It’s not about you, George

Poor old George Clooney. While promoting his latest multimillion dollar movie with a string of interviews, he manages to slip in a mention of how the ongoing crisis in Darfur is causing him so much pain…

“But in the case of Darfur it’s been the greatest failure of my life.

“With other people, we’ve been able to get a lot of attention focused on the terrible situation there and nothing has changed. It’s very frustrating.”

In this soundbite he manages to encapsulate almost everything that is wrong  with the world’s response to the conflict in Sudan, and highlight the shift that has happened in how we think about humanitarian assistance and conflict resolution.

The simple fact, George, is that the failure in Darfur is not about you. It is not about your pain or frustration or failure or disappointment. It is about the 144 people who died in violence during July (the most recent figures), it is about the risk of a flare-up in the conflict and the millions of people still living in aid camps too frightened to go home.

But this is not what the global response to Darfur is based upon. Instead of adopting policies that will mitigate the pain and suffering on the ground, the advocacy movement has focused on a human rights analysis that highlights the motives of consumers, politicians and leaders in the West. Divestment campaigns, rallies and letter writing campaigns are the tactic, with a strategy of forcing governments at home to adopt a pure outlook.

It is a clever way of operating. By concentrating on T-shirts, banners and wristbands it has clear, achievable targets and can generate a vast, grassroots movement. The same tactics have been used by anti-poverty campaigners and anti-war protesters, turning the debate from discussing outcomes in Africa or Iraq, to one of personal responsibility: What did you do in the anti-war campaign Daddy?

The problem though is that Darfur – or any other humanitarian crisis – is not about what we are doing. It should be about whether or not we have made a difference on the ground. It should be about them. Clooney’s words suggest he has discovered this dichotomy. His campaign has been incredibly successful – helping deploy UN-AU peacekeepers and getting President Omar al Bashir indicted at the International Criminal Court – yet it hasn’t stopped the conflict.

Instead Clooney should change his ethical outlook, opting instead for one that values improvements on the ground rather than judging the morality of the players. Ends rather than means.

He is not alone. Principles such as the responsibility to protect or calls to human rights have supplanted other ways of looking at the world. They are powerful norms to prompt people to act in preventing suffering, but they have been reified, turned into ends in themselves. They aren’t. They are rules of thumb: shortcuts to doing the right thing. Forget that and we are in danger of forgetting the purpose of what we are trying to do.

Ultimately we have to remember that actions can only be right in so much as they improve conditions of people in need, ease suffering and make the world a better place. I’m sorry you are disappointed and frustrated, George, but you aren’t the one I care about.

4 thoughts on “It’s not about you, George

  1. This is fantastic. Great work.

    I think that the fact that advocacy is reduced to being hip and trendy is extremely dangerous. Thanks for writing this and succinctly expressing how GC has entirely missed the point and why such celbvocacy can often go in the wrong direction.

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