Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Darfur dilemmas - An exchange with Alex de Waal

Alex de Waal is a prominent writer and activist on African issues, especially those involving human rights, large-scale atrocities, and humanitarian catastrophes. Over the last several years, Darfur has, unsurprisingly, been a major focus of his attention. Among other things, de Waal was directly involved, as an adviser, with the ill-fated Abuja negotiations in 2006 that sought, but failed, to broker a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the Darfurian rebel groups. He is also co-author, along with Julie Flint, of one of the most valuable books dealing with the Darfur catastrophe and its historical background, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. (For anyone seeking to make sense of Darfur, this brief but very illuminating book is a good place to start--along with de Waal's 2004 article "Counter-Insurgency on the Cheap".)

I should make it clear that I have great respect and admiration for de Waal, who is certainly one of the most knowledgeable, morally serious, and actively engaged analysts of the whole Darfur catastrophe. But anyone can make a mistake ... and, anyway, all issues related to the Darfur atrocity and what to do about it are inescapably difficult and contentions. A number of other people actively concerned with Darfur have found some of the positions that de Waal has taken unconvincing and/or unwise, and at times even perplexing--and I sometimes find myself inclined to agree with them.

I recently sent Alex de Waal an e-mail message criticizing certain arguments he has been making lately. He wrote me a thoughtful and substantial response, and proposed that we post both my message and his response on the "Making Sense of Darfur" blog he runs (under the auspices of the Social Science Research Council).

Links to both of these posts, along with some introductory selections, are below. This is intended to be the first step in public conversation; we will probably post a second round in about a week.

=> The starting-point for my remarks was an on-line Newsweek debate between Alex de Waal and and someone else whose expertise about and engagement with Darfur far surpass mine, the human rights activist John Prendergast (formerly with the International Crisis Group and currently on the board of the Save Darfur Coalition). That on-line debate provides some necessary background for the discussion between de Waal and me, and it is also quite important in its own right, so I strongly recommend reading it along with the exchange below.

--Jeff Weintraub
Making Sense of Darfur
Darfur Activism: The Debate Continues
(Part 1)

Posted on behalf of Jeff Weintraub, Visiting Scholar, University of Pennsylvania

Hi Alex,

I have continued to follow your writings on Darfur with keen interest, if not always with total agreement. This included your on-line Newsweek debate with John Prendergast, as well as your subsequent postscript in the SSRC blog “Making Sense of Darfur.”

I appreciated the characteristic seriousness and intelligence with which you carried out your side of the debate. And of course I agree with your general point that in such matters good intentions and empty moralizing are not enough-a morally and politically serious response also has to include a realistic analysis of the problem that recognizes, among other things, the complexity of the situation in Darfur and the inherent limits and constraints on any possible solution.

Nevertheless, I must say that on the whole my sympathies in the debate tended more toward the position being defended by Prendergast and his associates–-and I confess that this sympathy extended to a number of their criticisms of the kinds of public arguments you have been making recently. These really do come across to many readers, observers, and polemicists as a slightly unbalanced attack on the whole “Save Darfur” movement and on other activists who have been trying to arouse public opinion about the ongoing Darfur atrocity, and I’m afraid that they really do give aid and comfort to forces who would rather see the outside world do nothing at all about the crisis in Darfur–either because of a futilitarian conviction that any action is hopeless anyway, or from a so-called “realist” perspective that sees mass murder in distant exotic countries as none of our business, or in order to change the subject to attacking Blair & Bush & Zionism & imperialism, or because such people are simply supporters of and/or apologists for the Khartoum regime. And all this is a great pity, in my view, since you are clearly one of the most knowledgeable, serious, and genuinely engaged analysts of this whole catastrophe, and I am sure that none of this is what you intend.


Part of your larger argument with Darfur activists like Prendergast has to do, not simply with their own intentions and actions, but with what you perceive to be the indirect and unintentional effects of their agitation and of the rhetoric they help to encourage. I agree that these are serious concerns. But it seems to me that similar cautions apply to people espousing positions like yours–-especially since, as you are no doubt aware, the underlying agenda of most people who criticize the “Save Darfur” movement is not that they would like to see more sophisticated and effective measures to reduce suffering in Darfur and the rest of Sudan (which, of course, is what you want), but instead that they would like to avoid dealing with the problem of Darfur entirely.

And that is always going to be the default option of any governments (western or otherwise) who are not subject to public pressure on the issue of Darfur. Contrary to some of the conspiratorial fantasies floating around, western governments are not looking for excuses to intervene militarily in Sudan, using Darfur as a pretext. In the real world, they would be happy to find more excuses not to do anything about Darfur (even make empty noises), and only sustained pressure from an aroused public opinion will ever persuade them to behave otherwise. In that same real world, the public pressure that most western governments have been feeling on the issue of Darfur has been shamefully weak, not excessive–-and outside the US and (to a lesser degree) Britain, it has been fairly minimal. So I’m sure you don’t want to help people who would like to see that pressure simply go away.

I mean that last sentence seriously, not ironically. I’m sure you don’t want to help them. Well, that means facing up to the realities and complexities of politics in western societies, just as you would like Darfur activists to face up to the realities and complexities of politics in Sudan. In this respect, Prendergast made what strikes me as the crucial point:
Frankly, if you removed the advocacy movement from the equation, absolutely nothing would have been done on Sudan. So it’s not that activists diverted energies from what otherwise would have been a good approach; rather, we created attention and momentum around a set of issues that would have been ignored, at no cost, otherwise.
I don’t know whether you would disagree with this analysis. But if you do agree, then it would be useful to publicly underline your agreement (before adding any “but” you might want to add). This is especially true since I am afraid there is a good deal of truth to another point that Prendergast made:
Whatever your intent, those activists that have read anything you have written of late are trying to understand why you are saying that activists are more part of the problem than of the solution.
Perhaps this is an inaccurate and even unfair interpretation of what you have been arguing, but then (as you have been reminding Darfur activists) life is often unfair. And Darfur activists are not the only ones who get that impression–-so do many of those who oppose taking any serious action on Darfur (from futilitarian, apologist, conspiratorial, or so-called “realist” perspectives). Again, I am sure you don’t want to give aid and comfort to such people, and I’m sure that you want to improve Darfur advocacy and make it more sophisticated, not discourage it. In the end, without the (desperately inadequate) level of public concern and mobilization about Darfur that has been achieved in some western countries (though too few), there would be no prospect of anything at all getting done.

Yours in solidarity (if not always in agreement),
Jeff Weintraub

[The rest is HERE.]
Making Sense of Darfur
Darfur Activism: The Debate Continues
(Part 2)

Alex de Waal responds to Jeff Weintraub in part 2 of their online debate on activism and the Darfur crisis.

Dear Jeff

The issues you raise are serious and deserve a serious response. Your critique of my position is, to my mind, the most thoughtful and incisive that I have encountered — as well as the most civil. Our starting point for our shared concerns as well as our differences is outrage at what is happening to the people of Darfur and a determination to make sure their suffering is ended and their injustices righted.


The problem is, the closer you come to the problem, the more complicated it becomes. Twenty three years ago, Bob Geldof raised a huge amount of money for famine relief in Ethiopia and told the world public that the problem was very simple — all that was needed was their money and getting the bureaucrats and politicians out of the way. There was enough truth in that to make it a compelling point. But Geldof quickly learned that feeding the hungry is a fiendishly difficult business — alongside reaching the needy, the aid operation in Ethiopia fed the army of Mengistu Haile Mariam, which was instrumental in creating the famine. In that instance, the charitable impulse triumphed over the politics of human rights. Stopping atrocities during wars is no less difficult, and a mirror-image challenge can arise when the demand for justice overrides the pragmatics of finding solutions that save lives.

[....] Over the years, we have seen enough disastrous interventions in Africa’s wars and famines to know by now that clumsy and simplistic responses are almost always destined to make things worse.

Darfur is a tragedy, both in the simplistic sense that it is a catalog of human suffering, but also in the more profound sense that there are clashes of good intent, contradictions between different paths that are each, in themselves, morally worthy. You allude to one of these — the need to make deals with people who are responsible for terrible acts. This is ethically difficult territory, and one that is trodden professionally by the conflict mediator. As you indicate, when supping with the devil, keep an eye on the menu — and the check.

The humanitarian imperative of feeding the hungry and treating the sick can often conflict with the duty of bearing witness to injustice and seeking to expose and punish those responsible. This is the oldest and sharpest humanitarian dilemma — the one that impaled Geldof. In the Sudanese case there is also the specific and unique dilemma of the experiments in national democracy and self-determination for South Sudan, alongside the ongoing war in Darfur. [....]

Uniquely, Darfur raises another possible tragedy — a possible contradiction between the goals of grassroots internationalism in America and finding solutions for Darfur. (Let me repeat: possible contradiction — the point of this exercise is to explore the possibilities not to point fingers of blame.) One morally desirable goal is sustaining the energy and enthusiasm of this astonishing North American citizens’ movement. [....] I’m a huge enthusiast for a civic mobilization which can hold out the prospect of creating a permanent American domestic constituency against genocide and crimes against humanity worldwide, as GI-Net founder Mark Hanis hoped. But building this constituency is not the same project as finding solutions for Darfur. There can be tensions between the two aims — and our challenge is how to manage those tensions.


My worry is that the American campaign’s headline description is no longer valid and the proposed solutions aren’t going to work. I would argue that to describe what is happening in Darfur today as genocide is stretching that much-abused word too far.


I continue to believe that the focus on international troops was and is misplaced. I think it’s naïve and flies in the face of experience. It’s very clear that serious pressure is needed to get the Sudan government to respect its commitments — but the instruments available for exerting that pressure are limited and it’s important that the pressure is applied in a smart and strategic manner. I think that the pressure on Sudan over Darfur has been neither smart nor strategic.


America’s Darfur activists will, sooner or later, confront these dilemmas and challenges. There are no simple answers to the problems of Sudan which have confounded activists, humanitarians and policymakers for decades. There’s a real debate to be had. I appreciate your readiness to enter this debate in a serious and civil manner — this is the kind of exchange which will allow us to grope towards real solutions.

Best, Alex

[The rest is HERE.]