The long-awaited review of Fighting for Darfur, by Rebecca Hamilton

This is an important, useful, well-written book. And it’s not all that long, so there is really no excuse not to read it. The book looks at the Darfur advocacy movement, and seeks to answer two major questions: 1) Did the movement have an impact on US policy in Darfur and 2) How much impact could the US actually have on the situation in Darfur?

To answer these questions, Hamilton has done an exhausting amount on research. She has talked to just about every major player on Darfur, from US State Department and USAID officials to Darfuri refugees, Sudanese government officials, and the leaders in the Darfur activism groups. The result is a dispassionate, even-handed analysis of what went wrong in advocacy for Darfur.

It turns out I am terrible at writing book reviews (sorry everyone who’s been sending me review copies!) so I’ll move on to some bullet points that I took down as I read the book:

  • This is a book about advocacy on Darfur, not a book about Darfur. If you don’t already have a basic background on the genocide and what came after, then you’ll have a hard time getting everything out of this book. Hamilton recommends A Short History of a Long War for background on Darfur.
  • In many ways, this is a book about the waning of American power. However much the activists could influence US decision-making, the US alone could not help Darfur.
  • Activists for Darfur were suffering from two major flaws in their perception. First of all, they lacked context on Sudan beyond Darfur, and on the history of Darfur and the nation as a whole. That led to a focus on certain policies and interventions that were not necessarily what was best. Next, they overestimated American power projection. By the time they understood that US power alone could not “save” Darfur, they had missed a number of valuable opportunities to work internationally.
  • I was proud of USAID throughout the book. USAID officials were some of the first to speak up about the genocide, and they seemed to consistently fight for the safety and welfare of Darfuris and Sudan as a whole in a way other US government officials did not.

My overall conclusion: buy this book. It’s useful for anyone who wants to know more about Darfur activism, or learn about international activism in general. I am very glad I read it.

Here’s the Amazon (affiliate) link if you want to buy:

An Interview with Rebecca Hamilton, Author of Fighting for Darfur

I was recently lucky enough to receive a review copy of Fighting for Darfur, Rebecca Hamilton’s new book on the Darfur advocacy movement. In the book, she attempts to answer the big questions: what was the impact of the Darfur advocacy movement on US policy? And how much could the US actually influence the situation, anyway?

I’ll put up my review on Tuesday, but I’ll get us started now, with a brief interview I did with Rebecca last week:

AS: What made you decide to write this book?

RH: Genuine curiosity on my part. I was at Harvard being supervised by Samantha Power, talking to the people who believed that creating an outcry would make a difference. As it became clear it wasn’t working, I wanted to know why.

AS: Did writing the book upset anyone?

RH: It was a genuine research question, and the people I was speaking to had similar questions themselves. They also wanted to know if this isn’t working, then what are we doing wrong? It was probably helpful that I came from that movement, and that I really made an effort to talk to people in the advocacy movement. I didn’t come at this with a certain belief. My position was that for the most part, most advocates were driven by good impulses, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of what they ended up doing.

I wasn’t coming into this with an agenda, and people trusted that.

AS: Fighting for Darfur is a book about the Darfur advocacy movement, not necessarily Darfur itself. If people want to read a companion book about just the situation in Darfur, what would you suggest?

RH: A Short History of a Long War, by Alex de Waal.

AS: In the book, you talk about lessons we can learn about advocating on genocide. Are there lessons that international advocacy in general can take from this?

RH: Be clear about what your theory of change is. I think the advocacy community – and I was part of this as a student activist – took too much for granted about what the right theory of change was. It was derived from Rwanda and didn’t update for new context. Not only because Darfur was not Rwanda but because the world had changed and the US position in the world has changed, and pushing Washington was one very small part of the story.

Recognize we are not in a position where the US has ultimate hard and soft power in every situation of mass atrocity. It’s also about how to move other actors in the global geopolitical realm.

None of these things are facts. Part of the problem with Darfur is that we took the lessons of Rwanda and just superimposed them. I hope the message people take away is not just to cut and paste directly onto the next situation. In another decade the may be situations where the US is the best actor.

We have to be very careful about how we apply lessons learned.

AS: Were there subjects you’d like to have covered in more detail in the book but didn’t get the chance?

RH: The draft I submitted was nearly twice the size of what I submitted. I felt hugely constrained by word limits. There was so much. I was already pulling together 2 strands of the story – the advocacy community and the diplomatic realm, so the third strand of Darfur I had to remove. I had to take out broader questions on peacekeeping and what we can expect of peacekeepers.

The other was spending more time on this shifting geopolitical moment, where US influence is not at its height but it’s not clear what role China and BRIC will play in preventing mass atrocities. It would have been nice to keep in those broader questions.

AS: Do you have another book project planned? What are you doing right now?

I have ideas on new projects, but for the moment I feel like I haven’t finished this one. I still have a lot of work to do just getting the messages from Fighting for Darfur out into the public realm, and I want to focus on that.

Five Essential Readings for People Working in Development

These are not the books that teach you about development. These are the books that crack your head open so you can start (or continue) to learn.

1.       Anything by Graham Greene. Doesn’t have to be The Quiet American or Our Man in Havana, honest. The Comedians or The Heart of the Matter will do fine. But his take on the world will help guide your own perspective in a way that’s useful. The Portable Graham Greene, while not actually portable, is a nice start.

2.       Biggest Elvis, by P.F. Kluge. The important thing to remember about this book is that it’s not just the narrator who is unreliable, it’s the author. But read it and if you’re paying attention, you’ll see yourself. It’s a warning and a gift of insight to everyone who thinks they know how to help.

3.       Anything by Nahguib Mahfouz. I actually find his writing a little dry in English – Mahfouz’s true genius as an author is the way he uses the Arabic language. But he also writes deeply felt, emotionally resonant stories about the lives of poor people, set in one of the world’s biggest, oldest, poorest cities. Children of the Alley is a good example, and it’s faster than reading the whole Cairo trilogy.

4.       Prague, by Arthur Phillips. Okay, the Amazon reviews really hate this book. But I think it’s a dark and brilliant reflection on expatriate life and it has changed the way I see my place in the world. (Not necessarily for the better.)

5.       Orientalism, by Edward Said. Surprise! Nonfiction! I’d say about 50% of development programs that go horribly wrong do so because of orientalism on the part of the foreigners involved. Even programs outside the Middle East. Said is writing about the Arab World, but the larger issue is about how we perceive the other, and that’s a universal problem. This book is considered one of the most important of the 20th century, and I totally agree.

Note: these are affiliate links. If you’re going to buy a book, I may as well get a miniscule percentage of its value.

(photo credit: Lin Pernille)

International Development – a bibliography

Here’s my bibliography for learning about international development. It’s not exhaustive – more the very basics as a starting point. Overall, I like books for theory and background, articles for technical information and detail, and blogs for the on-the-ground perspective and a peek into the industry of development. I don’t think theory helps with a sense of how development work actually gets done (that’s my major critique of Easterly, in fact) and I don’t think you can actually do this work well without some kind of background on the picture of what development is and what its goals are.


William Easterly,  The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

Ruth Levine,  Millions Saved: Proven Successes in Global Health. Washington: Center for Global Development, 2004.

Carol Lancaster,  Foreign Aid: Diplomacy, Development, Domestic Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor, 2000.


JR McNeil, “The World According to Jared Diamond”

Roger Bate, “The Trouble with USAID” American Enterprise Institute. May 23, 2006.

USAID White paper

Brian Atwood, Peter McPherson, and Andrew Natsios, Arrested Development


Chris Blattman’s Blog

From Poverty to Power

Center for Global Development Blogs

World Bank Private Sector Development Blog

Owen Barder

The Bottom Billion Blog

Aid Watch