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The Children’s Crusade

June 14, 2009

We’ve tried to assert a little more adult supervision into this movement.

~John Prendergast

As SDAP mentioned before, that’s what Prendergast said in response to Mahmood Mamdani’s claim that the save Darfur movement’s high school aged activists are “child soldiers.”  I always thought this accusation was a bit unfair because young people are more likely to be involved in all types of progressive-sounding advocacy movements; it doesn’t mean that the save Darfur movement is actively targeting them.  So without offering evidence that the movement is specifically marketing militarism to children, comments like that amount to speculative polemics – kind of a dick move for a well respected academic (although I can totally see cranky bloggers making that kind of comment).

So, I thought I’d take a look at some of the save Darfur advocacy materials designed for children’s consumption.  Suffice it to say I think this Mamdani guy might be onto something.  While advocacy among young people is indisputably admirable and important in changing political will, some in the save Darfur movement seem to prey upon children’s idealism and desire to help Darfuris.  Take, for example, the Save Darfur Coalition’s Dollars for Darfur campaign, which is a three year old, nationwide fundraising competition among high school and middle school students.  Half of the money raised gets donated to SDC and half goes to a humanitarian aid organization.  Last year, they raised $150,000 and this year their goal was to raise $200,000 but they claim to have only raised “over $100,000.”

An important part of SDC’s recruitment of young advocates involves the rhetoric used on the Dollars for Darfur website and awareness-raising materials.  For example, once a child stumbles upon the Dollars for Darfur website and wants to learn more about the conflict, they can click on the “Learn*” tab and find the following:

The current crisis in Darfur began in 2003. After decades of neglect, drought and oppression, two rebel groups mounted an insurgency against Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir. President al-Bashir’s response was brutal. To defeat the rebel movements, he armed and supported several militant groups, now collectively known as the Janjaweed.

The Janjaweed, with the Sudanese government’s support, has wiped out entire villages, destroyed food and water supplies, and systematically murdered, tortured, and raped hundreds of thousands of Darfuris.

That passage certainly describes the horrific actions of the Sudanese government accurately, but see how it uses almost excusatory language to describe the rebels; sort of suggesting that the rebellion is understandable because it was only launched after “decades of neglect, drought and oppression?”  Even the language used to describe similar types of violence differs depending on who the perpetrator is:  The rebels “mounted an insurgency” while the government’s response was “brutal.”  Are insurgencies not brutal as well?  Interestingly, very similar language is used in materials for the Violence Against Women campaign, though I didn’t address the issue when I wrote about the campaign in an earlier post.

Also telling is their PowerPoint presentation, which is designed to educate children.  In a bulleted timeline on the fifth slide, it says “Nov. 2005 – 400,000 dead” and the accompanying notes (what the presenter is supposed to say along with each slide) say:

…in November of 2005, the death toll was estimated at 400,000 people.  The Sudanese government still claims that only 9,000 have died in the conflict.

Interesting.  The rest of SDC’s activist materials, i.e. those not geared specifically toward children, claim that only 300,000 have died “from both direct and indirect causes, estimated by the United Nations.”  That exact language appears in the general flier and the general petition, both of which are available on the age-nonspecific Activist Resources page.  Meanwhile, the slide show and publicity materials available on the Dollars for Darfur site – like the brochure, flier and handbill – all estimate that “as many as 400,000 have died.”  Now SDC has been criticized before for claiming that the death toll was 400,000, so they quietly changed the number to 300,000 everywhere.  Well, everywhere except in the materials they distribute to children, apparently.  Now why on earth would they continue to exaggerate the number of casualties in the materials given to children if they lowered the number on other materials?  If anything, shouldn’t the details of the conflict that they provide to kids be less gruesome and horrific than in their other materials, as opposed to more?  Isn’t it the responsibility of the adults within the movement to use only accurate and age-appropriate information when engaging children in advocacy?

Additionally, there’s a document called Sample Curricula and Student Activities, which tells teachers how to indoctrinate teach students about Darfur.

It’s not all bad.  Some good points include its mention of desertification as a factor in the conflict, which is rather a rare find in Darfur literature outside of academia, much less in materials from advocacy organizations who prefer to keep their messaging simple:

Move the discussion to desertification and its impact on Darfur. Ask students their opinions about the reasons for man-made desertification and tell them that as early as 1988, scientists were warning of the expansion of the Sahara desert into Darfuri lands farther south.

It also tries to make sure to not simplify the conflict into Arab vs. African terms, a sin that SDC’s committed in the past, by telling teachers:

Give a short background to the history of the conflict and the myth that the crisis in Darfur is an Arab versus African conflict. Explain that the Janjaweed militias, the main perpetrators of the violence, are generally labeled as “Arabs” and the civilians as “Africans”. This creates the myth that the crisis is an “Arab vs. African” conflict.

Later, it kind of falls into the very pattern it condemns, though, by saying:

The Janjaweed are militiamen supported by the Sudanese government. The majority of them are Arab nomads from Sudan, but more recently, Sudan has brought in Arabs from other countries to inhabit the land once occupied by Darfuris and to work with the Janjaweed.

In an entirely different document available on the Dollars for Darfur site, they even say “the Janjaweed – Arab militias backed by the Sudanese government – began attacking black Africans.” It only gets worse.  Remember when I said that they almost cast the rebels in a sympathetic light?  Yeah, well they do it again:

Two rebel groups mounted an insurgency against the government. These people had been experiencing severe drought and had no resources or supplies and no help from the government.  The government responded to the insurgency with brute force. They began a campaign against not just the Darfur rebel groups but innocent Darfuri citizens as well, bombing their villages, raping their women and children, and killing the men. This has forced 2.5 million people from their homes and has left up to 400,000 dead.

So not only do they seem to make more excuses for rebels but they once again claim that 400,000 people have died, a claim that seems to no longer appear on SDC’s updated activist materials.  Again, why in the world aren’t the most accurate, up-to-date materials available on the Dollars for Darfur site, the website that school children visit?

At the end of the document, it suggests:

Teachers can end the lesson by asking students to reflect on life in Darfur and the differences between our good fortune and their poverty. This can lead to many different discussions, including social responsibility…

So, is this supposed to be a lesson in noblesse oblige or something?  ‘Cause to me it smacks of a frustrated mother’s dinnertime guilt trip.  “Sweetie, eat your peas.  Think of all the starving people in Africa.  They’d kill for those peas!”  Ah guilt, the final refuge of pious Africa watchers who’ve run out of pretty words.  And is “social responsibility” anything like “responsibility to protect?” Let’s not even get into that can o’ worms right now.

Perhaps the most telling document is the In District Advocacy Guide, which tells kids to speak to their congressperson.  In the Policy “Asks” section, which tells children what to ask their representatives to do, the third item says:

Ask your Senators and Representative to push for actions called for in Save Darfur’s plan entitled, “Saving Darfur: A Plan for the Obama administration.”

Now, in that fancy new Blueprint for Peace thingy, the save Darfur movement tries to imply that it’s only suggesting the possibility of military humanitarian intervention in Darfur as a last resort, if diplomatic efforts fail. Well, Saving Darfur: A Plan for the Obama Administration, the document to which SDC directs children for reference when developing “asks” for policy makers, urges the administration to:

Ensure the full and effective deployment of a military force that actively protects Darfuri civilians

In expanding upon this bullet point, the document says to urge the administration to fully deploy UNAMID forces, but then adds at the end:

If, however, it becomes apparent that UNAMID cannot succeed, then the Obama administration should explore other options for protecting Darfuri civilians.

Hmm…seeing as how this sentence is under the “Ensure the full and effective deployment of a military force” section of the document, one must wonder: What “other options” must the administration explore?  Other military options, specifically?  And if so, are we talking about deploying American troops here?  Should kids call Dream for Darfur to get Blackwater’s email address?  You know, just in case someone needs to go in there and bust some skulls?

Collectively, despite its positive points, the Dollars for Darfur campaign’s borderline sympathetic portrayal of rebels, exaggeration of the death toll, the odd way it urges students to consider how much better off they are than the poor little Darfuris and the overt implication that military intervention is necessary may belie SDC’s claims that the campaign is innocently designed to merely “harnesses the power and energy of young people to help end the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.”  This is particularly heartbreaking because we’re talking about young activists here who undoubtedly only have the best of intentions at heart.  But instead of providing these kids, who are taking their first steps into the world of activism, with unbiased facts or a broad range of policy prescriptions, the campaign only makes it seem like there’s a clear distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” and that those of us fortunate enough to be Americans have a responsibility to intervene – perhaps militarily – when we hear about atrocities like this.  So if Mr. Prendergast wants more adult supervision of the movement’s children, maybe he should start with supervising the adults who supervise those children.  The adult save Darfur advocates are the real problem here, and the result of their mismanagement may be a generation of activists whose knee-jerk reaction to future humanitarian crises will be to call for military intervention.  I can already hear the pitter-patter of little war drums.

*The mortality figure on the What’s Happening in Darfur page of the Dollars for Darfur site was changed from 400,000 to 300,000 after this post was published.  Please refer to the explanation and screenshots in my follow up post.

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