As bombs fall over Libya, the U.N. Security Council debates what actions to take – or not take – with regard to the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire.
And while those of us with the luxury of distance debate whether what will happen there might constitute genocide in technical terms, I’ve spent the last few days reading Rebecca Hamilton’s excellent new book, “Fighting for Darfur.”
Unlike the Cote d’Ivoire crisis, a large, international advocacy movement formed around the Darfur crisis. Yet, at the end of the day, the movement was never able to achieve its primary goal of ensuring civilian protection in the region.
Hamilton sets out to explain why.
After the Rwandan genocide, most advocates, academics and politicians believed that if a sustained, large, grassroots movement could be formed and maintained to pressure United States officials to stop genocide and other crimes against humanity, then there wouldn’t be any more Rwandas.
The advocates were wrong.
Hamilton, a prominent player in the Darfur advocacy movement, provides an analysis as to why that is simultaneously an insider’s view and a more detached, analytical take on the question.
While highlighting the Darfur movement’s successes (including the development of sustained pressure on the U.S. government, a U.N. Security Council resolution and the appointment of a series of special envoys for Sudan), she finds that several dynamics interfered in reaching the ultimate goal of civilian protection.
For one, most advocates had difficulty understanding that both the situation in Southern Sudan and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Darfur crisis had to be addressed simultaneously, difficult as this was.
Says Sam Bell, a leader in the movement, “I think one of the biggest missing pieces for the movement initially was context, understanding the context.”
This theme of a lack of contextual understanding pervades Hamilton’s analysis. Advocates failed to understand that Sudan was not like Rwanda, that the situation in Sudan had evolved considerably by 2007-08, that their insistence on military action could and did have negative consequences for humanitarian operations serving Darfuris.
But the biggest failure of understanding context came in understanding the role that the U.S. government could ultimately play in Darfur – or anywhere else in the world for that matter.
Hamilton concludes that the advocates took years to finally understand that controlling the situation in Sudan is beyond the full reach of the U.S. government, the Chinese or even the U.N. Quite simply, we can’t do everything.
It’s a sobering realization, and not one that Hamilton reaches lightly. “Fighting for Darfur” is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in advocacy, diplomacy, Sudan or grassroots activism.
That said, I do have a couple of criticisms. First, the book is a bit uncritical of specific organizations, even while acknowledging the difficulties and constraints that several groups faced.
(Genocide Intervention Network was run by college students with little experience in any professional setting for its first few years of existence and thus faced difficulties figuring out how to direct the money it had raised.)
I understand why Hamilton could not do so – she is, in many instances, writing about her friends and colleagues – but for those interested in learning how to do advocacy better, it would have been nice to have some analysis of the groups’ relative degrees of effectiveness.
Why was one organization able to attract large numbers of donors and email list subscribers while others struggled?
Why were there so many organizations under the Darfur advocacy umbrella to begin with?
Would a more coordinated effort have been able to better inform grassroots activists as the situation evolved?
Second, while understanding that Hamilton needed to finish the book and get on with her life, I do wish that the publication had been delayed until after the results of this January’s referendum.
Hamilton spends a few paragraphs in the book’s conclusion articulating the common-among-advocates view that the referendum might have evolved into violence, but of course that didn’t happen. (To be sure, the question of what will happen in Abyei and other contested areas remains to be seen.)
It would have been interesting to read reactions from those in the advocacy community who predicted – even assumed – that violence was inevitable and to hear them articulate what they thought made a difference.
I suspect the real answer to that question has a lot to do with Khartoum acting in its own self-interest and Scott Gration’s insistence on engaging with Khartoum throughout the process, but those dynamics have not been particularly appreciated by Darfur advocates.
All in all, I found “Fighting for Darfur” to be a fantastic read. I highly recommend it if you are in the advocacy community or want to learn more about those who are.
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.