Global Policy Forum

Darfur Advocacy Group Undergoes a Shake-Up


By Stephanie Storm and Lydia Polgreen

New York Times
June 2, 2007

Even as advocacy groups attained the seeming triumph of President Bush's new sanctions against Sudan, the organization that helped bring the conflict in Darfur to the world's attention is in upheaval, firing its executive director, reorganizing its board and rethinking its strategies. At the heart of the shake-up are questions of whether the former executive director of the organization, the Save Darfur Coalition, wisely used a sudden influx of money from a few anonymous donors in an advertising blitz to push for action. The advertisements strained relationships with aid groups working on the ground in Darfur, the western region of Sudan, where at least 200,000 people have been killed and millions have fled their homes. Many of the groups opposed some of the tone and content of Save Darfur's high-decibel advocacy campaign.

Coalition board members sought to minimize the dispute, saying that tensions had existed between advocates and aid workers in previous crises, like Kosovo, and that the organization's rapid growth and changing membership had motivated the board's decision to remove the director, David Rubenstein. "We are grateful for the extraordinary job he has done and wish him the best in his search for new opportunities for public service," said Ruth W. Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service and a Save Darfur board member, who declined to discuss the reasons for Mr. Rubenstein's dismissal. Allyn Brooks-LaSure, a spokesman for the organization, said Mr. Rubenstein was not available for comment.

Perhaps no cause in Africa since the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa has drawn such wide and deep grass-roots support across the political spectrum. Many activists, politicians and policy makers praise Save Darfur in particular for its role in raising awareness about the crisis. "It is extraordinary," said Samantha Power, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. "The fact that Darfur is even on the policy map along with Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, global warming, the fact that Darfur merits an 8 a.m. statement by the president, is testament to one thing and one thing alone, and that is this movement."

The group says it has delivered more than a million postcards to Mr. Bush, organized mass rallies that have drawn tens of thousands of participants and urged its members to wear green wristbands emblazoned with the anti-genocide motto "Not on our watch." But Save Darfur has gotten into hot water with aid groups helping the refugees of the conflict. In February it began a high-profile advertising campaign that included full-page newspaper ads, television spots and billboards calling for more aggressive action in Darfur, including the imposition of a no-flight zone over the region. Aid groups and even some activists say banning flights could do more harm than good, because it could stop aid flights. Many aid groups fly white airplanes and helicopters that may look similar to those used by the Sudanese government, putting their workers at risk in a no-flight zone.

Sam Worthington, the president and chief executive of InterAction, a coalition of aid groups, complained to Mr. Rubenstein by e-mail that Save Darfur's advertising was confusing the public and damaging the relief effort. "I am deeply concerned by the inability of Save Darfur to be informed by the realities on the ground and to understand the consequences of your proposed actions," Mr. Worthington wrote. He noted that contrary to assertions in its initial ads, Save Darfur did not represent any of the organizations working in Darfur, and he accused it of "misstating facts." He said its endorsement of plans that included a no-flight zone and the use of multilateral forces "could easily result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of individuals."

Another aid group, Action Against Hunger, said in a statement last week that a forced intervention by United Nations troops without the approval of the Sudanese government "could have disastrous consequences that risk triggering a further escalation of violence while jeopardizing the provision of vital humanitarian assistance to millions of people." Aid groups also complain that Save Darfur, whose budget last year was $15 million, does not spend that money on aid for the long-suffering citizens of the region.

The tension between aid and advocacy is not unique to the Darfur conflict, though it is almost always papered over by the code of silence that governs relations among nonprofit groups. "I think these agencies probably agree on many more questions than they disagree on, but clearly there is a different perspective between people who are on the ground and having to deal with local security and harassment, and advocacy groups," said Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International, an advocacy group and member of the Save Darfur Coalition. "We travel into areas like Darfur for a month or so, then leave, and therefore we face different pressures."

At the same time, the relationship is also symbiotic: brazen advocacy groups help put pressure on governments and raise awareness among donors, thus supporting the work done on the ground by more diplomatic counterparts.

The Sudanese government is adroit at exploiting that tension. It deploys a variety of tactics to impede aid workers, including delaying approval for visas, refusing to allow shipments of necessary supplies and prohibiting the workers from boarding planes, and it blames advocacy for its actions. When the International Rescue Committee issued a press release last summer noting an increase in rapes and other sexual violence based on what it was seeing in refugee camps, its workers were hauled before government officials, and its efforts to get visas and travel permits became mired in red tape. "The Sudanese are very astute, and they following what's going on in the U.S. press," Mr. Bacon said. "When I met with President Bashir, he mentioned Save Darfur specifically and said it was treating his government unfairly and preventing the U.S. from dealing with him or granting him concessions for what he is trying to do to improve things."

So some relief agencies said they were horrified when Save Darfur's ads in February reported that "international relief organizations," among others, had agreed that the time for negotiating with the Sudanese government had ended. Mr. Rubenstein and Mr. Worthington and other executives of relief organizations have met to discuss the concerns he expressed. "We've had good conversations with Save Darfur and have seen changes in their ads that reflect a better understanding of the evolving reality on the ground," Mr. Worthington said. Mr. Bacon said similar tension had flared publicly during the 1998-99 war in Kosovo, when relief groups had staff members in the Balkans at the same time advocacy groups were calling for bombing and more aggressive military action. "Not only were there concerns among relief agencies that their workers would be hit if there were bombing, but they were also fearful that more aggressive action could provoke a counterattack against aid workers, who might be seen as representative of the Western powers doing the bombing," Mr. Bacon said.

John Prendergast, a member of the board of Save Darfur and a leading activist on Darfur, said the changes that the board decided to make were part of an effort to reorganize and re-energize the movement along the lines of its earliest conception: to be a broad, permanent alliance of many different types of organizations working together to prevent atrocities and genocide. "The growth was so fast in the coalition, as was interest in the issue of Darfur and in the budget, that it was hard to kind of manage the difference between an organization and a coalition," Mr. Prendergast said. "People felt that the time had come to go back to the roots of the coalition of groups that is so rich and so diverse."

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