“Save Darfur”: the ultimate absolution?
By now I’m sure you’ve all heard of Harvard scholar Mahmood Mamdani’s new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, which criticizes the immensely popular “Save Darfur” campaign that has spread throughout North America, taking billboards, bus-sides and campuses by storm. It appears that I had been living in a whole until recently, blissfully unaware of any sort of controversy about this campaign. While not actively involved in any Save Darfurism throughout my university career, I knew of many fellow students who were vehement that the U.S., Canada and Europe must “do something” about the atrocities occurring in the southern part of Sudan. What this something was was never fully expressed–send money and aid, send in troops, hold tribunals; all were offered as possible interventions to the conflict. I never gave most of these discussions a second thought, as I was mostly just relieved and happy to hear my fellow classmates have a discussion about African politics.
But in speaking to some Sudanese friends in Cape Town recently, I realised that such discussions were not necessarily about Africa, but rather just about how American and Canadian citizens felt about their country’s role in the Africa. In essence, these friends argue, the campaign is a way for Americans and Canadians to feel better about themselves, and specifically to absolve themselves of their involvement in other nasty conflicts worldwide. Most egregiously, the campaign allows for a complex problem to be reduced to rhetoric about the “poor Africans” who “need” outside intervention in order to save themselves. It’s the White Man’s Burden all over again, and smacks of missionary-style imperialism.
My first reaction to such criticism was to bite back. I was sure that, however ignorant or ill-advised my classmate Save Darfurers were, they were not purposefully or blatantly imperialist or patronising, and that their concern was genuine. But over the last few weeks I’ve thought about their perhaps somewhat unfounded attacks with more clarity, and despite the fact that I continue to think that many people involved in this campaign within North America do so with the best of intentions, the campaign itself–and specifically Western government’s reactions to the campaign–is certainly over-simplified and perhaps, if it does only perpetuate notions of African tribalism and the need for outside intervention to save the “dark continent,” then it needs to be seriously re-thought, and perhaps even withdrawn.