Acton Commentary

Darfur: Taking Student Advocacy beyond the Wristband


As with all efforts to alleviate suffering, a discerning mind must accompany a compassionate heart. College students nationwide have been busy the last few years rightly protesting the genocidal tragedy in Darfur, doing all the things that young activists are good at: joining organizations, lobbying congress, campaigning for divestment, and praying.

Last week, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution to deploy 26,000 UN-African Union peacekeeping troops to Darfur where vicious conflict has left an estimated 200,000 dead and 2.5 million displaced. Students are responding to the resolution with cautious excitement. Excited that something is being done, but skeptical over the follow-up. On their advocacy blog, STAND, a student anti-genocide coalition, entreats students to continue raising awareness: "We're going to have to be loud enough for world leaders to implement the resolution," they write. "It's go-time."

But before signing any e-petitions to "send a message to Washington," students should consider the narcissism and thoughtlessness rampant in many of the campus movements. For what exactly are these students advocating, and how effective are those policies at actually helping the people of Sudan?

Almost 900 students attended the advocacy conference, D.C. to Darfur, hosted by the Genocide Intervention Network and STAND, last year. Bryan Collinsworth, student coordinator, opened the conference with accolades to the activists: "Never before, in the face of mass atrocities, have we heard such a forceful and immediate outcry from everyday citizens, much less students… Let's show them that we won't rest until Darfur, Sudan, and the world are different because of what we do here today."

Nearly all organizations market their efforts to students with appeals to self-empowerment and invitations to define oneself by joining the movement. The Anti-Genocide Hotline encourages would-be callers to "Have a hand in stopping genocide," while College Students Calling for the End of Genocide in Darfur Facebook group promises, "Your voice could help save millions." And the Genocide Intervention Network website boldly tells viewers, "You have the power to end genocide if you act now."

Too often, the campus movements to stop genocide in Darfur become trendy showcases for aggrandizing self-expression, more than an actual sacrifice to help another human being. Every cause with a rock star and a wristband will attract mass support amongst youth, but how can that energy be channeled into meaningful help?

Frequently, the goals and calls to action of student campaigns are so ambiguous as to leave advocates with little more direction than to promote the movement itself. The "easy steps YOU can take to stop genocide" are usually circular support for the organization proposing the steps. 1) Join this group, 2) sign up for this group's e-mail action alerts, 3) start a chapter for this group at your school, 4) donate money to this group, and so on.

No efforts to help exist in a vacuum. All actions to save Darfur will have consequences, and they may not be the ones intended. Only fourteen years ago, UN peacekeeping troops were sent to protect the village of Srebrenica from Bosnian Serb assaults, and their attempts to enforce the "safe area" involved the demilitarization of Bosnian Muslim civilians. When attacked by the Serbs in July 1995, the UN forces were unable to defend the village and thousands of unarmed Muslim men were massacred. An extreme example of well-intended actions that were ineffectual (and, some would argue, actually aggravating), Darfur is a similarly complex situation and far from home. No assumptions should be made that intent to help will equate real help. The first priority of any policy or assistance should be to do no harm. Careful thinking must be applied to every effort. This is more difficult than "raising awareness," but the people of Darfur deserve more than haphazard activism.

An easy place to start the practice of discernment is on charitable contributions to activist groups. A little research into how an organization uses its donated funds will ensure that one is choosing the most effective place to give money -- and apply direct aid. For example, many student sites and student-led benefit concerts donate money raised to Amnesty International or the US Fund for UNICEF. Amnesty International "will put your gift to work wherever the need is greatest" and UNICEF is only slightly less vague. One of the largest coalitions, Save Darfur, only uses donations to fund "crucial awareness and advocacy programs." Students must take ownership of their gifts and know whether their dollars are going to promote the movement or feed a child in Darfur.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky writes of a man who approaches a priest saying, "…it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole." It is easy to pass judgment on events happening thousands of miles away and it is easy to show compassion for or espouse love for someone whom you will never have to face. We should be disturbed over the horrors of Darfur and take all practical measures to work toward an end to the killing.

But we must not forget in our frenzied compassion for people far, far away to love the person next to us. That's where our compassion begins and where it is often the most difficult to practice.