September 24, 2023

Review of Rob Crilly’s “Saving Darfur”

[This review is cross-posted on Alex de Waal’s blog, Making Sense of Sudan.]

crilly-cover3-191x3001Rob Crilly‘s book, Saving Darfur, is unique among the books on Darfur to date for the way he handles the very tough balance between conveying the complexities of the situation, while managing to keep the book accessible to a non-expert audience. By design, it isn’t a comprehensive narration of the entire conflict, but what is lost on that front is more than made up for by the breadth of audience it will reach as a result.

The lens through which Crilly gets into the story is his role as a journalist – a lens he uses to maximum effect.  One gets the sense that over his five years based in Nairobi, he built up a quiet store of the anecdotes from his first-hand reporting that reflected various under-reported aspects of the conflict; the marginalization of Arab groups in Darfur, the role of regional players – stories that his newspaper editors in London would have cut out of the daily copy. It is in telling these kinds of anecdotes that Saving Darfur shines. Key examples are the chapter on the LRA, or the wonderful introduction to Chapter 5, where Crilly allows the seeming familiarity of the story of one of the displaced he meets turn conventional wisdom on its head, as he reveals that the man is a leader not of the Fur, Zaghawa or Masalit, as one might expect, but of the Beni Halba (Baggara Arabs).

My criticism of the book comes in the segments where Crilly moves away from this kind of first-hand reporting from Sudan. In this vein my first concern is particularly serious – namely that Crilly overstates the impact that advocates had on the specific policy choices made by those inside governments or international institutions. One of his broad themes is not only that advocates over-simplified the conflict (a claim that is fairly uncontroversial even within the advocacy community these days, with regard to the first years of advocacy at least), but that the way that advocates framed the conflict is what determined which policy prescriptions were acted upon [“That analysis is not just misguided. It is not just inaccurate. It is leading us to the wrong solutions” p. 186]  Missing from Crilly’s narration is the vast realm of interests at play inside the ‘black box’ of policymaking, of which the calls of advocacy organizations form just one dimension (at times, quite relevant, but at other times not even fleetingly considered by those making the decisions).

In the research I’m doing I am trying to tease apart what is going on in this grey zone between the calls of advocates and the policy outputs; the one thing that I can say with certainty is that the relationship between advocacy and policy outcome is not static and must be considered on a decision-by-decision basis. So while I fully agree with Crilly’s point that the closer you get to Darfur, the less simple the story becomes, I would caution him that a similar “de-simplification” occurs the closer you get to the policymaking table (or, for that matter, the advocacy community).

The kind of narrative that Crilly tells about the relationship between advocacy and policy also has the unfortunate effect of removing policymakers – those actually responsible for making the decisions – from the line of scrutiny altogether. To mock only slightly, in Crilly’s narrative one could be forgiven for believing that even the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is merely a vessel – lacking in independent thought and agency – through which the advocates’ will is transported. Clearly, this is not the case in the real world, and to imply otherwise not only puts excessive blame on advocates, it also lets those in power off the hook much too lightly.

Secondly, I disagree with the way Crilly has handled the genocide question.  On the one hand, I think he could have left the legal question alone without detracting from the features of the book. His reporting  tells us what is important at the human level, without wading into the fraught question of what legally-defined label best applies. But given Crilly felt the need to address it, I was disappointed with the way he went about it.

Crilly states: “There is no doubt that the government and its Janjaweed allies have been intent on wiping out support for the insurgency by targeting civilians and clearing villages that are loyal to the rebels. They have been killing members of the Fur, Zagawa and Masalit in attempts to destroy them “in part”. Of that there can be no doubt.” He goes onto say that because of this, Darfur counts as genocide under the 1948 Convention [p. 182]. But then he starts to fudge. Having stated he believes that under the legal definition it is genocide, he then wants to argue that it is not genocide and uses a strange approach to do so, namely by arguing that the 1948 Convention “does not seem to me a valid definition of genocide.” [p. 182].

Re-defining a definition when you don’t like the result the facts lead you to, is standard training in law schools the world over. But it takes work to make it convincing – at the very least going back through the traveaux preparatoires to try and understand the intent of the drafters – and Crilly doesn’t put this work in. Instead he refers readers, in a footnote, to Gerard Prunier’s book on Darfur. (Prunier thinks that the word genocide should be reserved for the rare instances in which there is total obliteration [see Prunier, Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, p. 155]) .  While I don’t think Crilly needed to get into the debate at all, once he did there were stronger approaches he could have pursued if what he really wanted to argue was that genocide had not occurred (the most obvious being to attack the specific intent requirement as most of those involved in the legal debates on this issue have done).

On a related note there is some irony to Crilly’s attempt to apply (or remove) a single label to a conflict that he, intentionally and correctly, portrays as fluid. But this desire – wanting to apply (or to decide not to apply) a static label to a fluid conflict – is one that the world writ large seems to be prone to.  Still, in the overall scheme of the book this remains a relatively minor problem.

Crilly was fortunate enough to have a job that has given him the kind of access to Darfur that most citizen activists in the U.S. or U.K. can only dream of. What is great about this book is that he has taken his experiences and made them available to those who will never set foot in Darfur. He has used this experience to shed light on complexities that are often inaccessible to those who work at these issues from a distance. However Crilly has also fallen into the trap that he criticizes advocates for, by himself oversimplifying the relationship between advocacy and policy.  This problem notwithstanding, Saving Darfur genuinely is a valuable contribution to the available literature on Darfur.


  1. […] role in the policymaking “black box” is difficult to determine (to use Bec Hamilton’s Darfur analogy). Advocates tend to use anecdotes (“once, a U.S. senator responded to a swell of phone calls […]

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