November 16, 2018

Partial understanding, partial solutions?

Today’s question, co-hosted by Texas in Africa:

A mass movement approach to atrocity prevention must, by definition, bring in people who do not have a background with the history of the country for whose people they are being encouraged to advocate for. In Fighting for Darfur, advocacy movement leader, Sam Bell says “Looking back, I wish ‘2005 Sam’ had been more inquisitive about all of Sudan’s challenges, and not just the ones labeled ‘genocide’.” How did the lack of understanding about all of Sudan’s challenges impact the way the Darfur activists framed the crisis and the solutions they advocated for? How might this apply to other situations beyond Sudan that citizens are getting involved with?


  1. Rebecca Hamilton says:

    First response in from over at Texas in Africa from Tom Murphy:

    My idealized self will say that the nuance of the politics that take place in a country like Sudan which produces an outcome like Darfur should be understood as much as possible by activists. Thinking practically, this is just not possible or even realistic to expect. By having the bar so high people will not be interested in taking part in advocating for change.

    So the trade-off is a hard balance. To me, I think that noise makers really only need to only understand enough to make noise and allow those with an acute understanding of the situation to then gain access to political leaders and enact change.

    This could run into problems as success will only been seen as ending the situation entirely rather than taken with small gains. There is good reason to set the highest goals possible, but not understanding what it takes to achieve them further complicates things.

    Frankly, I am glad that I do not have to initiate an awareness campaign like Darfur.

  2. I’m so sorry I didn’t see this post earlier!

    I think Tom’s right: the trade-off is difficult. However, not only did the Save Darfur movement begin by looking at Darfur in both a contemporary and historical vacuum, but it also essentialized so much of the conflict (it still largely does). By drawing on rhetoric of “rival ethnic tensions” and an uncritical “Arab” versus “African” dichotomy, activists demonstrated an incredible lack of respect for Sudanese history and agency. By promoting views of the conflict that portrayed the question of “is it genocide?” as more important than “what are the root causes of this conflict?”, Sudanese people were inadvertently portrayed as either aggressor or victim, with no complications. Speaking about most things with no complications is dangerous: given the racism that pervades our mainstream media and society in general, speaking about a country in Africa with no complications is particularly dangerous.

    So what could have been done? I fully understand the complication of balancing digestibility of information with a necessary level of complexity (having just graduated college, I’ve been an activist involved in Sudan & DRC issues for over 6 years now). I think we can do a couple of things. I think we need to take it as our responsibility – by ‘our’, I mean the people who think of themselves as very involved in this movement – to do two things: (a) we need to embrace the challenge of learning about the complexities and complications of the history and contemporary politics of whatever region we’re dealing with, and look at it within a larger, longer-term picture of global geopolitics; and (b) never approach any region with a sense that we know better than those who live there (which we inadvertently do when we don’t primarily involve, for example, Sudanese people in our policy-creating, advocacy, and education about Sudan!).

    The deeper our understanding of a region, the more nuanced even our simplifications of the conflict(s) will be.

    To help form this nuance, we need much firmer connections between people on the ground and in diasporas, humbling ourselves enough to realize that the largely white activist community in the United States – if it is truly interested in addressing the root causes of conflicts it is concerned about – has to take a back seat and emphasize its strong support capacity for engaging in the efforts for peace by many, many Sudanese folks (with many, many different perspectives).

    Partnering on an equal level with Sudanese or Congolese people (for example) and truly engaging and respecting their agency, history, and contemporary politics is a much more empowering and ultimately effective model, I think.

    From these processes, I imagine nuances will emerge that will allow simplifications that do not, for example, reproduce racist assumptions or short-term, non-root-causes-related activism.

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