April 21, 2019

Activism under Obama

Where does one end a book about Darfur and advocacy? I have this very nice proposal which concludes neatly with the expectations around the incoming Obama Administration.  But – unfortunately for my timeline and budget –  the events  since Obama came into office make it just too interesting to stop the story there.

Related to carrying the story through to 2009, there’s a post worth reading at Making Sense of Darfur called “Can Activists Adjust to the Obama Era?” In many ways, it is unfortunate that it is Alex de Waal posting this piece.  I fear the public animosity between de Waal and Enough, (who he singles out in his post, even though they are not the only ones having to gauge what level of adjustment is or is not appropriate to the so-called Obama era), is now too significant to be conducive to a discussion of issues raised by either one of them that doesn’t descend into attacks that feel more personal than substantive (Newsweek’s Dueling Over Darfur ranked as my all-time-low in reactions to two people who I both like and think are genuinely committed to Darfur, despite their very different approaches).  Hopefully I am wrong.  I would love to hear what the folks over at Enough think of the issues raised.

I think these are real issues to work through arising from some things the piece touches on: Can a mass movement model that was developed in response to a particular political climate adjust to a new Administration? And if it can, should it? By how much? Given the consistent failure to stop mass atrocity crimes across consecutive Administrations, does the shift in leadership at the top really make that much difference, or is advocacy, by and large, still dealing with the same bureaucratic processes and default assumptions under Obama as it was under Bush? (The policy disconnect between Gration’s Special Envoy role and the rest of the players in the Administration is a repeat performance of every previous person in that post).  Relatedly,  can a mass movement that developed in reaction to a genocide determination reflecting events on the ground in 2003/4 incorporate changes on the ground into its narrative of the conflict without losing people who got involved on the basis of the facts in 2003/4? Alex de Waal seems to think not. I think, or perhaps, hope he is underestimating the capacity of a movement that is by now five years old.  Perhaps more fundamentally though, does a relative diminution of outright attacks change the basic dynamic, or is it just that the most obvious marker we think of- killing – has been substituted for less “red flag raising” but equally destructive means (For a great exposition on this see PHR’s Assault on Survival )?

It seems to be in the nature of book writing that one starts off thinking you know at least something, then continues researching to the point where you question whether you know anything at all. So for anyone who is frustrated that I’m asking more questions that I’m answering right now, you’re right and I’m sorry.  I’m telling myself it is a healthy process to go through – fingers crossed. Once I have finished the book, you can judge for yourself. In the meantime the folks over at the so-called Save Darfur Accountability Project (who actually are you by the way?) will no doubt mock me for raising the questions above as they have with previous posts I have done on related issues. But if we can’t take a bit of time to question what can seem obvious when in the daily grind of mobilization, then we take the capacity for change out of the system . . .


  1. Annonymous says:

    I just wanted to let you know that I am on the same page as you. It is very unfortunate that this has become a duel between intellect and passion. On the one hand, why can’t organizations take time to seriously address the questions (assertions is probably a better word) that are often raised by individuals like de Waal? On the other, why must some individuals be condemning of the very good intentions that organizations like Enough have? I think both sides of the Darfur argument have excellent points, but there is a seeming unwillingness for either side to listen to the other.

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