Can celebrities save Darfur?

WASHINGTON — Five years after American activists began to call attention to the violence in Darfur, their movement has bloomed in size and sophistication, reaching out via the internet, enlisting Hollywood celebrities like George Clooney and Mia Farrow and touching everyone from presidential candidates to junior high school service clubs.

In its mission to raise awareness, the coalition to save Darfur has been “spectacularly successful,” said Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani. Yet if “you go to Darfur and you look on the ground, you find it very difficult to put the words Darfur and success in the same sentence,” admitted Rebecca Hamilton, a Darfur activist.

Hamilton, a fellow at the Open Society Institute, is now conducting research for a book, to try to understand what she says is the troublesome “mismatch between all the energy … and the outcome.”

“We still have thousands of people living in camps,” said Scott Gration, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Darfur, briefing reporters last week.

“We have women (threatened by rape) who are afraid to go out and collect firewood, and we have children that are not having the benefit of growing up in their homeland; they are growing up in these camps.” Meanwhile, violence in the nearby region is increasing, Gration said.

“The status quo is horrible,” said John Norris, a foreign aid expert with the Enough Project. “There is no effective peacekeeping on the ground.”

This spring, after being indicted by the International Criminal Court, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir expelled 13 international aid groups, who are still trying to work their way back. Prominent advocates, like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and actress Angelina Jolie, have recently voiced concern that the crisis is slipping from the public radar.

“The Save Darfur movement seems to be losing steam,” Kristof wrote in his blog June 9. “It is riven by internal debate, it is being ignored by the Obama administration.”

“I find it very sad that this administration should seem so uninterested,” he said. “Darfur has been allowed to fester.” The devastating north-south civil war in Sudan, which has been contained by a temporary peace agreement, could erupt again, Kristof warned.

Amid the self-examination, the Save Darfur movement has been bruised, as well, by Mamdani’s new book “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror,” which accuses the coalition of a long list of sins, including religious and racial imperialism, hype, historical ignorance, and sentimentality.

One of the most noteworthy criticisms voiced by Mamdani — that activist groups inaccurately raised the specter of genocide by exaggerating the number of people killed in Darfur — has, to some extent, been accepted by international bodies like the ICC, and even some activists themselves.

Estimates of fatalities that ranged as high as 400,000 have slid, in official tallies, to about 100,000, Mamdani said, and some 80 percent of those deaths were due to disease and may, or may not, have been war-related.

“The estimates of the dead are usually done by agencies whose funding depends on how many have died,” Mamdani said.

“Maybe it’s stupid, frankly, to talk about” the number of dead in Darfur, acknowledged John Prendergast, a leading activist in the Darfur movement, while responding to Mamdani in a debate at Columbia University earlier this year. “At the end of the day it’s not really credible … it’s not something we are ever going to know.”

The Obama administration is divided on the subject. The word “genocide” is a powerful term, and focuses the world’s attention on ethnic violence that might otherwise be dismissed. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice described the situation in Darfur as “genocide” in a speech in Europe last week, but Gration declined to go that far.

“What we see is the remnants of genocide,” he told reporters at the State Department, carefully selecting his words. The level of violence in Darfur has decreased significantly, Gration said, and “it doesn’t appear that it is a coordinated effort similar to what we had in 2003 to 2006.”

Mortality estimates in remote, war-torn places like Darfur are extrapolations, said Prendergast, and though he personally still believes that what happened is accurately termed genocide, “I wouldn’t fall on my sword for it,” he said.

“I do know the number of dead, diseased and the number who will suffer will increase exponentially if we do not act boldly” now, he added.

Mamdani’s critique goes beyond numbers. The Save Darfur movement had a “salutary effect at the beginning,” he said, but then it “went on its merry course … uninterested in what was happening in Darfur … intent on building a movement.”

The coalition does not provide aid to starving or displaced Africans itself, Mamdani noted. “It is a lavish advertisement” and represents “a systematic attempt to discredit … any kind of African solution to an African problem.” In the post 9/11 climate, Mamdani said, the Arab population of the Sudan was vilified, and Save Darfur peace activists urged U.S. military intervention.

All grassroots movements face the challenge of perpetuating themselves. Threats may be exaggerated, as well as a movement’s achievements, to keep volunteers motivated and engaged, Hamilton said.

“You end up celebrating the small victories,” she said. “It is a victory but … it’s not a real victory. It’s not the victory that counts on the ground.”

“A public outcry is necessary,” Hamilton said, “but not sufficient.” In a recent forum at the Washington think tank Center for American Progress, Norris, of Enough Project, agreed.

“It isn’t enough just to hold rallies. It isn’t enough just to write letters,” he said. “The activist movement has a long, long way to go.” The international response to human rights disasters in places like Kosovo, Rwanda or Darfur inevitably sprouts, he said, “crisis after crisis … in an ad hoc way.”

But as bad as conditions are in Darfur, Norris said, “the situation on the ground would be far worse” if the movement had not focused the world’s attention on the brutal war being waged by Sudanese paramilitary forces upon the civilian population of Darfur.

“If the entire movement had ended the conflict one week earlier,” he said, “it would be worth it.”

More GlobalPost dispatches by John Aloysius Farrell:

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