Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A few Questions Raised by the Save Darfur Discussion

So the Darfur people are having a terrific kerfuffle over what to do next, which I will now summarize using a medieval literary genre.
The Head: The situation's horribly complicated, there are no good guys, and the only solution is to try to bring pressure on everyone to behave a smidgen more nicely.
The Heart: Only citizen-generated activism can move the US and other major governments to hit Bashir and his janjaweed thugs hard enough to take notice.
The Head: But that won't stop the killing, since the number of thugs operating in the region has proliferated wildly: even if you take out Bashir, people will still be killing each other.
The Heart: It can't hurt, and besides, Bashir is still at the root of this mess.
The Head: But in the meantime, Bashir is taking out his anger on those of us on the ground--the humanitarians and specialists--while you activists (knowingly) promote a simplistic view of the tragedy.
The Heart: Perhaps we do, but unless we succeed at convincing the US and China to act, you'll be staying in Darfur, handing out bags of rice to raped mothers, until Nyala freezes over.

This is what they call a teachable moment. And while I don't have the answers, I thought it might help to generalize the questions, since they've come up, in one guise or another, at nearly every politico-humanitarian crisis to have occurred since Biafra. Figuring out what the right questions are is a start toward developing a framework for responding to future situations. So here's my first stab at it.

What policies undertaken by the US and other major industrial powers have been shown to discourage other countries from harming their citizens? When and under what conditions are those policies effective? When are they not? What perverse impacts might they entail? How do we tell, in any given situation, whether the policies we pursue are likely to be effective, neutral, or perverse? If the political process is unable to reach a consensus on pursuing a given policy, are there any special dangers in pursuing halfway measures? What if some of the impacts will be bad and others good, some short-term and others long-term, and some likely and others less likely? How do we weigh all of these costs and advantages against the costs and advantages of pursuing some other policy? Or are there times and places when instrumental logic is inadequate, when we simply shouldn’t cooperate with a regime because it has crossed some profound moral boundary?

Stipulate that most governments most of the time seek to get along with other governments; they seek to cooperate on areas of shared concern, resolve tensions peacefully, and avoid quarreling. Stipulate also that how a government treats its own people can become a matter of concern but rarely a fundamental interest to citizens of other countries. (Former countrymen or co-religionists being a partial exception.)

How effective, then, can citizen lobbying efforts be at encouraging the governments of major powers to adopt humanitarian policies? When and under what conditions can these efforts be effective? What tactics are most effective? What policies are more likely to be adopted? Do activists run the risk of over-simplifying or exaggerating the situation in order to “market” it to a broader audience? Does that sometimes entail a tasteless application of mass marketing techniques? If so, who, really, is insulted? Those whom the activists seek to help, or merely other activists with more sophisticated palates? On the other hand, does the necessary over-simplification of complex political problems entail the promotion of policies that will have predictably negative impacts?

Finally, who gets to make these decisions?

Without going into a Ph.D.'s worth of discussion, I think we can agree that some situations, at least in retrospect, were relatively straightforward. The divestment campaign against South Africa, for example, seems to me to have been vindicated by history. Others, like the "cause" of Biafra, misconstrued the situation--describing it as a genocide where there was only a terrible amount of reciprocal nastiness--and were probably badly misguided. (The evidence that there was never any genocidal intent on the government's part is that the killing stopped once the war did. Nigeria, as troubled as it is, is better off today than it would have been had Biafra seceded. And Africa, as a whole, would be that much worse off if secession had proven a viable option.)

I would argue, again without going into a dissertation-length discussion, that the cluster of questions I've posed could have gone some way toward elucidating those situations in real time, and not just in retrospect. And that therefore they might serve as a useful basis for thinking about new situations as they arise. How they might apply to Darfur is not for me to answer--in this brawl, I'm just the piano player.

1 comment:

  1. "And Africa, as a whole, would be that much worse off if secession had proven a viable option."

    Why? What do you base that on?

    Africa is doing so poorly now, its hard to imagine it much worse.