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The Tide Won’t Turn For Rebecca

July 8, 2009

Dear Becky (or Hammy, whichever you prefer),

I found your recent post over at The Promise of Engagement both entertaining and adorable.  In it, you mention this blog:

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 . . .

I love how you seem to paint your endeavor as almost noble because you “take a bit of time to question what can seem obvious.”  I couldn’t agree more.  We should always take the time to scratch beneath the facade to really understand the inner workings of – well – anything.

So let’s talk about questioning the seemingly obvious and how I believe you fail miserably at doing so.  I read your blog regularly and attend events at which you speak, and it continues to seem that the parameters of your investigation of the movement are too narrow to be meaningful. As a friend put it, you seem to ask “is the movement great, or is it just good?”  This is exemplified in the the softball questions you ask people, like “Is citizen advocacy at its most effective when it generates maximum ‘noise’ on an issue, or do citizen advocates need to attach particular policy prescriptions to the noise they make?” Unsurprisingly, everyone responded to this question by saying we need some combination of both before easily using the question as a way to show off their own knowledge of advocacy.  Shocking.  You claim to be somehow challenging basic assumptions by asking this, but in your final post about this question, in which you summarize what you’ve learned from people’s responses, you sound like just another cheerleader for the movement, saying “As this week’s posts have been articulating so well, advocates need both noise-making and policy-prescriptions in their toolkit.”  Translation: “Yeah!  Everyone in the movement is so smart!  You all get a cookie!  OMG ponies!”  Treating the movement like some sacred cow that’s, at worst, “just good” seems to be counterproductive to any honest investigation.  Instead, you should explore, I don’t know, how some advocacy groups have actually capitalized on the fact that many of their activists don’t understand what they’re advocating for.  Oh, is that too close to home?  Sorry for bringing it up.  My point is, as opposed to merely paying lip service to the idea that the movement may be worse than “just good,” which is what I believe you’ve done so far, how about genuinely asking the tough questions?

In that same vein, you don’t seem to appreciate the full ramifications of the movement’s current decline. You were part of the movement when it was still vibrant, then went away for almost two years, then came back to research it, so I fear that you’re looking at it through the lens of its former success and assuming that it’s (or maybe hoping it is) still similar to the robust movement it was in ‘06. Sure, the movement had many successes in its early years, and you were very much a part of them, but lately it seems to be in a downward spiral.  A side effect of this loss of momentum, which is apparent to pretty much everyone within the movement, is that the major advocacy organizations are losing control over the small core of dedicated activists they work with.  Specifically, the activists are becoming increasingly independent and the organizations have no idea how to rein them in when they advocate for potentially harmful policy prescriptions.  The closest you get to addressing this is when you observe that activists’ call for Gration’s removal is a mistake, which seems like a no-brainer anyway, seeing as how it’s probably the most hair-brained idea since General Jack D. Ripper’s plans to thwart a Communist conspiracy to “sap and impurify” the “precious bodily fluids” of the American people with fluoridated water by attacking the Soviet Union (If you don’t get that reference, I just feel sorry for you).  If you want to ask if it’s possible for a permanent anti-genocide movement to grow from the ashes of the save Darfur movement, shouldn’t you explore the decline of the movement and why the major organizations lost control over their activists?  Don’t get me wrong, a puff piece on the advocacy community is fine.  You have every right to write a book pointing out how glorious the movement’s legacy will be, but don’t pretend that it’s a genuine investigation.

I believe the root of the problem is the apparent lack of diversity of opinion in your interviews with paid U.S. advocates (i.e. the people who work/have worked in the Darfur advocacy organizations).  Frankly, I suspect that you’re only interviewing a certain group of these advocates: The ones who are either supportive of or at least ambivalent toward the movement.  I don’t know if you’re only talking to people who the movement’s leaders allow you access to or if you’re making a conscious effort to avoid speaking with dissenters, but you clearly do not have the full story.

Part of the problem is the pool of ex-employees you’re speaking to.  For example, the crown jewel of SDC is their huge rally that took place in ’06 in DC.  They still talk about this thing, as it represents the culmination of their power, organizing skills and dynamism.  It may surprise you to know that the person who was largely responsible for making it such a great success was actually removed by SDC management.  A fair question for you to ask would be “Why is SDC removing the people who’ve helped make the movement successful, and why can’t I speak to the people who were actually responsible for those successes?”  Additionally, I can’t speak for ENOUGH or GI Net, but SDC has had about a 60% staff turnover in the past year.  Even for DC non-profits, that’s pretty ridiculous.  Regardless of what that says about the health of the organization, wouldn’t anyone researching the inner workings of the movement want to find out why there’s a mass exodus of employees in one of its major organizations?  Is it because people disagree with the direction the organization’s going?  Also, no longer working at an organization tends to remove one’s muzzle, so ex-staffers may be more likely to be open and honest during an interview than current staff.  Would it not benefit your work to have an open and honest interview?  Why just talk to whoever you’re told to talk to?  Live dangerously!

Even if you want to stick to people who are currently working in the movement, I believe that you’re still speaking only to a select pool of them.  To lead back to your post, note that many people in the movement (I won’t list names or organizations to protect the innocent) were thrilled with de Waal’s recent piece about the ENOUGH Project, which you critique.  They forwarded it around and someone even said “He seems closer to the truth than ever.”  Judging from your favorable reviews of the movement, you haven’t spoken to this “other half” – the people who have positive reactions to harsh critiques of the very organizations in which they work.

I dwell on the interview bit because, to me, the seeming lack of diversity among the advocates you interview is the most shocking problem with your research.  You rightfully criticized Mamdani for not talking to anyone within the movement, but really you’re guilty of similar omissions.  Mamdani may have spoken to almost no one in the movement, but you speak to only a select group within the movement.  It’s interesting that you both fail so miserably in this regard.  Do they not teach investigatory skills at Harvard?  I don’t know which infuriates me more:  The people who don’t speak to Darfur advocates at all or the people who only speak to a small, carefully selected few.  It’s akin to someone who’s only seen the parts of Darfur that the GOS allows them to see critiquing someone who has never visited Sudan for suggesting that the government has committed atrocities.  Sure, they’ve visited the country, but they haven’t seen its dark underbelly.

Which leads me to your question: “Who actually are you by the way?”  We here at SDAP are all too familiar with the Darfur movement’s dark underbelly, which you have had the misfortune of being underexposed to.  All contributors have worked in or with the Darfur advocacy community, and have become increasingly frustrated by all its dysfunction and incompetence.  We’ve continually involved ourselves in the movement, and our frustrations have only grown as of late.  Though this site is often humorous, make no mistake: We care deeply about these issues and sincerely wish for a lasting solution to the Darfur conflict.  We harshly critique the movement because we genuinely want to make it better and because our previous attempts at privately and respectfully speaking truth to power within the movement have largely been ignored or even met with hostility.  We believe that others should join us in learning from the movement’s mistakes so that we don’t repeat them when we’re off “saving” the next Darfur (For example, hopefully we’ve learned not to use patronizing words like “save”).  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  For now, we’re concentrating on Sudan and finding a path to peace there.  Unfortunately, we feel that the latest activities of the major Darfur advocacy organizations have exacerbated, not aided, the situation.  And, as you may have gathered, we’re pretty damn angry about it.

The saddest part about your work is that you weaken your arguments by not knowing the full story.  You don’t seem to “question what can seem obvious” at all, but rather regurgitate whatever the Prendergasts and Fowlers of the world spoon feed you.  This results in you missing out on key information and getting an incomplete picture, which I imagine is most undesirable when one is “writing a book critically examining the impact of the Darfur advocacy movement.”  But you go ahead and continue obliviously taking your Khartoum-approved tours of these organizations.  If you continue along your current path, I’m sure your upcoming book will be a valuable addition to any library, assuming its a library of books whose pages are ripped out and used to line the bottoms of birdcages.  I honestly hope my predictions are proven wrong upon your book’s publication.

I’ll end with a question: Your project is funded by OSI.  Are they or have they ever funded any of the organizations that you’re investigating?  Just wondering.

Sincerely,

Deontologist

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