Lessons from campaigning on Darfur
by Jeremy Smith, independent consultant July 2009

The scale of the mobilisation of European and American NGOs in response to the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Darfur since 2003 is arguably unprecedented. Attracting public and media attention to the crisis has been an important part of this response.

This article argues that many campaigning groups have focused their energies on governments which have relatively little influence on the situation in Darfur. Yet the apparent success of campaigning on Darfur – in terms of media coverage and public and celebrity support – and the dominant, agenda-setting status of the main campaigning coalitions have made it difficult to identify alternative approaches focused on actors with more direct influence. The use of certain techniques and the adoption of a high-profile, ‘aggressive’ stance appear almost to have become ends in themselves, rather than a strategic choice determined by what is most likely to bring pressure to bear upon the most influential targets.

The origins of campaigning on Darfur

Darfur has been in a state of simmering conflict for decades, with peaks in the late 1980s and mid-to-late 1990s. Conflict escalated again in 2000–2003. Some NGOs, mostly Sudanese, attempted to sound the alarm, but their warnings were largely ignored until 2003. Amnesty International, which reported specific human rights violations from 2002, made Darfur an organisational priority in April 2004, while in the United States the Save Darfur Coalition took shape out of a ‘Darfur Emergency Summit’ organised at the initiative of the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Jewish World Service in July 2004. Subsequent years have seen a proliferation of initiatives and groups, including the Dream for Darfur and Justice for Darfur campaigns, the Darfur Consortium and the Globe for Darfur and TeamDarfur groupings. (The term ‘campaigning’, taken to mean ‘an operation energetically pursued to accomplish a purpose’, is used in deliberate distinction to ‘advocacy’, ‘the act of pleading or arguing in favour of a cause’.)

Of all these groups, only the Darfur Consortium, formed in September 2004, was created by NGOs based in Africa. An Arab Coalition for Darfur was founded only in May 2008. Operating out of Western Europe and North America, the members of the various other coalitions have focused their efforts on actors situated outside, rather than within, Sudan, and emphasise sticks, rather than carrots: the US and European governments, it is supposed, can and should force the government of Sudan to stop its nefarious actions in Darfur. It was only in early 2006, for example, that ‘it became clear [to the Save Darfur Coalition] that the engagement of the US government alone would not suffice to find a solutionto the crisis in Darfur’.

Missing the target

Focusing campaigning on Western governments presupposes that they have genuine influence on the behaviour and actions of the Sudanese government. NGOs have focused on ‘easier’ targets with whom they are more comfortable and with whom they have existing relationships, such as the European Union and the United Nations, rather than Arab governments or China.

Campaigning organisations have also employed familiar tactics. High-intensity media work has gone hand-in-hand with mobilising the public, coming together in the succession of ‘Days for Darfur’ organised across the world. Involving a huge amount of effort, these events have at best secured a reaffirmation from Western governments of positions already held; at worst, they have forced these governments into adopting ‘tough’ positions, to which the Sudanese government has responded with even greater intransigence. One respondent working within the media notes that the government of Sudan does not ‘care about the international media any more, only the Arabic media and, fundamentally, internal opinion’.

Policy pitfalls

To keep Darfur on the agenda, campaigners have relied on simple messages and clear-cut solutions, which they believe appeal to their Western government audience. While capturing the complexity of the situation in Darfur and generating simple, ‘campaignable’ messages are not mutually exclusive ambitions, simple messages suggest that there are simple solutions. NGOs have repeatedly reverted to peacekeeping or some kind of ‘humanitarian intervention’ as their favoured option, forgoing possible alternatives which could emerge from a deeper and more nuanced analysis. The strong media and public engagement with Darfur campaigns has entrenched this effect. This is a problem with wider relevance: the risk, acknowledged by some campaigners, is that ‘every time there is an armed conflict, the answer is “we want a UN force on the ground”. We do that because we don’t know what [else] to do’. Whether humanitarian NGOs are best placed to decide on the appropriate political or military response to a crisis such as Darfur is, however, not clear, and many are apparently uncomfortable with this solution.

Calling for peacekeepers where there is no peace to keep and no roadmap for peace that could form the basis of a more comprehensive campaigning agenda is not the only awkward policy position NGOs have manoeuvred themselves into. The issuance by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of an arrest warrant for President al-Bashir on 4 March fulfils one of the main aims of NGO campaigns: the prosecution of alleged perpetrators of human rights violations. Major human rights NGOs interpret the arrest warrant variously as ‘a victory for Darfur’s victims’, ‘a welcome and crucial step’ and ‘a landmark for international justice’. However, whether the unintended consequences – the expulsion of international humanitarian NGOs, the apparent removal of any lingering equivocation on the part of African and Arab governments in their support for Bashir and the resultant emboldening of the government of Sudan – outweigh the long-term benefits and symbolic importance of the ICC process is an open question. The point is that it is impossible for NGOs to form a judgement as to the relative costs and benefits because a policy of demanding full compliance with ICC processes precludes them from formulating any other position relating to Darfur.

The message sent to other countries

Choosing to campaign on Darfur in certain ways and at a high intensity raises the question: ‘if here, why not elsewhere?’. The parallel with Somalia in particular is striking. Both Somalia and Darfur are affected by complex conflicts which have had disastrous consequences in terms of numbers killed and displaced. But while Darfur has prompted five years’ sustained international campaigning, mobilisation on Somalia has been slow and limited. It is difficult for NGOs to contend that doing less or operating in different ways in Darfur would be illegitimate, since this is what they have chosen to do in Somalia.

More serious perhaps than a ‘sin of omission’ in Somalia is a possible ‘sin of commission’ relating to Chad. In highlighting and condemning Chinese government support for Sudan, while staying relatively silent about French government support for Chad, Western NGOs risk being perceived as suggesting that their governments’ foreign policies are legitimate, while others’ are not. To label eastern Chad a ‘second Darfur’ and to support the deployment of an EU/UN force inadvertently bolsters Chadian President Idriss Déby. This is in effect to say that Darfur is more important than Chad.

Coalition dynamics – for or against?

The dynamics behind the two main NGO coalitions – the Save Darfur Coalition in the United States and Globe for Darfur in Europe – have evolved in such a way that it is difficult for NGOs to operate outside these groups. This is not to say that the messages and techniques they employ have gone uncontested. The Save Darfur Coalition has been criticisedfor failing to understand the realities on the ground and the consequences of its proposed actions, while MSF-France has publicly resisted the contention that the situation in Darfur amounts to genocide. Some NGOs have chosen to opt out altogether, by deprioritising Darfur, or not engaging with it at all; the majority, however, are blown by the prevailing winds, believing that criticising one’s allies – privately, or ultimately publicly – is simply not the done thing.


The main campaigning coalitions working on Darfur have attempted to reconsider their position within a wider analysis of Sudan as a whole, and to search for political solutions broader than simply ‘peacekeeping’. But their response to the arrest warrant for Bashir illustrates anew the problematic nature of campaigning on Darfur: the warrant has had immediate costs and may well hinder the pursuit of structural solutions. These costs may ultimately be outweighed by longer-term gains; the crux is whether the main campaigning coalitions have in mind a clear path by which their actions and strategies could bring about such long-term gains.

A more effective campaigning approach would involve focusing on targets with more direct influence on the situation; an investment in deeper and more nuanced political and situational analysis, including gauging the possible unintended consequences of policy demands and activities; and the adoption of messages and tactics most likely to resonate with, and induce action from, genuinely influential actors. Enabling this will require a shift in the primary purpose of campaigning coalitions away from the organisation of activities towards the development of a more sophisticated joint analysis.

Jeremy Smithis an independent consultant who conducts campaign evaluations and provides advice to NGOs on strategy and organisational development.