"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


don't mess with mamdani

Via Karl (who linked to it in the comments of this post on Wronging Rights), here's a fantastic description of Tuesday night's debate between Mahmood Mamdani and John Prendergast over advocacy and the situation in Darfur. Mamdani knows more about central and eastern Africa than just about any other academic working on the continent today. Prendergast works on the advocacy side of things; here's James North's description of him:
"He is more a publicity-hungry showman than a genuine scholar, an Alan Dershowitz with shoulder-length hair and a laid-back Indiana Jones manner."
Ahem. The focus of the debate, it seems, was on how the situation in Darfur is presented to the Western public, particularly with respect to the Save Darfur advocacy organization. Mamdani doesn't believe that what's going on in Darfur today can properly be termed "genocide." Prendergast, from the sound of it, knew better than to argue with Mamdani on that point and distanced himself from Save Darfur's insistence that it is a genocide (despite the fact that Prendergast's Enough Project clearly calls it such) and that external military intervention is necessary to end the suffering of the Darfurians.

I haven't had the chance to read Mamdani's new book on Darfur yet, but will be deciding whether to use his account or Julie Flint & Alex de Waal's in my African politics seminar next year. All I have to go on about the nature of the debate is North's account. But I'll just say a couple of things:
  1. This was fairly predictable. Like Save Darfur, Prendergast is very good at presenting humanitarian crises and conflicts in a way that provokes an emotional response. And Mamdani knows that of which he speaks.
  2. Mamdani's criticisms of the Save Darfur bunch are valid, but that doesn't mean they haven't done some good in raising awareness of the world outside of middle America. (North says Mamdani acknowledged this later in the talk.) But just because something isn't a genocide per se doesn't mean we can't care about it. Save Darfur (and Invisible Children, and a myriad of other organizations run by well-intentioned, idealistic foreigners) errs in its apparent perception that you have to present the situation in the worst light possible in order to get people to take action.
  3. Americans are really bad at recognizing and understanding nuance in African conflicts. As is the case in the D.R. Congo, there aren't really any good guys in Sudan. There's blood on everyone's hands, including that of the Darfur militias that started the insurgency against the Khartoum government in early 2003. Innocent civilians get caught up in these conflicts and they need help, but outside observers (especially those who've never been to the region, or who went on a two-week fact-finding mission with an affable translator/fixer and came back assuming they understood a conflict with decades-old roots) fail those civilians when they fail to fully recognize all the dimensions of the conflict. As my adviser pointed out at my defense on Wednesday, there are so many layers to these situations that people just throw up their hands and call it "chaos." The reality is much more complicated, and much more organized than most of us care to admit.
Update: Here are some links to other analyses of the event:



Blogger TheMalau said...

Mahmood Mamdani can be a bit radical, but generally on point with the facts. John Prendergast... is just John Prendergast.

JP and the "Save Darfur"/"Enough" crowd indeed do some marginal good. However, they are also part of this K Street Think-Tank sponsored humanitarian industry, where the viability and sustainability of the organizations sometimes outweigh the resolution of the problems they were created to solve... They sometimes become money-making machines in which most of the money is used to pay for the wages, the travels, and the promotional materials, and not so much sustainable actions that matter on the ground. And that is unfortunate.

I would be interested in knowing what you think of this:



Friday, April 17, 2009 2:48:00 AM

Anonymous Eamon said...

Good assessments. It's not fair to totally dismiss Save Darfur's positive effects -- would Americans even be talking about these issues if it were not for them? -- but all of Mamdani's criticisms seem totally valid. Also, is awareness raised on a faulty understanding of the facts really better than ignorance? I don't know.

themalau: interesting points that we shouldn't forget.

Texas in Africa: You should use BOTH Flint & de Waal and Mamdani in your seminar. They do not understand history differently, but Mamdani questions the politics behind writing history more. I think Mamdani's scholarship helps in understanding why Flint & De Waal's is important. (You can always just use the first three chapters of Saviors and Survivors, which describes the history of SDC.)

I've been blogging on this issue a lot, check it out: http://longgonedaddy.wordpress.com/

Friday, April 17, 2009 9:03:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks for the comments on this issue.

Thanks for the tips, Eamon. The seminar is for undergrads, so I have to limit the reading to what they'll actually do, but I think excerpting part of each might be the way to go. I just ordered Mamdani's new book and will take a look soon. I'm mostly just excited to finally have time to read books that aren't about my dissertation!

TheMalau, your points are exactly right. Many of the advocacy groups have such good intentions, but they get caught in the trap of their own ideas about workable solutions, which may or may not work on the ground. When I talk to advocacy groups, I encourage them to seek solutions from the people they're trying to assist - it's amazing how a well-educated Darfurian might have a much better idea of what's going on in Darfur than an American would! I know so many incredible Congolese citizens who are already making things happen on the ground in the Kivus, but they're typically ignored by the global humanitarian network. It's a shame.

Friday, April 17, 2009 11:08:00 AM

Blogger Sneaksleep said...

Alanna at http://bloodandmilk.org/ has a lot to say about what is (and especially what is not) effective when it comes to humanitarian and development work. Thought you might all be interested.

Friday, April 17, 2009 12:03:00 PM

Blogger TheMalau said...

texasinafrica: you are more generous with the humanitarian industry than I am. In my moments of cynicism, I even wonder whether even the intentions are that good...

Eamon: Thank you for this additional insight.

Friday, April 17, 2009 1:10:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Sneaksleep, yeah, I love Alanna's blog. Did you see today's post about riding in a white UN SUV?!?

Friday, April 17, 2009 1:36:00 PM

Anonymous Ben Parker said...

For excellent quality discussion of the Mamdani book, check out SSRC blogs: http://www.ssrc.org/blogs/darfur/category/darfur/

But I have to wonder if the comment "there aren't really any good guys in Sudan" is beneath the seriousness of your blog, even if tongue somewhat in cheek, isn't it?


Friday, April 17, 2009 4:02:00 PM

Blogger atheo said...


Speaking of "good intentions", what in your opinion might be the motive behind the Israeli connections to both the Southern Sudan and Darfuri insurgencies? Also, are you aware of the current status of the multi-billion dollar "peace pipelines" which transfer Nile water to North Sinai? Any thoughts? I do know that Al Bashir has consistently opposed relinquishing Sudanese water rights to Israel.

Friday, April 17, 2009 7:44:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Ben, thanks for the link to the SSRC posts. With my dissertation focus, I haven't had much time to follow anything else of late. As you've probably noticed, I'm pretty snide in the way I comment on this stuff, but I really don't believe that there's one side on any of the Sudanese conflicts who can claim that they've held the moral high ground all along. Of course there are innocent victims, and of course they need help. But just because Darfur's people are under attack from Khartoum doesn't mean the JEM is all good and justified in everything they do. Do you?

Atheo, I'm not enough of an expert on Sudan to really comment on Israel's connections in the region. I do think that the conflicts of the next century will be more over access to water than to oil, so it wouldn't be surprising if Israeli interests are acting now to secure access to both of those commodities, or that al-Bashir is opposed to helping a Jewish state. He needs all the support he can get from the Muslim middle eastern world these days.

Friday, April 17, 2009 10:10:00 PM

Blogger atheo said...

Food for thought:

Sudan, another war for Israel: Will Nile water go to Israel?


Friday, April 17, 2009 10:36:00 PM

Blogger kizzie said...

I have to admit my bias here, I really enjoy reading Mamdani's books! He explains things in great detail and he is scholarship is very credible. I've met John before, he is very passionate about what he does, but I disagree with his approach to Darfur and Sudan in general. I think most Americans were attracted by the gory pics and descriptions.
On a totally personal note, as a Sudanese I feel that the portrayal really dehumanized Darfuris and portrayed them as passive-victims..
Anyways good reading of the debate:)

Sunday, April 26, 2009 1:14:00 PM


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