Few columns are as difficult to write as those about the hardships faced by people around the world. Americans are entirely too insular to feel the pain of a myriad of repressed tribes, ethnic groups and religious minorities. Apathy is widespread, perhaps because not being educated about the problem is easier than knowing and doing nothing.
So while it is difficult to cast blame on student activism, sometimes it seems quite shortsighted. Take, for instance, efforts to stop the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan. Certainly, unspeakable atrocities and genocide have occurred there, but T-shirts, bumper stickers and wristbands are not going to solve a crisis with an origin and solution that are highly complex and misunderstood.
For those who are still unaware, fighting in the Darfur region between the Sudanese armed forces and the government-backed Janjaweed militia against African ethnic groups has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. A feeble African Union force has been ineffective in quelling the violence. The United Nations has shown a complete inability to overcome Sudanese government objections to bringing peacekeepers into the region, so the violence, rape and displacement continue.
No doubt the actions of the Sudanese government are abhorrent and should be condemned, but the perceived inaction by numerous countries is a sign of a very complicated issue.
The United Nations has been largely ineffective in addressing the problem in a timely matter. Just last week the Washington Post reported the U.N. Human Rights Council was “struggling for agreement on a closing statement to include the Middle East and Sudan’s Darfur after three weeks of work at its Geneva headquarters.” As is so often the case, the United Nations is showcasing its prowess as a pulpit for ideological rants more than its capability of enforcing effective policy. President Bush may indicate that “the United Nations must act,” but while that may be common sense, the reality indicates his words outline a very difficult proposition indeed.
In response, activists continue to focus their efforts on educating the public, writing letters to elected officials and urging divestment from companies with financial ties to Sudan. Although their goal is commendable, their enthusiasm unfortunately clouds some harsh realities.
American foreign policy has certainly been weakened in the international arena. The debacle in Iraq has caused numerous countries to be hesitant to join arms with the United States on a peacekeeping mission on the soil of another Islamic country. Civil wars are hard to quell – just ask the secretary of defense and other military leaders, both active and retired. It should not be a surprise that countries aren’t itching to commit their young men and women to the cause.
But where activists really have the Darfur situation wrong is the lack of emphasis on the importance of economic development in Sudan. Simply stopping the violence and allowing innocent civilians to move back to their homes is almost as bad as not helping at all. As long as Sudan is on the losing end of the demographic transition, overwhelmed by poverty and overly dependent on fickle agricultural production, conflict will abound.
That is why the push for universities and state pension programs to divest financial interests from Sudan may not be a good thing. While withdrawing financial investment may serve to weaken the government (though even this is debatable), it means that it may take longer to put Sudan on a sustainable path after the violence ends. Companies may be reticent to return to a country that desperately needs capital investment if the foundations of a stable government, such as rule of law, are not established.
In addition to these complicated issues, the effects of colonialism have caused Sudan to be particularly suited to strife, and an undertaking to change the economic and political course would require a costly, long-term commitment. Not surprisingly, many countries are woefully uninterested in such pursuits on the African continent.
This is not to say student activism is a bad thing. In fact, it is rather refreshing when students believe in a cause greater than themselves. But to truly understand what is going on in Darfur requires more than a non-debatable assertion of an end to violence printed on a messenger bag or a bumper sticker.
It is a realization that raising Sudan above the turmoil will require issues such as income inequality, sustainable resource utilization and a successful demographic transition to come to the forefront.
In essence, what is taking place on the African continent is a test of the commitment to those who want to see a better Sudan. Will activists seek to truly understand and address the long-term problems that led to the violence? Or will student activism be limited to wearing a T-shirt with the familiar swoosh that proclaims, “Darfur genocide. Just stop it?”
Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.