Forget about Linda Polman. We humanitarians need to listen more to Lt. General Omar el-Bashir. Of course, we do care about Ms. Polman’s crucifixion of the aid business. After all, she’s hitting us in the gut and in the wallet. She’s on the same airwaves as many of our donors, telling everybody that aid doesn’t work. Ouch. But Bashir doesn’t mince his words either, and he’s on the same airwaves as the people who control our access.
A little over two years ago I was sitting in Khartoum, helping our teams deal with their non-expulsion after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for the general. Motivated, I am sure, by nothing other than a desire to shed light on the role of INGOs in Sudan, he let loose with a series of accusations. He called us thieves, adding that we take “99 percent of the budget for humanitarian work themselves, giving the people of Darfur 1 percent”. He called us spies in the employ of foreign regimes, interfering well beyond the remit of aid work. And then there’s the charge that humanitarian NGOs essentially worked for the ICC. Apparently fed up with the likes of us, Bashir spoke of “Sudanizing” voluntary work in Sudan (both humanitarian and development). He politely suggested a new and improved model for international cooperation: “If they want to continue providing aid, they can just leave it at the airport and Sudanese NGOs can distribute the relief.”
Neither NGO nor international community blinked. Instead, we countered with legions of arm flapping, demanding to be unexpelled. Then we shielded ourselves from even 10 seconds cogitation on his accusations with the unquestioned logic that he was a mad dictator and war criminal and simply poking back at the West for the ICC having ruined his vacation plans in Las Vegas.
It is rare, and somewhat disconcerting, to find myself possessing an ear not entirely unfavorable to the ideas expressed by President Bashir. Even if we discount a former girlfriend’s accusation that I’m a self-hating critical bastard, it’s not difficult to suppose that if I can find some good sense in Bashir’s rants, he will have the ear of whole nations of people.
Thieving? Strong claim. We’ve pushed the message that humanitarians saved Darfur. If you consider fundraising initiatives based on a “help save Darfur” motif, communication/exposure, and just plain old reinforcement of the image of humanitarians as rescuer-champions, it’s easy to see how Darfur saved the humanitarians. And from all that money that came in on the back of Darfur, how much of it made it past our headquarters, past our expat-driven approaches, past our expensive lifestyle in capitals, past our project teams and directly into the hands of Darfurians?
ICC mole? We know that NGOs passed mounds of info to the ICC. The only question is whether humanitarian NGOs cooperated so directly. Or maybe this is not even an issue at ground level, because how many armed groups in a place like Darfur could distinguish between the human rights crowd and the humanitarian crowd? Add to that the impact of our well-publicized “protection” activities, our so-called advocacy reports. Seems to me “violence”, “attacks”, and “rape”, are words more closely associated to the humanitarian voice emanating from Darfur than “nutrition,” “shelter,” and “healthcare.” Against this accusation we may be teflon in our own minds, but we’re more like flypaper out there where it counts.
Sudanization? There is a strong element of Sudanese pride in all of this mess. We radiated our superiority in Darfur – the virtuous provider of aid to the helpless victims of an evil regime. You can’t spend years treating Sudanese officialdom as perpetrators of violence and obstruction and still expect them to love us. There’s equally a major dose of sovereignty. You can’t humiliate a people without sparking a drive to shake off the yolk of the West, to build Sudanese spirit and independence into the sort of state that does not require the largest exercise of humanitarian charity in the world.
In that non-Western mind, to whom Bashir spoke, we humanitarians were not simply the enemies of the state, we were a blight upon its pride. Do we hear this message? Any of these messages? My advice to NGOs: Make like Horton and listen to the citizens of Who-ville, even if they aren’t all fluffy and cute.