Save Darfur versus John Holmes

My Newsweek interview with John Holmes, (the UN’s humanitarian chief not the porn star) has caused a bit of a ruckus. In it, Holmes talks about Save Darfur, the US advocacy group, in less than glowing terms:

“There is a very powerful lobby in the U.S.: ‘stop the genocide’. That’s not a description I subscribe to myself.”

Does it do more harm than good?
“I do agree with that. When I moved to New York I remember seeing a poster in the subway which read: ‘Save Darfur—tens of thousands are dying each month’. That’s just not true. They are a bit misplaced but they do create a political context and that can be helpful.”

On the website, two bloggers Michael Kleinman, who focuses on humanitarian issues, and Michelle, who writes about genocide, debated the rights and wrongs of Save Darfur’s tactics.

Kleinman, who I know from his Nairobi days, wrote:

“I think Holmes goes too far with his rather sweeping condemnation – Save Darfur does play an important advocacy role.  That said, I’m also not convinced they’ve always fully understood the situation on the ground.”

In response, Michelle describes Holmes’ comments as:

“…a huge slap in the face to thousands of dedicated activists, boiling down their efforts to an ill-conceived slogan, and tossing them aside like last week’s garbage.”

This misses the point. Holmes is not basing his belief that Save Darfur do more harm than good on a single poster, he is using that poster as an example of how they can sometimes go too far – something which one of Michelle’s commenters freely admits:

“for some people, an even more vivid, albeit grotesque, picture must be painted for them to really realize how horrible the situation is. Whatever exaggerations there were were made as an appeal to those people who would otherwise be indifferent to the issue.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard someone admit this. I once had a long – and sadly off-the-record – chat with one of the leading Darfur campaigners in the UK. Why, I asked, did he insist on calling the crisis a ‘genocide’? After a bit of back and forth, he admitted that it wasn’t really a genocide now. But, he added, “what you’ve got to understand Steve is that we only get 30 seconds on the Today programme.”

My problem with describing it as a genocide is that genocides have have simple solutions. You stop the genocidaires. The Holocaust would have ended if Hitler had been overthrown. The Rwandan gencoide would have come to a halt if the Hutu militias had been disarmed. But the crisis in Darfur won’t stop if the janjaweed and Bashir’s armed forces are forcibly disarmed or if the Khartoum government is overthrown. It is a nasty, messy war with many players.

In short, it is a complex problem which requires a complex solution. If we describe it in simple terms we will continue to come up with simple solutions.


The debate rumbles on…

In a post headlined ‘Save Darfur can’t Save Darfur’, Michael Kleinman goes further in his criticisms of Save Darfur:

“…if you don’t understand the facts, even the most basic facts, it’s hard to offer useful recommendations on how to end the slaughter.”

Over at the Enough project, David Sullivan hits back:

“…if activists don’t keep trying to save Darfur, no one else will, and from South Africa to the American civil rights movement, we have seen again and again that activists can accomplish things that once seemed impossible.”


One response to “Save Darfur versus John Holmes

  1. Pingback: A year of blogging… « Things Seen and Heard…

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