This excellent commentary, authored by Ibrahim Adam in El Fasher, North Darfur, was posted on Tuesday, March 24th, 2009 at Alex de Waal's blog Making Sense of Darfur
INGOs Expelled from Darfur: Time to Acknowledge the Smoking and Loaded Gun
Yes, nobody wants to see Darfuris in the IDP camps and elsewhere suffer needlessly. And that “nobody” also includes, yes, the Sudanese government – as noted by LA Times journalist Ed Sanders in his recent piece about the government’s – thwarted - efforts to ward off a meningitis outbreak and water-pump fuel shortage in Kalma Camp.
Yet, the INGOs and their vociferous supporters in the US and other Western governments, media, and academicians and, indeed, humanitarians themselves have continued to ignore the key reason behind the Sudanese government’s expulsion of thirteen NGOs (mostly international aid operators) from Darfur. Instead, they have moved (ducked?) smoothly into a predictable chorus of cat calls and gnashing of teeth at the Sudanese authorities in an attempt to “browbeat” the Sudanese government into letting the INGOs back into Darfur and carry on with “business as usual” (i.e the day before the announcement).
That’s wrong by the expelled INGOs and their supporters on two main counts.
First, as repeatedly noted by the Sudanese authorities, there are legitimate concerns – as noted in this terrific post recently by Neha Erasmus to be raised, and questions to be answered, about the overall ownnership and thrust of the international humanitarian intervention in Darfur – some five years on from that overwhelmingly successful response.
Nobody – and that should include self-dubbed friends of Darfur – should want to see a repeat in Darfur of UN Operational Lifeline in southern Sudan: a $20 billion food, basics and personal initiative-sapping international aid programme, which lasted for a ridiculous ten-plus years – with similarly little/no advocacy from international aid groups for both sides to sit down and end a pointless war - and whose negative impact on southern Sudanese seizing ownership over their own destiny is still even today all too clear to see.
In other words, a return to “business as usual” for the expelled INGOs and other international aid organisations in Darfur is, actually, in nobody’s interest – and that includes displaced Darfuris just existing in the camps.
Secondly, the expelled INGOs and their supporters in US and other Western governments, media etc have purposefully skirted over — and, in my mind, disingenuously — avoided answering the government’s explicit charge of whether there are any grounds for its claim that the INGOs expelled from Darfur have strayed way beyond both their own claimed humanitarian mandates and individual bilateral agreements signed with their host (the Sudanese government).
There’s no smoke without fire. And in the case of claims of the politicisation of international humanitarian operations in Darfur, it’s a pretty big and, in fact, very visible fire.
ICC Prosecutor Ocampo, despite his public denial, is clearly involved in a hasty, belated, damage (read expelled INGOs’ reputations/brands) limitation exercise. Many international staffers here in Darfur and Khartoum admit (privately) that some activists had/have infiltrated some international aid organisations working in Darfur (stress on “some” in both cases - hence reason why all INGOs in Darfur, i.e. majority were not expelled), and provided informational and testimonial assistance to the ICC - either directly or through ‘back-channels’ to the ICC such as supplying information (most likely poor quality as they are untrained for such a technically difficult task) to the likes of Eric Reeves, who was openly working with the ICC Prosecutor on the Bashir/Haroun/Kushayb indictments.
In fact, see this link from journalist Rob Crilly on the case of New Jersey pediatrician Jerry Ehrlich who worked for MSF in one of the Darfur IDP camps - likely Kalma - as an example.
Other activists within some INGOs (i.e. those that have been expelled) provided material assistance and moral succor to the rebel groups in Darfur, and so selfishly undermined the strictly humanitarian slant (and thus reputation - not just in Sudan but globally) of the INGOs in question.
Indeed, it turns out that the politicisation of humanitarian assistance in Darfur is not - as has been short-sightedly claimed by the Western media etc - a figment of imiganation of the Sudanese authorities. It is a fact. Indeed, we in Sudan saw it before during the North-South civil war, notably when Norwegian People’s Aid was censured by the Norwegian parliament in the mid-90s for gun-running for the SPLA (it had crates of rifles and guns hidden under stacks of bibles.)
Moreover, the ODI, the UK’s leading development think-tank, identified succinctly the worrying politicisation of humanitarian assistance in Darfur in a 2006 report, which noted:
“The role of advocacy in humanitarian action has given rise to debate about the politicization of humanitarianism, and concerns that greater engagement in advocacy undermines humanitarian principles and threatens humanitarian space… For many humanitarian agencies [in Darfur], public advocacy is partly seen as a way of maintaining profile. Darfur has become a priority for the media and communications departments of most humanitarian actors, and many have used advocacy not just to effect policy change, but also to gain exposure, not least for fundraising purposes.”
Similarly, here’s another, more recent, flashback from the ODIwhich also noted succinctly the huge problems and contradictions surrounding the politicization of international humanitarian assistance in Darfur.
A particularly striking finding of the second ODI report on the matter is the ‘flat lining’ of public advocacy by INGOs in conflicts in the Dem. Rep. of Congo, and Somalia compared to Darfur - with the latter two evidently worse and more protracted “protection crises” than that in the west of Sudan (using the INGOs own labeling of the Darfur conflict).
Put simply, the report lends strong credence to the view that from the get-go, INGOs, by spuriously dubbing Darfur as the “world’s first protection crisis” and, in turn, invoking the R2P mantra, have been indulging in a politicised, shallow campaign against the Sudanese government; after all if it’s just about protecting civilians from the effects of war, why haven’t those same INGOs issued a flurry of stand alone press release condemning rebel atrocities on civilians in Darfur or, likewise, why haven’t their sister counterparts in the DRC or Somalia issued a raft of protection-related press releases or missives?
The Sudanese government therefore has merely raised the legitimate question to the INGOs in Darfur – and has yet to receive an answer – why their sister agencies located in other, more troublesome or longer-term conflict zones around the world (e.g. DRC, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Colombia, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan) have not issued or publicized with great fanfare a slew of press releases or statements decrying international “diplomatic dithering” as, for example, Oxfam in Darfur did.
I believe in freedom; if anybody wants to be an activist on Darfur that’s their right. But use the correct silo for this: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Justice Africa etc. But don’t contaminate INGOs and their brand by indulging in shallow, politicised objectives as the activists did - that’s just morally wrong.
I’m a huge fan of INGOs generally – and what they have done in Darfur to stop hunger and provide the basics has been little short of miraculous. But I also know deep down that the indignation of international and Sudanese staff of the expelled INGOs (and sections of the international community) to the Sudanese government, while expected, should instead be directed towards the activists – i.e. their former (and in some cases current) international staff colleagues.
It was, after all, they who made the wrong – and selfish – judgment call on the belief that they were on some ‘higher mission’.
Surely, the international staffers who chose to pursue an activist agenda about the Darfur conflict, as opposed to a humanitarian one, must have realized that they would only serve to inflict heavy damage on the reputation of the INGOs if their activist activities were discovered by the Sudanese authorities.? They evidently did not care a hoot.
Then again, given the evident ‘Darfur protection-bias’ of global INGO operations and advocacy, it’s no small wonder that activists who infiltrated the expelled INGOs felt that their organisations would provide an atmosphere of moral succor - even if activist ‘interventions’ on behalf of the ICC or Darfur rebel groups ran counter to the official line of local INGO managers or the humanitarian mandate of the NGOs.
Members of the INGO community in Darfur who have continued to deny all knowledge of such activities in Darfur by renegade staff members, and paint the expulsions as merely a transparent retaliation against the recent ICC verdict and, in turn, are trying to brow-beat/intimidate the Sudanese government into allowing the expelled INGOs back into Darfur and carry on as “business as usual”, are certainly doing themselves, the reputation of INGOs, their profession and Darfuris themselves – no favours at all.
Ibrahim Adam, El Fasher, North Darfur