Monday, March 23, 2009

Save Darfur movement spends its annual budget of $15 million not on assisting victims but on spreading the message

Politics and humanitarianism
By Anna Mundow, March 22, 2009
Mahmood Mamdani, a third-generation East African of Indian descent, grew up in Uganda, studied at Harvard, taught at various African and American universities, and is currently Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University. A political scientist and anthropologist, he is best known for "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim" and "When Victims Become Killers." His latest book, "Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror" (Pantheon, $26.95), meticulously exposes the tangled roots of the current conflict and the global forces at play in Darfur. Mamdani spoke from his home in New York City.

Q. Is there a link between this book and your previous work?

A. There are several; the most obvious is an understanding of the way in which the Cold War almost seamlessly morphed into the war on terror. Another connection - with my work on the Rwanda genocide and on the effect of colonialism in Africa - is the way in which identities are imposed from above.

Q. Such as who is an Arab, a Muslim, an African?

A. Yes. Interestingly, [originally] "Africa" was a word the Romans used for their North African province. But after the trans-Atlantic slave trade, "Africa" referred to parts of the continent from which slaves were hunted and sold. In Sudan, where everybody was equally native, the British arbitrarily identified certain groups as African and others as Arab.

Q. Why do you concentrate on the Save Darfur campaign?

A. In a context where African tragedies seem never to be noticed, I wondered why Darfur was an obsession with the global media. The reason, I realized, was that Darfur had become a domestic issue here, thanks to the Save Darfur movement. So I thought it important to examine the movement's history, organization, and message. I learned that this self-confessedly political group whose level of organization is phenomenal spends its annual budget of $15 million not on assisting victims but on spreading the message.

Q. Why?

A. There are various motives. One part of the group emerged out of solidarity with the struggle in south Sudan and believes that Darfur is another version of south Sudan. Most have no idea of the difference between the two situations. Another wing is what I understand to be neoconservatives who want to incorporate Darfur into the war on terror. Both groups reinforce the racialization of the conflict and the demonization of the Arabs.

Q. For political reasons?

A. For political reasons. There are few sources that really analyze Save Darfur; the clearest I found was an article [see copy here below] by Gal Beckerman in the Jerusalem Post ["US Jews leading Darfur rally planning," April 27, 2006]. The facts there speak for themselves.

Q. Yet you say that this campaign depoliticizes Americans?

A. I'm struck by the contrast between the mobilization around Darfur and the lack of mobilization around Iraq. The explanation, I believe, lies in the fact that Save Darfur presented the conflict as a tragedy, stripped of politics and context. There were simply "African" victims and "Arab" perpetrators motivated by race-intoxicated hatred. Unlike Iraq, about which Americans felt guilty or impotent, Darfur presented an opportunity to feel good. It appealed to the philanthropic side of the American character. During the presidential election, Save Darfur's constituency became integrated into the Obama campaign, and I welcomed that opportunity to organize around real concerns. The downside now is the attempt by Save Darfur to pressure the Obama administration to intervene militarily in Darfur.

Q. Are you saying that humanitarianism is a form of colonialism?

A. I'm saying that historically it has been. The movement after which Save Darfur patterned itself is the antislavery movement of the 19th century. Remember that the elimination of slavery was the ostensible reason given by British officials for colonization of the African continent. The cataloging of brutalities - real ones, not exaggerated - was essential preparation for seizing chunks of real estate, again ostensibly to protect victims. Today, the humanitarian claim uses ethics to displace politics. Conflicts are typically presented as tribal or race wars between perpetrators and victims whose roles are unchanging.

Q. Does the problem lie in who uses the humanitarian label?

A. The language of human rights was once used primarily by the victims of repression. Now it has become the language of power and of interventionists who turn victims not into agents but into proxies. It has been subverted from a language that empowers victims to a language that serves the designs of an interventionist power on an international scale.

Q. Do you worry about the reaction to this book?

A. My experience is that it is better to defend what you have said than to explain why you left half the case unsaid. I worried about the extent to which the book is readable because the middle chapters are in-depth historical exploration. I worried about losing the general reader. But faced with a human-rights constituency determined to decontextualize this issue, I felt compelled to examine Darfur in both a regional and a historical context, focusing on its complexity. This morning I received figures from UNAMID [the United Nations Mission in Darfur] in Khartoum, on civilian deaths from conflict in Darfur during 2008. The figure was 1,520, with 600 dead as a result of the conflict in the south between different Arab groups over grazing land and 920 deaths attributable, I am told, more to rebel movements than to the government-organized counterinsurgency. This is the kind of complexity that has been totally simplified.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at
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Aprril 27, 2006 - Updated Apr 28, 2006
US Jews leading Darfur rally planning
Anti-American rally in Darfur, Sudan

Photo: Anti-America rally in Darfur, Sudan (AP)

Thousands of people will be marching this Sunday in Washington, DC under a banner that carries a simple two-word demand: "Save Darfur."

This is the name of the coalition organizing the rally, the first public action of its size intended to focus attention to the past three years of mass killing and ethnic cleansing carried out by the Sudanese government against the ethnically black farmers living in the Western region of Darfur. By most accounts, over 200,000 people have been massacred and two million displaced in a campaign that the US government and the United Nations two years ago decided to term genocide.

The rally, and the coalition that is organizing it, is hoping to pierce the consciousness of Americans and pressure the Bush administration into taking a more active line to end the conflict and help the refugees of the violence - most of whom are living in degrading conditions in neighboring Chad.

For this effort, the coalition has recruited major celebrities like George Clooney and Elie Wiesel to speak to those assembled. Though recent reports have indicated that the turnout might be lower than expected, organizers, while refusing to give a concrete number, believe it will be in "the tens of thousands."

Little known, however, is that the coalition, which has presented itself as "an alliance of over 130 diverse faith-based, humanitarian, and human rights organization" was actually begun exclusively as an initiative of the American Jewish community.

And even now, days before the rally, that coalition is heavily weighted with a politically and religiously diverse collection of local and national Jewish groups.

A collection of local Jewish bodies, including the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, United Jewish Communities, UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, sponsored the largest and most expensive ad for the rally, a full-page in The New York Times on April 15.

Though there are other major religious organizations, like the United States Conference on Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals, both of which have giant constituencies that number in the millions, these groups have not done the kind of extensive grassroots outreach that will produce numbers.

Instead, the Jewish Community Relations Council, a national organization with local branches that coordinate communal activity all over America, has put on a massive effort to bus people to Washington on Sunday. Dozens of buses will be coming from Philadelphia and Cleveland. Yeshiva University alone, in upper Manhattan, has chartered eight buses.

Besides the Jewish origins and character of the rally - a fact the organizers consistently played down in conversations with The Jerusalem Post - the other striking aspect of the coalition is the noted absence of major African-American groups like the NAACP or the larger Africa lobby groups like Africa Action. When asked to comment, representatives of both groups insisted they were publicizing the rally but had not become part of the coalition or signed the Unity Statement declaring Save Darfur's objectives.

The coalition's roots go back to the spring of 2004 following a genocide alert, the first ever of its kind, issued by the United States Holocaust Museum. An emergency meeting was coordinated by the American Jewish World Service, an organization that serves as a kind of Jewish Peace Corps as well as an advocacy group for a variety of humanitarian and human rights issues.

At the meeting, which was attended by numerous American Jewish organizations and a few other religious groups, it was decided that a coalition would be formed based on a statement of shared principles.

After a year of programming that involved raising awareness about the genocide, the coalition came up with the idea for a rally in Washington. Planning began in the fall of 2005.
David Rubenstein, the director or "coordinator," as he prefers it, of the coalition says that, given that the groups who started the coalition were Jewish, "it's not surprising that they had the numbers of more Jewish organizations in their rolodexes."

He says that the Jewish community has been "extraordinarily responsive and are really providing the building for this thing," and yet he insists that the coalition has worked "very, very hard to be inclusive, to make sure there are people beyond the usual suspects."

This is a sentiment echoed by Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service and one-time Manhattan borough president and Democratic mayoral candidate for New York City. The world service and Messinger personally have been at the forefront of planning for the rally. Much of the Jewish turnout has been a result of her lobbying efforts.

She thinks the strong Jewish response has to do with the memories of Rwanda. "The Jewish community has probably had a higher level of lingering guilt over Rwanda than the average person," Messinger says. "And now learning about another genocide, I think people are beginning to understand that we are close to making a mockery of the words 'Never Again.'"

Still, there are critics who say the heavy Jewish involvement might have deterred some other groups from joining.

The fact that the aggressors in Darfur are Arab Muslims - though it should be said that the victims are also mostly Muslim - and are supported by a regime in Khartoum that is backed by the Arab League has made some people question the true motives of some of the Jewish organizations involved in the rally.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Um, that's not a secret. They're an advocacy organization, not an aid organization, and everyone knows is (or should). If you don't like advocacy orgs, don't give your money to them, but it's not like this is news...