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:

UN Week Notes: Thursday

I spent the whole day today camped out at the Digital Media Lounge, because I think I have strep throat and schlepping all over town for press events was beyond my capacities. I had originally planned on attending a cookstove event, a global warming press conference, and the CGI keynote. Luckily, the Digital Media Lounge had some interesting stuff, so it wasn’t all that disappointing.

The highlights were the live broadcast of Obama’s Israel/Palestine speech, Rajiv Shah’s talk, and the absolute awesome president of Greenpeace. There was other stuff but those were the biggies.

Obama’s speech – it was a beautiful speech, beautifully delivered. But there was nothing new in it that’s going to move the needle on the situation. And this line “And efforts to threaten or kill Israelis will do nothing to help the Palestinian people,” is, unfortunately, demonstrably untrue. No one cared about the Palestinians until the intifada. Pretending otherwise isn’t going to win any supporters.

Rajiv Shah – we had to submit questions in writing and he picked which ones to answer. Not surprisingly, he didn’t pick any of mine. He stressed the expansion of the “core development community,” specifically mentioning Coca-Cola and young people who problem-solve. Rajiv Shah seems a little obsessed with innovation. It makes sense, since he comes from Gates, but I am not convinced it’s what USAID needs to focus on.

It also sounded to me like Shah is fully on board with the idea of development as a pillar of American foreign policy. I’m not opposed to that, but I also believe in development as a moral imperative. I wish I knew if he did too.

I live-tweeted Shah – you can see the tweets starting here.

Then we had the presentation from the unmovement people. It’s a social network that connect small NGOs and lets people learn about them and donate if they want. It’s supposed to help groups that don’t get social media tap its power anyway. I was fine with the whole thing until they mentioned that they don’t need to monitor or evaluate the NGOs because beneficiaries can just use the website to rate the projects and that’s how you’ll know if they are working.

Uh, NO. M&E is about way more than whether the beneficiaries like it. They communities you work with don’t necessarily know all your goals – they have better things to do than memorize your project objectives – and even really bad work can be popular with people, even if it’s wasting money and not doing much good. We need really M&E to make sure that we’re having the impact we want to have, and to show us how to adjust midstream if we don’t.

The, after a long, long wait in the auditorium, we had a presentation from Kumi Naidoo, the Executive Director of Greenpeace International. It was supposed to be a talk about how to meet the MDGs and protect the environment. It turned out to be a barn-burner of a rant that made it vividly clear how plastic most of this week has been.

He came out swinging – his first comment was that while he’s wholly in favor of reusing, this week had been nothing but recycled comments and baby steps. It was a great talk, and it left me feeling angry and vaguely inspired. My live tweets start here.


Disclosure: I attended UN Week as an Oxfam VOICE, which funded my trip as part of an effort to increase awareness of the MDGs.


Kumi Naidoo at some other event. photo credit: wwf France

US Congress Discovers Urbanization – director’s cut

I try to keep my blog posts to one major point. If I have a lot to say, I turn it into a series. So when I wrote my most recent UN Dispatch post, about Congress and USAID, I ended up cutting the last paragraph. It was a good last paragraph, though, so I’ll put it right here. Kind of like a DVD extra:

Finally – maybe our legislators should consider letting USAID do its job. We know that development works best when programs are integrated and part of a larger strategy. Holding USAID programs hostage to every trendy new stand-alone topic – avian flu (remember when it was a USAID top priority?), job creation, rebuilding Iraq, basic education, drug resistant TB and so on ad infinitum – is the exact opposite of the kind of coherent long-term planning we need for development.

In defense of the Millennium Challenge Corporation

I was recently contacted by someone asking me to help in their campaign to get the MCC to reverse their decision on suspending funding to Nicaragua. I declined, and I thought my logic might be useful to other people.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation was specifically designed as a funding agency that would provide support to countries that adhere to certain standards of good governance. Its purpose was to set high governance standards, reward the countries that achieved them, and suspend funding for the countries that did not. From their website: “MCC is based on the principle that aid is most effective when it reinforces good governance, economic freedom and investments in people.” Biased municipal elections legitimately qualify as “a significant policy decline or policy reversal,” in the MCC criteria for suspension of funds.

You can object to the establishment of the MCC, and argue that all US funding for international development should go through USAID, which makes an effort to support development over political pressure, although it is not always allowed to do so. You can also, as I suggested on the SGHE blog, advocate for giving USAID more autonomy and immunity from political pressure.

However, I don’t think it is fair, or a good use of time and energy, to lobby MCC to go against its own stated policies. I don‘t think they will do it, and I don’t think we should ask them to. If you want aid with this kind of conditionality, I suggest you lobby Congress for the end of the MCC. They could easily move the Millennium Challenge Account funds to USAID, and have them take over current projects and select future ones.

I myself don’t object to the MCC. I wouldn’t want to see all US foreign assistance subject to this kind of process, because there are many countries with restrictive, undemocratic governments with people who need and deserve development assistance. However, as an experiment with its own separate funding stream, I think MCC is doing some things we could learn from.

We’re seeing a lot of discussion right now about aid conditionality. A decent summary of the arguments is here. I’ve seen some interesting reports that say it does lead to good governance, and some convincing papers that it does not. MCC’s obsessive focus on indicator tracking could actually give us some definitive answers on whether a big chunk of governance-conditional aid actually affects things.

Links: jargon, politics, humanitarian relief, and a contest

This glossary is a resource for deciphering development jargon.

The Huffington Post asks if Republicans are better at foreign assistance.

Statistics on humanitarian relief from the excellent new humanitarian relief blog. I have been very impressed by the blog so far; it’s a great combination of information, editorial, and links to useful resources.

Lastly, I’ll hop on the bandwagon and link to the USAID Development 2.0 Challenge. USAID will award a $10,000 prize for a high-impact use of mobile technology for development. I think this contest will be very interesting to watch – the small prize level should bring out fresh ideas and not just proposals from all the same USAID grantees.

Jargon of the day: CTO

Jargon: CTO

Translation: This is a USAID term, as far as I know. CTO stands for cognizant technical officer. The cognizant technical officer is the representative of the contracting officer and responsible for the day-to-day management of a grant or contract. The CTO approves your workplan, approves your key personnel, and manages the various types of bureaucracy that affect your project. As a rule, you can assume your CTO is on your side and wants your project to succeed and look good doing it. Considering how much time and energy they will put into managing your project, he or she will be as emotionally invested in its success as you are. They will be your advocate with the other actors in the USAID bureaucracy.