Split between activists and aid groups in Darfur campaign seen

A telling story in the June 2 New York Times, “Advocacy Group’s Publicity Campaign on Darfur Angers Relief Organizations,” reveals a rift between the Save Darfur Coalition and the aid agencies actually on the ground in Darfur. Save Darfur takes a hard line, calling for UN intervention, which has prompted the Sudanese regime to turn up the heat on aid workers. This is a real dilemma. Are the Save Darfur folks naive do-gooders—or, worse, cynical exploiters of the Darfur genocide with hidden agendas—who are (even if unwittingly) actually making things worse by interfering with relief efforts? Or are the relief organizations being coopted by the Sudan regime and (even if unwittingly) allowing the genocide to continue by opposing intervention? Via the exile-based Sudan Tribune, links and emphasis added:

NEW YORK — Even as advocacy groups attained the seeming triumph of President Bush’s new sanctions against Sudan, the organization that helped bring the conflict in Darfur to the world’s attention is in upheaval, firing its executive director, reorganizing its board and rethinking its strategies.

At the heart of the shake-up are questions of whether the former executive director of the organization, the Save Darfur Coalition, wisely used a sudden influx of money from a few anonymous donors in an advertising blitz to push for action.

The advertisements strained relationships with aid groups working on the ground in Darfur, the western region of Sudan, where at least 200,000 people have been killed and millions have fled their homes. Many of the groups opposed some of the tone and content of Save Darfur’s high-decibel advocacy campaign.

Coalition board members sought to minimize the dispute, saying that tensions had existed between advocates and aid workers in previous crises, like Kosovo, and that the organization’s rapid growth and changing membership had motivated the board’s decision to remove the director, David Rubenstein.

“We are grateful for the extraordinary job he has done and wish him the best in his search for new opportunities for public service,” said Ruth W. Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service and a Save Darfur board member, who declined to discuss the reasons for Mr. Rubenstein’s dismissal. Allyn Brooks-LaSure, a spokesman for the organization, said Mr. Rubenstein was not available for comment.


The group says it has delivered more than a million postcards to Mr. Bush, organized mass rallies that have drawn tens of thousands of participants and urged its members to wear green wristbands emblazoned with the anti-genocide motto “Not on our watch.”

But Save Darfur has gotten into hot water with aid groups helping the refugees of the conflict.

In February it began a high-profile advertising campaign that included full-page newspaper ads, television spots and billboards calling for more aggressive action in Darfur, including the imposition of a no-flight zone over the region.

Aid groups and even some activists say banning flights could do more harm than good, because it could stop aid flights. Many aid groups fly white airplanes and helicopters that may look similar to those used by the Sudanese government, putting their workers at risk in a no-flight zone.

Sam Worthington
, the president and chief executive of InterAction, a coalition of aid groups, complained to Mr. Rubenstein by e-mail that Save Darfur’s advertising was confusing the public and damaging the relief effort.

“I am deeply concerned by the inability of Save Darfur to be informed by the realities on the ground and to understand the consequences of your proposed actions,” Mr. Worthington wrote.

He noted that contrary to assertions in its initial ads, Save Darfur did not represent any of the organizations working in Darfur, and he accused it of “misstating facts.” He said its endorsement of plans that included a no-flight zone and the use of multilateral forces “could easily result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of individuals.”

Another aid group, Action Against Hunger, said in a statement last week that a forced intervention by United Nations troops without the approval of the Sudanese government “could have disastrous consequences that risk triggering a further escalation of violence while jeopardizing the provision of vital humanitarian assistance to millions of people.”

Aid groups also complain that Save Darfur, whose budget last year was $15 million, does not spend that money on aid for the long-suffering citizens of the region.

The tension between aid and advocacy is not unique to the Darfur conflict, though it is almost always papered over by the code of silence that governs relations among nonprofit groups.

“I think these agencies probably agree on many more questions than they disagree on, but clearly there is a different perspective between people who are on the ground and having to deal with local security and harassment, and advocacy groups,” said Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International, an advocacy group and member of the Save Darfur Coalition. “We travel into areas like Darfur for a month or so, then leave, and therefore we face different pressures.”

At the same time, the relationship is also symbiotic: brazen advocacy groups help put pressure on governments and raise awareness among donors, thus supporting the work done on the ground by more diplomatic counterparts.

The Sudanese government is adroit at exploiting that tension. It deploys a variety of tactics to impede aid workers, including delaying approval for visas, refusing to allow shipments of necessary supplies and prohibiting the workers from boarding planes, and it blames advocacy for its actions.

When the International Rescue Committee issued a press release last summer noting an increase in rapes and other sexual violence based on what it was seeing in refugee camps, its workers were hauled before government officials, and its efforts to get visas and travel permits became mired in red tape.

“The Sudanese are very astute, and they following what’s going on in the U.S. press,” Mr. Bacon said. “When I met with President Bashir, he mentioned Save Darfur specifically and said it was treating his government unfairly and preventing the U.S. from dealing with him or granting him concessions for what he is trying to do to improve things.”

So some relief agencies said they were horrified when Save Darfur’s ads in February reported that “international relief organizations,” among others, had agreed that the time for negotiating with the Sudanese government had ended.

Mr. Rubenstein and Mr. Worthington and other executives of relief organizations have met to discuss the concerns he expressed. “We’ve had good conversations with Save Darfur and have seen changes in their ads that reflect a better understanding of the evolving reality on the ground,” Mr. Worthington said.

Mr. Bacon said similar tension had flared publicly during the 1998-99 war in Kosovo, when relief groups had staff members in the Balkans at the same time advocacy groups were calling for bombing and more aggressive military action.

“Not only were there concerns among relief agencies that their workers would be hit if there were bombing, but they were also fearful that more aggressive action could provoke a counterattack against aid workers, who might be seen as representative of the Western powers doing the bombing,” Mr. Bacon said.

John Prendergast
, a member of the board of Save Darfur and a leading activist on Darfur, said the changes that the board decided to make were part of an effort to reorganize and re-energize the movement along the lines of its earliest conception: to be a broad, permanent alliance of many different types of organizations working together to prevent atrocities and genocide.

“The growth was so fast in the coalition, as was interest in the issue of Darfur and in the budget, that it was hard to kind of manage the difference between an organization and a coalition,” Mr. Prendergast said. “People felt that the time had some to go back to the roots of the coalition of groups that is so rich and so diverse.”

See our last post on Darfur.

  1. “Save Darfur” hurting or helping?
    Sam Dealey, Africa correspondent for Time magazine, airs the dirty laundry on “Save Darfur.” From the New York Times, Aug. 12:

    An atrocity that needs no exaggeration

    WASHINGTON — It was just last month that the House of Representatives passed the Darfur Accountability and Divestment Act and the UN Security Council decided to deploy up to 26,000 peacekeepers to Sudan. Both actions were due in no small way to the work of the Save Darfur Coalition.

    Through aggressive advertising campaigns, this group has done more than any other to focus world attention on the conflict in the Sudanese region.

    But with a ruling from Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority, Save Darfur now finds itself in the spotlight. Siding with a business group allied with the Sudanese government in Khartoum, the authority ruled that the high death tolls Save Darfur cites in its advertisements breached standards of truthfulness.

    The ruling is more than just a minor public relations victory for Khartoum; it exposes a glaring problem in Save Darfur’s strategy.

    While the coalition has done an admirable job of raising awareness, it has also hampered aid-delivery groups, discredited American policymakers and diplomats and harmed efforts to respond to future humanitarian crises.

    The trouble began last fall when, in ads placed throughout the United States and Britain, Save Darfur denounced the Sudanese government’s scorched-earth campaign against insurgents. “After three years, 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed,” the ads said.

    That claim provoked a complaint to the British ad authority from the European Sudanese Public Affairs Council. After investigating, the authority found that Save Darfur’s campaign violated codes of objectivity and truthfulness, and it ordered the group to amend its ads to present the high death toll as opinion, not fact.

    Serious estimates of the number of dead in Darfur are far lower than 400,000. Last November, the U.S. Government Accountability Office convened a panel of 12 experts to assess the credibility of six prominent mortality estimates for Darfur. Three of these came from the State Department, the World Health Organization and the WHO-affiliated Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

    The other three were independent efforts by activists, including one by John Hagan, a sociologist at Northwestern University, for the defunct Coalition for International Justice. Hagan’s was the highest estimate and the one on which Save Darfur based its claim.

    In category after category, the experts overwhelmingly found Hagan’s estimate of 400,000 deficient. Nine of the experts said that his source data was unsound and that he failed to disclose his study’s limitations. Ten found his assumptions “unreasonable,” and 11 called his extrapolations “inappropriate.” In all, 11 experts held “low” or “very low” confidence in the study.

    So how many are dead in Darfur? As the GAO study notes, reliable numbers are hard to come by. But the estimate that won the most confidence was the one from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. From September 2003 until June 2005, the center estimated, there were 158,000 deaths in Darfur. Of those, 131,000 were deemed “excess” – more than normally would occur.

    Neither the center nor any other responsible outlet has released a tabulation of the death toll after June 2005, but observations by the United Nations and relief groups register a sharp drop, if for no other reason than much of Darfur’s population now resides in the relative safety of aid camps. In 2005, the mortality rate fell below the level that is considered to be an emergency.

    But now that the government has resumed bombings and the rebel groups are fighting among themselves as well as against the government, violence has increased. In the last half of 2006, civilian deaths averaged 200 per month.

    Combining these estimates suggests Darfur’s death toll now hovers at 200,000, half of what Save Darfur claimed a year ago and still claims on its Web site.

    Of course, whether 200,000 or 400,000 have died, the need to resolve the conflict in Darfur is the same. But Save Darfur’s inflated estimate – used even after Hagan revised his estimate sharply downward – only frustrates peace efforts.

    During debate on the House floor last month, for example, Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee claimed that “an estimated 400,000 people have been killed by the government of Sudan and its janjaweed allies.” Jackson-Lee is hardly alone in making that allegation, and catering to the Sudanese government’s sensitivities may not seem important. But the repeated error only hardens Khartoum against constructive dialogue. If diplomacy, not war, is the ultimate goal for resolving the conflict in Darfur, the United States must maintain its credibility as an honest broker.

    Inaccurate data can also lead to prescriptive blunders. During the worst period of violence, for example, the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster estimated that nearly 70 percent of Darfur’s excess deaths were due not to violence but to disease and malnutrition.

    This suggests that policymakers should look for ways to bolster and protect relief groups, by continuing to demand that the Sudanese government not hamper the delivery of aid, to be sure, but also by putting vigorous public pressure on the dozen rebel groups that routinely raid convoys.

    Exaggerated death tolls also make it difficult for relief organizations to deliver their services. Khartoum considers the inflated numbers to be evidence that all groups that deliver aid to Darfur are actually adjuncts of the activist groups that the regime considers its enemies, and thus finds justification for delaying visas, refusing to allow shipments of supplies and otherwise putting obstacles in the way of aid delivery.

    Lastly, mortality one-upmanship by advocacy groups threatens to inure the public to both current and future catastrophes. If 400,000 becomes the de facto benchmark for action, other bloody conflicts around the globe – in Sri Lanka, Colombia, Somalia – seem to pale in comparison. Ultimately, the inflated claims fuel a death race in which aid and action are based not on facts but on which advocacy group yells the loudest.

    Two-hundred thousand dead in Darfur is egregious enough. No matter how noble their intentions, there’s no need for activists to kill more Darfuris than the conflict itself already has.

    1. Correction on Darfur
      The Times runs the following correction Aug. 22:

      A recent Op-Ed article about the death toll in Darfur incorrectly characterized a ruling by the British Advertising Standards Authority on Save Darfur Coalition advertisements. The authority did not find that the ads, which put the number of dead at 400,000, “breached standards of truthfulness.” Rather, it told Save Darfur to present the figure as opinion, not fact.