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Thursday, June 24, 2004

Firsthand Impressions of Sudan/Darfur: A Secondhand Report 

I just got back from a breakfast hosted by CARE International, where NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, CARE Secretary General Denis Caillaux and Peter Dut (one of the "lost boys" of Sudan) spoke on the crisis in Darfur.

It was an emotionally wrenching event. Dut's description of his flight from the civil war in southern Sudan as an orphaned 5-year-old was particularly affecting to this new father. But beyond the effective plea for support, the speakers also provided some counter-intuitive points that are worth considering. I hope I'm not breaking any rules by offering these notes, so here they are:

Media Inattention
First, Kristof addressed the question of why Darfur has gotten so little play in Western media. I've heard other perspectives before: Writing in The New Republic, Robert Laine Greene has speculated that the inattention comes from popular willingness to give non-whites a free pass when it comes to atrocities:
It's true that the deaths of tens of thousands of blacks in inaccessible regions of the world create far less urgency than one missing white girl in England or America. But a different kind of race-based relativism is also at work in the near-silence over Darfur. Dark-skinned victims count for less than whites, yes, but they count for less still if they are the victims of other dark-skinned people. It is often said that the reason we bombed Serbia but not Rwanda was because the victims in the Balkans were white, while the victims in Rwanda were black. But it is important to remember that the main perpetrators in the Balkans were also white (and, unlike their victims, Christian) and that the perpetrators in Rwanda were also black. You can be sure that if the Belgians or the Australians, or certainly the Americans or Israelis, were murdering, mutilating, and mass-raping tens of thousands of Africans, you wouldn't have the non-response we hear now over Darfur. Call it the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

When you compare the attention showered on various human rights problems today, it becomes clear that the world is once again judging the severity of abuses in large part by the ethnicity of their perpetrators. Not only has there been no call to arms over Sudan, there has barely been a call to anything--just 44 mentions of Darfur appeared in The New York Times' archive in the past year. It can't be simply because the victims are dark-skinned and poor, because the Times has featured 860 mentions of Abu Ghraib, where one or perhaps two people were killed and a number lightly tortured, beaten, and humiliated by Americans.

Abu Ghraib is a perfect storm for the media: Powerful Western soldiers abused and humiliated poor non-Westerners after invading their country for supposedly high-minded reasons. But when both the victims and the perpetrators are black or brown, you get the opposite: perfect calm. Thirty-four peasant farmers were massacred by left-wing guerrillas in Colombia last week. (In the distance, a cricket chirps.) And the quiet is never more deafening than when the violence is in Africa. Our low expectations of African perpetrators permits the world's worst horrors--a genocide in Rwanda (800,000 dead); a decade-long war in Congo (3 million dead); and genocide in Darfur (many thousands dead and the death toll climbing fast). Yet New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is practically the only prominent media voice to write repeatedly about Darfur. Where are the conservatives who should say that the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are God-given and universal? Where are the liberals who should decry the racism that allows blacks to be killed with impunity?
This is a reasonable case, and appealing from a kind of self-flagellating Western point of view. But Kristof offered a couple of other compelling explanations. First, and tougher to accept, it's really, really, really hard to get to Darfur to report on the situation. The Sudanese have effectively blocked entry into the area and are denying visas to journalists and humanitarian organizations. Kristof's visit to the region involved flying to Chad and taking what sounded like a very long trip in a UN plane to the general area, and then finding a four-wheel-drive car to take him over roadless desert to the border of Sudan, where there is no food, water or electricity. It's not much of an excuse (journalists made it into remote areas of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, after all), but it does have some explanatory power.

Second, Kristof asserted that since most of the deaths are expected to come from famine and disease, Darfur just isn't as immediately compelling as, say, Bosnia or Rwanda. His words were something like "when people are being killed with machetes, that gets attention more than when it's hunger or diarrhea." Once again, it's hardly an excuse, but this factor probably does have something to do with the media's lack of attention to the crisis.

US Involvement
Next, Kristof and Caillaux both suggested that the Bush administration has actually been pretty good about the Sudan crisis overall. The White House has apparently been quite effective at pressing for resolution of the other Sudanese (North-South) civil war, and is, in Kristof's words, "ahead of the population as a whole on this issue."

The interesting point was why. It's not oil, and it's not part of a general approach to foreign policy. Instead, it's because US Christians have put a ton of pressure on our government to end the killing and enslavement of southern Sudanese Christians. In Kristof's view, the White House was desperate to resolve the North-South war in order to declare victory to this important constituency. So much so, in fact, that the outbreak of conflict in Darfur was seen as a dangerous distraction from the ongoing peace negotiations, leading the Bush team to be willing to overlook the Janjaweed atrocities for a time. The administration has, however, put a lot more effort into the Darfur situation of late.

It's worth noting that Senator Kerry hasn't exactly been leading the charge on Sudan, and that presumably Christian organizations wouldn't have quite the claim on a Kerry administration's attention as they do on the current regime. This is not, however, a reason to vote for them in November.

Kristof also suggested that Kofi Annan is secretly pleased by demonstrations against UN inaction on Darfur, such as the one that greeted him at Harvard recently. Supposedly he is eager for more public pressure to use as leverage in getting states to work on the crisis. I don't know how to evaluate this claim.

The Nature of the Crisis
Kristof said that by his rough estimate, about 75% of the refugees in the camps in Chad were women. Whether this is because the men have all been slaughtered or not is up for debate, but I kept on thinking about how hard it's going to be for these women, many of whom have been raped and/or mutilated by Janjaweed, to be reintegrated into whatever society is cobbled together after the crisis is resolved. It's hard to imagine the disruption this will cause.

Caillaux suggested that as the North-South conflict ends (as it hopefully is about to), North-North and South-South conflicts will break out, and that the Darfur crisis is a bellwether for things to come across the immensity of Sudan. Caillaux laid much of the blame for the crisis not on Khartoum's opportunism, but instead on drought forcing Arab nomads (who make up the Janjaweed) into conflict over land held by black Darfurian farmers. He anticipates similar ecological and resource-based conflict in the south.

What We Can Do
The event was organized by CARE, so unsurprisingly one of the options offered for action on Darfur was giving to CARE. I don't know about the relative efficiency of CARE's operations compared to other aid organizations, so I can't really say whether this is the best place to donate. But it sure can't hurt.

A more compelling point was made by Kristof: the marginal utility of your charity dollar in Darfur is off the charts in comparison to donations to most other causes. Hundreds of thousands of people, at a minimum, are going to die in the next few months for lack of access to clean water and sewage systems, and helping them is simply far less expensive than helping people in Iraq or in the US. It's more than worth taking this point to heart.

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