Saturday, June 13, 2009

Saviors and Survivors Part 1: The Save Darfur Movement

Jo Hunter Adams

Saviors and Survivors, by Mahmood Mamdani, opens with a discussion of the Save Darfur Movement.

When the movement was just starting to gain momentum in 2004, I was asking "how can I get Africans and Wellesley students to be aware and understand the genocide?", "How can people have a nuanced idea of who is killing and why?"

It's striking that I wasn't asking questions like "how many people are dying?" or "why is this the issue of the day?"-- I suspect that those seemed like jaded, cynical questions to be asking in the midst of a crisis. Yet these are exactly the questions that Mamdani-- rightly-- asks.

I was well aware that the peace agreement between North and South was convenient for international politics, and in general I consider myself relatively knowledgeable about Sudan after gravitating towards Sudanese history in college. It certainly didn't feel like I was being used in any way. It felt super important that the international community didn't sit back, as it had during the Rwandan genocide.

There was no question that Darfur was important to think about, that some kind of intervention-- even military intervention-- might be warranted. I looked critically, but was at some level impressed by the giant T ads the Save Darfur movement was able to paste around Boston.

That said-- here are some of the questions Mamdani asks in his chapter:

-- Why did no one question when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof inflated the numbers of excess deaths in Iraq while calling for intervention and attention? Is it because no-one knew enough to question? Were facts less important because the story was about a faraway place?

-- What does it mean that there were actually more excess deaths in Iraq at the hands of American soldiers (these deaths were associated with "counter-insurgency", which is considered an acceptable role of government) than in Darfur?

-- What does it mean that the greater numbers of deaths in Congo (even today) and Angola were ignored in favour of a U.S. focus on Darfur?

-- How did the Save Darfur Movement gain such widespread recognition, and how did it become so well-resourced? How could it afford that million dollar ad campaign? Could that money have been more useful in Darfur?

From these questions (questions I didn't ask in college) I sense a tension: Activists, by definition, need to act, to respond to injustice and be appalled at senseless violence. At the same, activists need to study and understand the context and ambiguities of our priorities. Perhaps this tension could manifest in the type of activism we try to foster-- learning together and feeding our priorities and fairly nuanced understanding back to politicians and NGO leaders-- vs. calling for military intervention and creating flashy campaigns.

Simplistic campaigns may be effective at generating interest, money and momentum, but those campaigns feed into the fast food culture of instant, visual and sensual gratification and short attention spans. The culture that this blog is undoubtedly a part of!


Deontologist said...

Lovely review. Personally, I feel like Mamdani gets bogged down in polemics and conspiracy theories at a few places in the book, but his overall message is correct. That’s kind of the pot calling the kettle black though, considering the tone of my own commentary on the save Darfur movement.

ET said...

Really enjoyed this, it reminded me of my reservations in joining and participating in human-rights campaigns on getting the US to recognize what was happening in Darfur as "genocide" or "genocidal acts" etc. I shall definitely read the book.