My Mamdani Moment

Okay, I know, I know: in the aid community, I’m a little late here. Everybody and their blog has something to say about Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors. Most of what’s been said falls into the “how dare he!” category. Mamdani, who I got to see in a debate with John Prendergast up at Columbia a few weeks before I headed off to Chad this spring, is indeed controversial; but having witnessed the quality of debate surrounding the Darfur conflict (which is piddling) and the way that protection works on the ground, I’m pretty sure he’s onto something.

Central to Mamdani’s position is that the humanitarian aid regime (and here I don’t mean to cast it as one, coordinated behemoth, but more as a system of organizations with specific values) sees communities as wards, not citizens. In any conflict, humanitarian aid agencies locate “victims” and then protect them. How victimhood is constructed in the international arena, and particularly in those arenas relevant to funders, is therefore important. In the US and the UK, Darfur was quickly constructed as a genocide, when in reality the numbers just didn’t add up and moreover, the concept of dividing communities into different “races” didn’t really add up either. And then there was the tricky piece about the victims. It turns out that some of the victims were rebel fighters too, and some of them pretty nasty ones at that. Mamdani argues, pretty convincingly actually, that what the Darfur conflict is is essentially a civil war with some important regional elements (read: Chad) and a particularly brutal repression period in 2003-2005.

The really controversial part about Mamdani is his take on the Save Darfur movement. He’s very dramatic about the group, citing the phenomenal amount of money they raise and spend on advertising campaigns (and not on aid of any kind). In the debate at Columbia he even referred to US students who raise money for Save Darfur as “their child soldiers.” He links the simplicity of Save Darfur’s argument to the simplicity of Bush’s War on Terror, and directly contrasts it to the complex messages about the invasion of Iraq.

Vis-a-vis Darfur, Mamdani’s specific point is that the construction of Darfur as a genocide by advocacy groups has been, de facto, a hugely effective campaign on the part of the rebels in Darfur, who should have been ready to negotiate by now. His larger points is that when well-meaning ignorant Westerners get involved in African conflicts, they usually mess things up, and so the African Union should be empowered to solve these types of conflicts politically.

I’m really not well-schooled enough in the political science of the region to say whether Mamdani’s completely on point here or not. However, any good reminder that peoples and places have important histories and that when treating people as wards instead of individuals with agency is something not to be done lightly is well worth the attention.

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