December 8, 2023

Seeking your input!

I’m in the process of drafting a teaching guide for lecturers who address human rights advocacy, citizens’ movements and foreign policy. The main part of the guide presents discussion questions I think Fighting for Darfur raises. Some are policy focused. Some are advocacy focused. Many intersect.

Over the coming month I’m going to post a draft question set every day or two and see where the discussion leads – a sort of test run of what direction this might go in a classroom or reading group. The questions are pretty dense so feel free just to pick out one segment of it to chew over.

To respond to a question just use the “speak your mind” tab. Note, your email will NOT show up publicly. I’m keen to get feedback from a range of people. On the one hand, people who are or have been involved in Darfur and Sudan more broadly: If you are working in or on Sudan, or if your organization is, and you are worried about safety, feel free to use a pseudonym (you will still have to put an email address in but no one other than me will ever see it). On the other hand, people I think the Darfur advocacy experience might have relevance for: What are the discussions happening in citizens movements on climate change, human trafficking . .  . ?

Okay, enough preamble, here’s the first question:

In “The Precarious Triumph of Human Rights”[NYT, 1999] David Rieff argued that human rights advocates needed to move concern about human rights from elite corridors and into the churches and shopping malls of America. Fighting for Darfur is the story of what happened when this was done. How would you evaluate the costs and benefits of the mass movement approach, compared to the traditional elite (say Human Rights watch) approach to human rights advocacy? To sustain a mass movement of volunteers, is it inevitable that advocacy leaders will push for policies that are visible and can be “sold back” to constituents as evidence of their influence? Can the risks that come with mass movement advocacy be mitigated, and if so, how?


  1. One of the greatest costs of mass movement-based advocacy is that complexity almost has to be sacrificed in the name of creating narratives that grassroots advocates can quickly, easily understand. The traditional/elite model maintains complexity, but many of their reports are inaccessible (or at least require a lot of effort to comprehend) to non-specialists. Traditional advocacy’s policy prescriptions, etc. don’t fit on bumper stickers, but mass movement leaders have to create slogans and action plans that are easy to remember, share, and promote. Thus we get “Save Darfur” rather than “a complex case involving longstanding tensions over land rights, ethnicity, citizenship, and a longstanding pattern of exclusion by Khartoum elites.” I completely understand why mass movement advocacy leaders do this – they really don’t have much choice if the goal is reaching a broad audience – but the problem is that the simplified narratives lead to oversimplified – or in some cases, outright wrong – policy prescriptions. These policy prescriptions can lead to unintended consequences and outcomes, some of which can be quite harmful, as we saw in the case of NGO expulsions resulting from advocates’ calls for troops to be sent into Darfur.

    I do think there is pressure to have visible, achievable goals (eg, appointing a special envoy). The problem, of course, is that in the end, what Darfur needed wasn’t a special envoy, and arguably, the one who got appointed did a better job of handling the CPA than he did of dealing with Darfur. Can these effects be mitigated? I’m not sure. Doing so will require better education of grassroots activists, which requires them in turn to make a greater time commitment to the cause. It also requires figuring out ways to explain very complex situations in terms that anyone can understand, which can be difficult to do in bullet points and blog posts.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing for a long while (and am a few chapters into your book, Rebecca), and the way I see it– and this is only a preliminary rumination– is that the homegrown advocacy should stick with what it’s good at, and the professionals should stick with what they’re good at: and the policymakers should understand the difference between the two. I think problems come up, often, because some (probably not most, I don’t think) grassroots activists think paying attention to an unfolding tragedy in the news makes them experts on the conflict; and seems like sometimes policymakers go with that.

    I think of Mozambique, where a civil war was brought to a halt and further killing stopped; and seems to be in large part because everyone stuck with what they were good at (to put it very simply). Reports of massacres reached the US; grassroots activists yelled and demanded something be done but did not offer policy prescriptions; US became diplomatically involved, even at a time when it meant the Regan administration coming out in support of the socialist government; and the diplomats did what they were good at and supported and helped to mediate peace negotiations that took two years to lead to a comprehensive peace agreement. In the meantime, the peacekeeping mission was provided with sufficient troops and resources to secure civilian safety and four critical transport corridors.

    It’s a model to at least think about or play around with. I don’t think it’s an either/or question about experts and non-experts. But grassroots have to realize the limitations, strengths, weaknesses, and possibilities of their role and try to listen to experts in order to frame their simplified message as effectively and accurately as possible. And policymakers need to know who’s who and listen to activists that demand action but get their expert context-specific advice from experts.

  3. Rebecca Hamilton says:

    Hi Carol

    I tend to agree that citizen advocacy is at its most effective when it’s in noise-making/broad agenda setting mode. The trouble is, it turns out, you can’t sustain a movement on that for very long. Maybe the response to that is that you don’t need to – a citizen outcry should be short and sharp, directing government attention to an under-covered issue and then dissipating. But often that’s not enough. The problem takes time to resolve and political minds need to be pushed to stay focused. So the challenge is how to sustain citizens who are happy enough to just create an outcry at the start, but then want to advance beyond that. They ask for policy prescriptions. At least that was what I found on Darfur. And once you then start pushing them towards particular policies you better be real sure that the policies you are pushing for are the right ones . . . something that seems to me to get much trickier when those developing the policy prescriptions are also the ones responsible for sustaining the movement.

  4. Yes, all really good points. I think perhaps I haven’t made up my mind entirely about what conclusions I can draw about more sustained involvement of citizens who don’t know much about diplomacy or the people of the regions they claim to be acting on behalf of– how can such advocates have sustained involvement without pursuing or gaining any expertise?

    I agree that it gets much trickier when those developing policy are also responsible for sustaining the movement– but once diplomatic attention has been directed at an issue, what more can they do? You shouldn’t need the movement anymore, as you suggest as a possibility, and I think I agree with that notion– the cause should have its own international diplomatic champions. It becomes (or rather remains) the responsibility of the Security Council and diplomatic community to take decisive steps, at least theoretically.

    I feel kind of bad saying this, but I think a lot of Americans have a guilt complex over Rwanda and so this kind of stuff is really about their own salvation, not Darfur. In any case it seems to have made many activists more ardent and less willing to listen to others or recognize the limits of a homegrown activist movement. The anti-war movement before the Iraq invasion did nothing to stop the war *or* prevent Bush from getting re-elected. This kind of advocacy will end up doing more damage than good if its limitations are ignored instead of being recognized and worked around.

    The “Why Darfur?” question troubles me as well. That’s another discussion, maybe, but it politicizes American activists in the eyes of many people around the world who are enduring atrocities and crimes against humanity and even genocide, with no reaction from the American public, whatever the reasons for the reaction to Darfur were. And then there’s the contrast to the American government’s response to Libya.

    In any case, this is a very interesting discussion (and I apologize, I may have responded to the discussion question differently if I had finished the book first), and questions that don’t really have easy answers. Many thanks, I have enjoyed it! And I think (for what it’s worth) this question would be a great one for the teaching guide.

  5. I need to get here faster next time. Carol and Laura stole all of my thunder! Since I do not want to just repeat what they said, I will do a little thinking out loud in regards to the idea of effective advocacy.

    I lean towards the thoughts of Carol in that I believe the ideal form of advocacy would be simple awareness raising. People who do not know much about what is happening in a very complex situation can speak from a moral perspective to say something is wrong. In Darfur, what is happening is wrong. That can be easily communicated and shared as what is happening can be explained without too much trouble.

    The trick is to, as you say, get sustained interest so that the policy makers can remedy the situation. I am a bit troubled by the idea of tying policy into the demands of advocates since it can come from a lack of understanding. At the base, it makes advocacy seem far too simple. Not to say that it should not exist, but you highlight the fact that we have moved back to a more multi-polar international system which has weakened the unilateral power of the United States.

    Mostly, I am troubled by the idea that it can create a savior complex. In development and aid, this has been perpetuated through campaigns which show helpless people in need of a foreign donor. This can create a distorted understanding of the role we can and should play in the lives of others. I hope to learn more about what you have researched as I continue to read your book, but these are more preliminary thoughts.

    In short, advocacy can be good but should not be overblown. I think parallels to Darfur’s advocacy campaigns high aspirations can be drawn to the current Mortenson and microfinance scandals. None were as effective as claimed, but all have done good which should not be ignored.

  6. The (Samantha Powers) genocide narrative that has been pushed by the foreign policy elite in Washington DC for the last decade has been counterproductive as heuristic to understand African politics, development and culture. The reality is not that simple. Even American citizens (will) discover this at some point. Therefore human rights advocacy should aim to engage citizens instead of pushing some shallow version of reality down our (their) throats. However, searching for a narrative that resonates among grassroot activists that have different goals in itself is not bad. Let’s just write a different narrative!

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