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If You Bend Over Far Enough...

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The fallout from Sudan's decision to expel 13 international charities and shut down four local ones continues. Millions of people will be without water, food and medicine unless or until the agencies who remain in Darfur can step in. That is a big negative when the only entry in the plus column is an arrest warrant with no possible means of enforcement.

Those with a humanitarian outlook have been fast to say this was inevitable. That criminalising a government was always going to provoke a reaction against aid agencies, which have had to put up with difficult circumstances for years. At the same time, the human rights and Darfur advocacy movements have celebrated the indictment and used the expulsions to point out once again President Bashir's brutality.

And once again the two positions have polarised to the extent that justice and peace are seen as mutually exclusive. Which they are, when the two sides are so far apart.

In the past I've been deeply critical of the Save Darfur movement and its supporters. They see Darfur as a black and white case of good and evil, and have led the debate towards the wrong solutions as a result. Seeking to indict President Bashir is one such example. There was always going to be a very good chance that it would make matters on the ground worse.

But hang on a minute. The aid agencies have also been part of the problem. They have been routinely screwed by Khartoum without so much as batting an eyelid. Staff are kicked out, spied on and prevented from travelling to Darfur. They have been smeared in the press and Jewish members of staff accused of being Mossad agents with barely a protest made. The argument has always been that it's better to deliver aid than make a fuss and risk losing access.

Getting kicked out is indeed a disaster. UN officials reckon as much as a third of some aid agencies' budgets are raised from donations related to Darfur. The crisis is supporting countless jobs in headquarters around the world and many operations in other less glamorous hot spots. Darfur is their cash cow.

Of course there is always a tension between delivering emergency aid and advocacy. Standing up and saying what's wrong can jeopardise your ability to help on the ground. But the charities in Darfur chose total silence in the face of non-stop harassment and intimidation.

It was that silence that gave the Save Dafur and rights lobby - based far from Sudan itself and with a naive outlook - the stage, and allowed the ICC to become the only solution in town. It also emboldened Khartoum, allowing them to think they could act with impunity, knowing that aid agencies would accept every new regulation, expulsion of country director or smear without fighting. And guess what? They kicked 'em out anyway.

While charities might rightly be saying "I told you so" now, they are also partly to blame for their own expulsion and the unfolding mess.


Anstis | March 8, 2009 3:44 PM | Reply

Dear Rob,

I've been reading your posts with great interest over the past few days.

Just a quick question in regards to this one. Aid organizations, from what I understand, can express no political opinion. They simply deliver aid while absorbing the shocks this may cause in the political structures of the states they are working in.

In the case of Darfur, perhaps they should have foregone this typical approach - as you say - and stood up to the government. How could they do this while maintaining their reputation abroad and within the aid community? Understandably, standing up to Khartoum would have had them kicked out anyways - except they would be blamed for the outcome not Khartoum. Now, at least, Bashir continues to play the part of the criminal.

Toaf | March 9, 2009 4:59 AM | Reply

Rob, the missus and I were discussing this last night. We reached the conclusion - as you have stated here - that the aid agencies set themselves up to be expelled by Khartoum by engaging in advocacy.

The question is, was providing humanitarian assistance without advocacy a sufficient response to the situation? Is it sufficient to seek to address the symptoms of the crisis? Or does there need to be advocacy if there is to be some sort of political resolution which in turn may ease the causes of the humanitarian crisis? (Sorry if that's a little garbled.)

This assumes, of course, that advocacy does indeed lead to political pressure and then to political action. The problem in this case is that the eventual political action hasn't been productive. Could the aid agencies have known this? I suspect they could have. What alternative did they have?

Then there's this point that you raise: "UN officials reckon as much as a third of some aid agencies' budgets are raised from donations related to Darfur. The crisis is supporting countless jobs in headquarters around the world and many operations in other less glamorous hot spots. Darfur is their cash cow."

I hadn't though of it that way. As if the whole thing wasn't tragic enough already.

Another insightful and interesting post, Rob. Much appreciated.

Rob Crilly replied to comment from Toaf | March 9, 2009 8:32 AM | Reply

Thanks Toaf,
I think the problem here is that advocacy had been left to organisations with an anti-Khartoum agenda, producing a polarised debate that has not got us very far. Had the aid agencies engaged in advocacy - as they often do - the debate would have been far less polarised and there would have been a better chance of a positive outcome.

It also would have allowed the NGOs to distance themselves from the pro-ICC lobby by pursuing a different, humanitarian agenda. Instead they were probably fearful that publicly opposing the push for the ICC - because of the inevitable consequences for the humanitarian operation - would have led to accusations they were Khartoum sympathisers. B

The chose to remain silent, thus failing to promote an alternative to the ICC, and were expelled anyway.

Rob Crilly replied to comment from Anstis | March 9, 2009 8:34 AM | Reply

Many of the best aid agencies have huge advocacy operations.

Toaf replied to comment from Rob Crilly | March 9, 2009 11:07 AM | Reply

Thanks, Rob. Yes, I see the distinction you are making between the aid groups and the lobby. I'd assumed that advocacy had been taking place, especially given that the ICC reckoned it obtained some its info from aid groups. It's very sad.

What do you think?