about Western aid agenciesâ€™ insistence that there has been genocide in Darfur, and that at the heart of campaigns for Darfur is a powerful, imperial desire to suppress citizenry from U.S. high school classrooms to right across the developing world.
Afshin Rattansi: Tell me about your visit and how your experience differed from the portrayal in the corporate media. I understand you went at the invitation of Rajaa Hassan Khalifa from the largest womenâ€™s union in conjunction with Bakri O.Saeed from Sudan International University.
Collette Valentine: Ali Gunn and I and a group of journalists were lucky enough to be invited to Sudan by the Sudanese Women General Union. The womenâ€™s union in Sudan has got 27,000 branches all over Sudan, including Darfur. They have representatives in all the rural villages, across all different communities consisting of around 80 tribes and clans. The women of Sudan are a real force. Historically, there have been female leaders. They are wives, mothers, farmers, they build, they grow the vegetables and basically sustain the communities and are respected by their men folk. A third of families in the camps are headed by women. In recent years, some members of the womenâ€™s union have been elected as ministers in the Sudanese government and a quarter of the seats in the Sudanese parliament are occupied by women.
They are all members of the union and they have direct links right down from the most educated academic women from the professional classes to grassroots people. This chain of open communication is active and alive from bottom to top and top to bottom. Because the women have such a strong role in the communities, the women themselves have decided to take action for peace and security in Darfur. They have seen the failure of external, international agencies and NGOs and they know that peace can only come from within their own communities via reconciliation talks.
The IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) in the refugee camps are people who have fled trouble in their own areas of Sudan. They didnâ€™t want to leave but had no option but to flee. Before the international NGOs got involved, the IDPs were provided with camps by Al-Bashirâ€™s government, provided with wells, administrators, bureaucratic structures, materials for shelter and local doctors, clinics, and health services paid for by the Sudanese government.
When women fled their villages, active male rebels from every community that were fighting each other remained. Those conflicts rage on even as there is peace and stability in the camps. We saw no evidence of genocide. We were not embedded by the government nor with any NGO. We had absolute freedom to talk with whomever we wished. And we randomly talked to as many men, women and children as we could.
One man, a village leader who led 4,000 of his community, now separated in two camps, said he had been there for six years. His home was 50km away. We asked about genocide and he said that he wouldnâ€™t have remained in the Sudanese government camps for six years if he hadnâ€™t been looked after. When we asked about the issue of rape, he did not deny there wasnâ€™t an issue. The women we spoke to said that rape, unfortunately, exists everywhere in the world and some we spoke to quoted statistics about the prevalence of rape in the U.S. and how in developed nations, women are too frightened to press charges. One woman told me that allegations of wide and systematic rape crimes against Darfur women constitute a type of war against Sudan. Historically, in areas of conflict, they maintained, cases of crime and rape are bound to increase. Rape is not a weapon of the government and women are told to report instances of rape. But the ICC is using the prevalence of rape and giving it undue importance, helping NGOs fill their coffers.
Afshin Rattansi: Were you concerned about safety in Darfur?
Ali Gunn: I understood that the situation had settled and that there was quite a lot of fighting down south but that the situation in Darfur was more stable since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. However, I had been warned off by expert security consultants who feared for my safety.
We went to two camps in Darfur and we saw people eking out a simple existence. No bullet holes, no tanks and no fighting. The only military vehicles belonged to the United Nations. We were given carte blanche to wander around the camps as we pleased and talk to anyone we liked. Many spoke English.
Afshin Rattansi: What about the United Nationsâ€™ presence on the ground?
Collette Valentine: When we were actually in one of the two camps, we looked up and saw an American tank approaching, followed by a patrol of around 15 UN vans and two more tanks. They drove up, parked the cars outside the office of the administrator of the camp. We didnâ€™t know what was happening.
We were told that three times day, this happens at the camp and that UN officials come to ask whether everything is alright. Women told us that the camps are peaceful places. While we played football with children in the camp at around 9am, men and women were setting out market stalls selling tomatoes and oranges, and as the UN personnel talked to the administrator, the soldiers lined up with guns, five meters apart facing us and the rest of the people in the camps.
It seemed that the soldiers were protecting UN bosses. We were kicking a football with the children. It was extraordinary. Women were making yoghurt with goatâ€™s milk even as the UN troops pointed their guns at us. I asked one of the women, Maha Feraigon, why guns were being aimed and whether they were scared that we might throw a tomato at them and she just laughed. As Ali says, quite a few people could speak English. Maha was first assistant to the Secretary- General of the Sudanese Women General Union, independent of the government. All the people we spoke to were furious about UN personnel arriving in this way and wanted the UN to leave. The UN personnel left their engines running and people resented the waste of UN aid , in front of their eyes. They asked about what they could be doing with the money. I was disgusted. They asked why these personnel were not in the villages where the fighting continues and their â€˜darâ€™ or land was. People said that NGOs donâ€™t want the fighting to stop so that they can continue to be paid. None had seen any money from the Save Darfur campaign and they resented money being raised in their names.
Ali Gunn: At the conference, we spoke to opposition leaders and women at the conference. Our concern during our trip was to look at the living conditions of the people in the camps and the future of Darfur and the future for families there. And, where we were, there seemed to be a lack of evidence of external aid. Darfur is the size of France so we didnâ€™t go to all the camps. You would have to ask the aid agencies where money meant for them has been sent.
Afshin Rattansi: How do the Sudanese perceive outside, external forces?
Collette Valentine: I was lucky enough to sit beside Mafa on the flight from Khartoum to Darfur. I stress that she has no connection to any NGO or the government. She spoke very good English and explained the anger of the people. Her general feeling, having been all over Darfur, speaking to women at all levels from all communities throughout the region was that they did not want foreign interference because they know that it is all about oil and about water â€“ the â€œoil of tomorrowâ€.
She told me how Sudan was sitting on the biggest underwater lake in Africa giving rise to the best arable land. Despite the desertification, responsible for so many of the deaths in recent years, the lake holds great promise. She told me about how Chevron was thrown out of the country and how Chevron executives took all their drilling and exploration maps with them. They still believe that the NGOs in concert with the U.S. are only involved because of water and oil. She pointed to Congo, Sierra Leone and other African countries, convinced that there are no good intentions when it comes to great power involvement on the continent.
Afshin Rattansi: Not a day goes by without the word genocide being used when Darfur is in the corporate media.
Ali Gunn: The Western media has totally misrepresented the situation after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. In Darfur, they are desperate for long term measures to alleviate the cycle of non-delivery in Darfur. Some believe that a significant number of people who would never be able to return to their homeland areas.
Living conditions in the camps were Spartan but clean and people were very aware of their personal space. There was a market with a butcher, vegetable-sellers, a makeshift restaurantâ€¦many rows of different shops. It was very much like a souk you would see in any country of this type, with domestic goods on sale. The people we saw were not starving and pretty healthy.
Afshin Rattansi: Do you see money from oil being used for the benefit of the people?
Collette Valentine: Oil is all-important for Sudan and is vital to the infrastructure-building plans of the country. They are planning schools and health centers. Free medical care is available to everybody but not every village has a clinic so people have to travel to the next village. There is a lot of work to be done in Sudan. This is not a bed of roses, by any means but only oil money is going to be able to change things. I saw in Khartoum how development is beginning. They have big plans for the areas around the Blue Nile in Khartoum and it looks to me like Pudong in Shanghai where I made some documentaries when it was developing, a decade ago.
Maha told me that there was a rail system in Sudan that you could time your watch by but that U.S. sanctions starting in the 1990s destroyed it as spare parts to fix trains and tracks dried up. Sanctions prevented people being able to travel. But, now the Sudanese government has done a deal with the Chinese who they feel are completely different from the Americans. I was told that Chinese involvement was trusted whereas the U.S. wasnâ€™t. The Chinese are not interested in hegemonic power. I could see the development in Khartoum. When I later met the president, he said that growth should be across Sudan and not just limited to an elite in Khartoum. The work is in progress and the presidentâ€™s popularity has gone through the roof after the ICC indictments.
Afshin Rattansi: What about signs of corruption?
Ali Gunn: People had told us the President was a humble and modest man and he certainly seemed like that in person. I was very wary of signs of corruption and wealth. The palace looked like any municipal building in a developing nation. It was modestly furnished, by Western standards. We were told that he was a modest man who had come up the ranks of the army and as such was perhaps less concerned about the ICC than about rebuilding his nation. He is much more popular since the ICC indictments.
There was a general feeling that the country has been picked on in comparison to what has been happening in surrounding nations. I saw that people were being actively encouraged to vote. I mentioned that I work in the British parliament and stressed the need for people to register to vote and there was certainly no problem in people understanding the importance of voting.
Like people in Britain, many of the people we spoke to had a healthy skepticism about politicians per se. But they did believe that the next elections would be free and fair.
Collette Valentine: The president knew that the conference was taking place but he had no knowledge of which camps we were visiting. The women were careful not to tell him because they were aware that we were looking for any signs that we were being embedded in any way.
Afshin Rattansi: And the perception is that the ICC has aided the president of Sudan?
Collette Valentine: On the night before we left, we met with President Al-Bashir and his advisor, Dr Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani. Everything they said backed up what we heard on the ground. He admitted that the ICC has boosted his reelection chances. He admitted that rape was present in Darfur but he blamed outside aid agencies for putting petrol on the fire and he highlighted the external supply of arms. He also blamed the classic British divide-and-rule tactics of colonialism for the roots of trouble in Sudan. Attabani said â€œSudan is politically isolated and that when the ICC indictment was first raised 4 years ago the president offered to step aside, to abdicate â€“ he said 16 years was too long. Our policy in that the National Congress Party (NCP) is that we donâ€™t believe in aâ€™ president for life.â€™ [The ICC] made him look like a villain but internally it boosted his popularity. .. now the NCP canâ€™t consider any other candidate.â€
From my experience of seeing western leaders in London, there is a cavalcade of security. Al Bashir when he goes from his house to local weddings, funerals and the mosque, seems to have no security at all. One of our delegates went to the mosque and was baffled by the lack of security on seeing him there.
Afshin Rattansi: What does the president of Sudan expects from the change of administration in Washington?
Ali Gunn: As representatives of the Western media, we were attacked about international coverage of Darfur as the people since there is a stark contrast between how they see the situation and how it is portrayed. They saw the West as patronizing the Sudanese people. On Obama, President Al-Bashir said â€œHeâ€™s much more pragmatic. The old guard from Clintonâ€™s days are still around â€“ in the 90s they were hostile..theyâ€™ve not changed, but they have toned down their rhetoricâ€¦we believe that the US has been exploited by certain undercurrents .â€ Personally, I cannot stress enough that journalists should go and see for themselves whatâ€™s happening on the ground.
Collette Valentine: Dr. Ghazi said that they are hopeful about Obama but they donâ€™t trust the Clinton people, the Susan Rices and Samantha Powers. Continuation of the ICC path would be seen as vindictive and alien and could result in turning Darfur into a real conflict.
The women in the camps are focused on persuading their men since they believe that the only hope for peace and reconciliation lies in their ability to encourage forgiveness. They believe no international organizations can persuade the men to reconcile with each other. Before this conflict happened, tribal elders would meet to settle conflicts between nomadic and peasant communities. Right across Darfur, women are campaigning on the ground for reconciliation talks. This was the first peace conference. All the women from all the communities are coming together to urge reconciliation talks with women from each community given time to speak. Security was on top of the agenda as well as education and healthcare.
Ali Gunn: After we came back from the camps, we were both shocked about the disparity of what was happening on the ground and what was in the media. I was amazed and appalled that so much reporting in our newspapers has no basis in reality. Some of the reporting I have read has been cheap and lazy journalism at its worst.
Afshin Rattansi has helped launch and develop television networks and has worked in journalism for more than two decades, at the BBC Today programme, CNN International, Bloomberg News, Al Jazeera Arabic, the Dubai Business Channel, Press TV and The Guardian. His quartet of novels, â€œThe Dream of the Decadeâ€ is available on Amazon.com.