Relief Workers Curse "Save Darfur"
- Women displaced from their homes lined up one morning in February to
get water from a pump in the Hamadiya camp at Zalingei in West Darfur.
Darfur Advocacy Group Undergoes a Shake-Up
By STEPHANIE STROM and LYDIA POLGREEN
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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 some to go back to the roots of
the coalition of groups that is so rich and so diverse."
Stephanie Strom reported from New York, and Lydia Polgreen from Dakar,
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