Perhaps you’ve missed the recent aid-blog brawl over the value of Save Darfur, but man, it’s been intense. Gauntlets have been thrown down, then picked up, then thrown down again, and some gloves have even been slapped across some faces. We’re not really the sort to resist any affair that involves that many accessories, so it’s time for us to throw our hat in the ring. (And yes, the two of us share a hat.)
Last month, U.N. Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes gave an interview with Newsweek in which he was asked the sort of burning question that keeps us, but probably nobody else, up at night: Whether atrocity awareness activism (say that ten times fast!) groups like Save Darfur do “more harm than good.” Holmes responded:
“I do agree with that. When I moved to New York I remember seeing a poster in the subway which read: ‘Save Darfur—tens of thousands are dying each month’. That’s just not true. They are a bit misplaced but they do create a political context and that can be helpful.”
Change.org’s Humanitarian Relief blogger, the excellently middle-named Michael Bear Kleinman, picked up Holmes’s statement and ran with it, arguing that this type of activism has two key shortcomings: (1) that “saving” Darfur is not actually within the capability of the U.S. or Europe; and (2) that activists’ push for aggressive military, diplomatic, or judicial action often disregards the danger such interventions pose to civilians and aid workers.
Change.org’s neither-middle-nor-last-named Stop Genocide blogger Michelle responded in impassioned defense of this sort of advocacy organization, arguing that “the political will to end genocide and mass atrocity is not organic -it must be demanded.” She characterized the “crux of Holmes’ frustration” thusly:
“Khartoum tends not to react nicely to the demands for change levied by international advocates, and humanitarian workers and the people they serve often bear the brunt of the regime’s frustration. However, to blame advocates for this is misguided. The Save Darfur movement cannot be blamed for the fact that humanitarian aid has become another pawn in Khartoum’s genocidal game.”
The back-and-forth continues. The Enough Project‘s David Sullivan has joined in on Michelle’s side of the argument while Steve Bloomfield (notably, the journalist whose interview with Holmes got this whole hootenanny started) has posted in support of Kleinman on Things Seen and Heard.
There is an obvious conflict between providing humanitarian relief and putting political pressure on the actors responsible for humanitarian disasters. The latter can often have a disastrous effect on the former, as pointed out by Kleinman and acknowledged by Michelle. But it is all too rare that advocacy organizations like the Enough Project and Save Darfur will admit that.
It is, in fact, morally defensible to argue that it is worthwhile to sacrifice civilian lives in the short term to achieve a lasting peace that will save more people in the long term, but it’s a rare advocacy organization that is willing to engage in that kind of messy calculus. They can’t. College students are just never going to march on Washington to demand that thousands of innocent people be abandoned to their grisly fates in the interest of a lasting peace.
Seriously, can you imagine the protest signs and chants? “What do we want? A reasonable balancing of human security with progress towards respect for human rights and democracy! When do we want it? As soon as feasibly possible given the political realities of the situation!” Not bloody likely.
And this calculus is very messy: How many lives are we willing to sacrifice now for the uncertain prospect of peace later? Are all lives worth the same amount? Should we focus more on protecting aid workers than civilians, because if too many aid workers are killed, their organizations will pull out entirely?
And it only gets worse from there. In cases of ethnic cleansing, for instance, the fastest path to a “durable solution” may be programs that speed peacefully towards that terrible goal. Once the conflict area has been “cleansed” by safely transporting civilians to refugee camps located across borders or IDP camps in different parts of the country, hostilities will die down. (Mary Kaldor makes a pretty convincing argument that something along those lines happened in the former Yugoslavia.) Morally questionable? Of course. But worse than letting the cleansing happen through slaughter and mass rape? Tough call.
We would all like to believe that those choices don’t have to be made. We put our trust in talismans of advocacy -bans of diamond imports, a no-fly zone over Darfur, more peacekeeping troops- and in the belief that if only people knew, if only they were aware, then the atrocities would stop. If only enough righteous anger could be summoned, enough people clapping their hands and exclaiming “I DO believe in genocide!” then everything would be okay.
That advocacy story, however, fails to acknowledge that behind nearly every mass atrocity is a power struggle that won’t go away just because the international community is giving it mean looks. And it certainly fails to acknowledge that the easiest way to resolve power struggles is to let the stronger party win, even if they’re war crime committing jerks; and come to think of it, the weaker party probably isn’t such great guys either.
And unfortunately they’re also hell-bent on looking the other way and humming loudly when pragmatists point out that if meanest-takes-all isn’t an acceptable solution then we’re left with no workable alternatives. Because it turns out that rich countries aren’t good at counter-insurgency and U.N. peacekeepers aren’t good at much of anything.
So, uh, sorry Congolese rape victims, Ugandan child soldiers, Darfuri IDPs, but it looks like you’re on your own.
Or can any of our slightly less pessimistic colleagues give us a hand out of this one?
* Save Darfur logo via Save Darfur, of course.