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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Eamon Kircher-Allen in the Huffington Post
- Michelle at Change.org had a very different take on Prendergast's position and on the debate as a whole.
- Bill Easterly has a great summary of the criticisms laid out in Mamdani's book.