Cover image courtesy of Slate Magazine.
Written by Michael Lee, The University of Oklahoma
This article outlines how the Save Darfur Coalition oversimplified the Darfur crisis in the early 21st century and addresses the problems associated with doing so.
The conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan that emerged around 2003 began as a violent confrontation between the Sudanese government and the opposing rebel organizations of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). However, to the world at large, the dispute was mainly framed by the ensuing chaotic bloodshed as the Janjaweed, a Sudanese militia group allegedly utilized by the government, ravaged, raped, and murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians. This caught the attention of many different peoples and organizations across the world, soon leading to the inception of the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC), an advocacy group that purposed itself “to raise public awareness and mobilize a massive response to the atrocities in Sudan’s western region of Darfur”. Eventually joined by celebrity George Clooney, the coalition successfully garnered a colossal magnitude of attention. This widespread awareness may have seemed valuable, but it came at certain costs. Advocacy can strengthen a cause when it is well-informed but may lead to unintended repercussions when not. This post will critique how SDC oversimplified the Darfur crisis, the problems of such oversimplification, and how celebrity humanitarianism accentuated this problem.
The current Facebook profile picture of the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC), shown below, is but a sad remnant of a historic U.S. movement that once boasted a multimillion-dollar advertising budget, celebrity star power, and prolific media attention. Now, with its official website shut down, SDC has been long gone, leaving only traces of itself in outdated social media posts, scholarly articles, and old news reports. What happened to the entire Save Darfur movement? Why has it, in retrospect, been largely considered a failure? There are numerous takeaways about humanitarianism and related issues that we can extract from this, and in this entry, we will look at the oversimplification of a crisis by the SDC.
The Conflict in Darfur
To make sense of the SDC’s mistakes in the United States, we must first understand what truly happened across the world, in the Darfur region of modern-day Sudan. Historians and professors who have extensively studied the respective area in context converge on the conclusion that its conflict was multifaceted, with historical, political, and even environmental roots. Mamdani, the author of the book “Saviours and Survivors”, categorizes the violence in Darfur on two levels: local and national. The local problem centered around land and consisted of both a historical cause in the colonial administration of Darfur and an immediate cause owing to consecutive decades of drought. The national-level conflict was a rebellion that led to a civil war within the entire state, militarized by Cold War tensions and external involvement .
Colonial Legacy of Darfur
Popular understanding is that the Darfur conflict consisted of ethnic cleansing occurring between the Arab-led government against non-Arab populations. Not only did numerous mainstream news outlets like the New Yorker refer to it as such, but even the United Nations Office for Coordination of Human Affairs and eventually the SDC used the term “ethnic cleansing” in their description of the situation ; ; . However, the history of Darfur does not align with such an idea. Since even the Sultanate of Dar Fur in 1650, the divide and distinction between Arabs and non-Arabs—even race in general—has been clouded between the plethora of different tribes that settled and migrated around the area. The British colonialism that followed two centuries afterward further muddled the difficulty of ethnic differentiation.
British colonial governance centered around identity formation and the colonial administrators labored to decentralize a previously united religious state. The British census worked to define populations of Sudan into administrative “tribes”, different from the preexisting ones, and race categories between “Arab” and “Negroid” . Here, race was wholly a political construction for administrative purposes to distinguish between “native” and “settler” races. By 1940, two grand tribal confederations began to form under British rule—Arab and Zurga (black), but these groups “did not really exist outside the census, since all were organized as multiple tribes, not as discrete races” . Given the complex and jumbled history of race and ethnic identification in Darfur, the notion that the conflict was an ethnic cleansing between one singular race against another singular race becomes questionable.
Drought and Desertification
Another problem with the common understanding of the Darfur conflict was a lack of recognition given to the impact of environmental forces, due to being overshadowed by “ethnic cleansing”. Darfur is made up of three large geographic zones. The tribes that populated these regions all had distinct lifestyles based on their environment. Cattle nomadism prevailed in the southern savanna, farming and agriculture dominated the central highlands, and camel nomadism occurred in the northern Sahel region. Based on seasonal changes, each group had its own discrete cycle of movement around the region, and this created a complex and fluctuating sense of political power, characterized by the splitting, migrating, and resettling of different types of people .
A Sahelian drought in the 1960s put this system under enormous strain. Many populations were forced to migrate abnormally, upsetting the entire political and social cycle between the farmers and nomads. Tensions arose between tribes with land and tribes without as people struggled to survive, and all these small-scale conflicts, according to the Sudan government on the OCHA website, “systematically eroded the coping capacities of communities” . Although this ecological crisis cannot wholly explain the tragic outcome of the Dafur crisis, it certainly points to its multifaceted nature and even sets the stage for subsequent escalation. Many organizations, including the SDC, are at fault for not fairly addressing the critical environmental component of the Darfur conflict.
Militarization, Civil War, and Rebellion
Near the end of the 20th century, drought, political oppression, and civil war brought neighboring armed Chadian groups into Darfur. On top of this, (alleged) oil- and uranium-based conflicts between Reagan and Qaddafi (the U.S. and Libya) manifested into proxy wars within Sudan . All this flooded Darfur with Libyan- and American-supplied weaponry, resulting in heavy militarization.
The Chadians introduced an ideology known as the “Arab Gathering”, a call to mobilize Arab nomads who had been oppressed by the state. Many Arab tribes came together under the single banner of “the Arab Gathering” and demanded affirmative action from the prime minister. They claimed that the native-based Fur-settlers were attempting to drive them away from their land. The Fur, in turn, saw themselves as victims of a supremacist Arab dialogue – as evidenced by the banner of “the Arab gathering”. Building on this lens, the Fur began readily identifying themselves as native “Africans” menaced by the “Arabs”, creating a superficial dichotomy. The reality was more of tribal bigotry than “race”, but polarized narratives from both sides continued to spin the truth.
During this time, the government was unable to provide effective conflict resolution. Violence was brutal as Arab bands called Janjawid and Fur-san roamed the Darfur region, burning villages and killing them indiscriminately. The Fur reacted in a similar way with their own militias, named Malishiyat. This conflict grew into a full-scale war, with the insurgency consisting of two armed movements (the SLA and the JEM), and the counterinsurgency by the government . Initially, the insurgency SLA claimed itself to be an anti-governmental political movement, not an anti-Arab militia. On the same political note, the Islamist government’s initial response was to look for reconciliation. Unfortunately, talks about peace failed and both sides moved towards a military response, where the rebels drew support from mainly non-Arab groups and the government drew theirs from mainly nomad groups and the Janawiid . Through this, the political nature of the Darfur crisis becomes more evident. Although race, or more accurately the manipulation of race to polarize conflict, was involved, the militarization of the region, ineptitude of the government, and tensions over tribe survival were all markedly of more significant impact. Again, these factors were all overlooked by the SDC under the looming shadows of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing”.
From all this, we can conclude that colonial rule, ecological crisis, and external militarization brought about the conflict of Darfur in the 21st century. The cause was deeply complex and political, not one of morality nor one of ethnicity. There was no clear victim and no clear perpetrator and any proposed solution to the atrocities committed in Darfur should have certainly not been black-and-white.
The Conflict in Darfur, by the SDC
The Darfur crisis, as imagined and presented by the Western world, was vastly different in the United States. News of Darfur did not really receive mainstream media coverage until Nicolas Kristof began to write about the conflict in his New York Times column . Other notable news outlets like ABCNews, CBS, and Fox News soon followed suit, with frequent allusions to previous genocides, such as Rwanda ; ; . On September 9th, 2004, the genocide labeling of the Sudanese government was officially declared by the U.S Secretary of State Colin Powell . As the news spread, older Sudan advocacy organizations such as Christian Solidarity International were joined by prominent activists like the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum and John Prendergast from the International crisis group. The culmination of these organizations formed the Save Darfur Coalition in July 2004 . The mainstream media portrayal of Darfur and the U.S. government declaration of genocide both have their respective faults, but they lie beyond the scope of this article. Here, we will only focus on the SDC and its claims regarding the Darfur crisis.
The unity statement of the SDC, taken from the OCHA website, clearly portrays the organization’s depiction of the Darfur conflict:
The emergency in Sudan’s western region of Darfur presents the starkest challenge to the world since the Rwanda genocide in 1994. A government-backed Arab militia known as Janjaweed has been engaging in campaigns to displace and wipe out communities of African tribal farmers.
We see that the statement immediately compared the situation in Darfur to that in Rwanda. The death toll of Rwanda was estimated to be between 500,000 to 1 million victims . It was known for a multitude of atrocities and brutal violence and did not sit well in the memories of Westerners. Thus, the declaration of Darfur as a genocide had many implications in the United States. It elevated Darfur above other atrocities and gave it a multitude of attention. It made attracted the sympathy of many, especially the Jewish population . It even stirred several groups of college students to launch their own campaigns . Despite the benefits for advocacy, the declaration of genocide also had implications for those in Darfuri. The Genocide Convention of the U.N. defines genocide by three standards: specific acts of killing are committed; such acts are committed against members of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group; and such acts are carried out with the intent to destroy the group . Thus, this statement portrayed the government as morally evil, bent on killing for ethnic and racial cleansing. It branded one side as the clear perpetrators, the “Arab militia known as the Janjaweed” and the other side as clear victims, the “African tribal farmers”. The word “genocide” painted a convincing picture of the Darfur crisis – but was this an accurate one?
Compared to Rwanda, at the time of the genocide declaration, several international human rights groups estimated that 15,000 – 30,000 civilians have died in Darfur since fighting broke out in February 2023 . Furthermore, the entire declaration of the Darfur genocide has been questioned. The U.N., after investigation, determined that the Sudanese government was not committing genocide in Darfur . Given the historical conflict within Darfur, we know that the cause was not centered around ethnicity, race, or religion, and the government was not intent on destroying an entire group – in reality, it had attempted peaceful negotiations and conferences at first. Furthermore, although the Janjaweed were only one component of the entire situation, this statement has them placed center stage as the perpetrators behind the atrocities. By the unity statement, the line between Arab and African was clearly defined. However, we know this is not true – the plethora of tribes and the colonial history of Darfur has muddled most sense of racial identity and historical evidence has not shown any violence based on Arabs and non-Arabs. Even outside the complex ethnic background of Darfur, we know that the conflict was based largely on politics, not morals or race. It was a struggle of survival for multiple groups during a natural disaster and backlash from several decades of poor colonial administration. There were many groups involved, but there was no obvious victim and no obvious offender. The unity statement of the SDC did not take into decades of Darfur history that converged into the violence of 2003, oversimplifying the crisis at hand.
Save Darfur Rally
The SDC’s oversimplification of the Darfur conflict can also be observed at the Save Darfur Rally. This rally was held on the National Mall before the U.S. Capitol to “raise awareness of genocide in Darfur region of Sudan and to put public pressure on the administration to take action”. The speakers at the rally were varied and plentiful, ranging from Holocaust survivors to marines, politicians, organizational and religious leaders, and even students.
The rally begins with a speaker asserting that “it’s not about black, it’s not about whites, it’s not about republicans…it’s about ending genocide” . The focus here is genocide, and the following speakers abide by that theme. A Holocaust survivor says that “silence helps the killer, never its victims”. A religious leader sympathizes with the “victims who bear no weapons, who lead no governments, who seek no worldly powers”. The senior adviser of an international crisis group says that “the U.S. government has the power to end genocide…and punish the perpetrators”. The majority of speakers all allude to a corrupt and evil culprit of genocide and innocent victims of slaughter . Even the caption on the news reads “Rebel groups have fought with Arab-led Islamic gov’t over discrimination against tribes. The Sudanese gov’t has used militias to conduct a campaign of burning & pillaging villages.” However, we know this is not true. The SLA, JEM, and government were all political organizations, each with its own ideals and principles separate from race and ethnicity. Crossfire from military action did indeed take the lives of numerous innocent victims, but the crossfire was unbiased and was the responsibility of both the insurgent and counterinsurgent parties.
Furthermore, many speakers addressed the Darfur situation as one of morality. Numerous religious leaders assert to the audience that “we are people of conscience and action”. Even Obama claims that though many previous situations may have “lacked moral clarity…this is not one of those times. We know what is right and wrong” . However, all this is misleading—the real conflict was not a moral one, but a political, ecological, and historical one. Again, we see the oversimplification of the Darfur crisis by varied speakers at the SDC rally, one that offers a picturesque story of culprit and victim, and of right and wrong, without regard for context.
The SDC attracted the attention of American actor George Clooney. He joined the coalition with a fervent determination and advocated heavily for the cause. Unfortunately, Clooney is also guilty of perpetuating an oversimplified Darfur crisis, as shown by his speeches and projects on the subject.
ABCNews has documented Clooney’s speech during the Save Darfur Rally. In it, he speaks about a narrative that ended with “They don’t want the land. They just want to [ethnically] cleanse everyone” . Then, he goes on to say that “there’s an awful lot of killing going on, an awful lot of rape going on” . Clooney’s words coincide clearly with the theme of the rally – genocide, violence, rape, cruelty – all things related to morals. He also makes no clear indication of who is doing the cleansing, killing, and rape, but it is implied given the context of the rally. His focus is the immorality of genocide, and the oversimplified version of Darfur offered an appropriate embodiment of such.
A YouTube video of Clooney and Obama speaking at the National Press Club reveals more about Clooney’s idea of Darfur. In it, he asserts that “it’s not a political issue, there is no right or left, there is no conservative or liberal point of view. There is only right or wrong. This is the first genocide of the 21st century” . Again, we see the idea of the Darfur conflict being a moral one resurfaces.
Satellite Sentinel Project
The culmination of Clooney’s work with Sudan manifested in the co-creation of the Satellite Sentinel Project with John Prendergast . The purpose of this project was to use satellites to detect traces of signs of large military mobilizations, like the gathering of troops, to prevent genocide. In the context of Darfur, would this project truly have been an effective solution? Does satellite tracking take care of the famine due to the drought of the region? Does it help better identify the various tribes, races, and ethnicities involved in the conflict and overturn the historical colonial documentation of populations? Does it offer a working policy that all parties of the Darfur conflict could compromise upon? We see here that the Satellite Sentinel Project addresses the outcome of the crisis: innocent civilian deaths, widespread suffering, rape, and torture, but we know that the crisis at large is not driven by the immoral desire to do such evil things. The Satellite Sentinel Project was built on the oversimplified version of Darfur, and thus does not adequately address the ecological, historical, and political roots of the crisis.
Advocacy: for us or for them?
There have been many speculations on why Darfur was oversimplified and sensationalized. Some critics claim that the goal of advocacy became the length of its reach rather than its accuracy, and a narrative of good versus evil would appeal to the broadest segment of the population . Others claimed that the movement was “more concerned with the global project to promote the responsibility to protect than with the local realities of Darfur” . We get a glimpse of this at the Save Darfur rally, when multiple religious speakers appealed to the audience asserting, “we are people of conscience and action”. Perhaps the activists were more fixated on openly claiming their roles as protectors of lives and stoppers of genocide than they were about adequately addressing the roots of the Darfur crisis. This form of thinking simply perpetuates power norms of the Western hegemonic world order – it is more about “us” becoming something greater than ourselves rather than “them” suffering in Darfur.
Inaccurate Advocacy and Policymaking
The ideological oversimplification of a crisis can have real-world consequences. For Darfur, the common 400,000 mortality estimate used by SDC was inaccurate and was not intended to be factual when presented by the British Advertising Standards Authority. The real figure was approximately 200,000, and only about a quarter was from direct military attacks . Most deaths came from hunger and disease, not slaughter. This disparity between the accurate and inaccurate statistics is important because it points that policy should be more focused on medical and food relief, not immediately towards stopping war.
Furthermore, policy prescriptions based on the oversimplified version of Darfur, such as ‘humanitarian intervention’, no-fly zones, and immediate deployment of peacekeeping forces” largely ignore the “norms, laws, and practices that govern international politics” . This, along with the Sentinel Satellite Project, show us that inaccurate information of the problem would undoubtedly lead to ineffective solutions.
The Problem behind Moralization
Along with simplification, the moralization of the Darfur crisis was problematic. First, it reduced political dimensions, making it “difficult to discuss the country’s political choices in a sensible manner” . Furthermore, it could intensify violent conflict by alienating one side and strengthening the other. For example, the Darfur government could react more stubbornly by entrenching the conflict and the rebels may be less willing to settle for compromise seeing they are backed with international support, resulting in “delusion of grandeur” . Furthermore, the demonization of one side could detrimentally affect the process of achieving peace – the voices of the “Arab” counterinsurgency were largely ignored despite them being crucial to making compromises within the state .
George Clooney’s involvement with the SDC has not been taken lightly by critics. Some authors, like Waal, are skeptical about the intentions of celebrities. He writes that despite the other crises with deaths of comparable numbers, Darfur had a moral narrative and bipartisan consensus in Washington , meaning it was a safe zone for celebrities to converge on. He cites these celebrities focused on invoking emotion and acting as an interpreter for the unheard through storytelling, thought oftentimes oversimplified or de-politicized . On top of this, despite celebrity endorsement, the people of Darfur still suffered, and no effective conflict resolution was reached. Furthermore, celebrities often push for humanitarian governance – a form of power that “rather than fundamentally transforming lives, seeks to alleviate the immediate suffering of others” . This is clearly the case with Clooney, who was completed fixated on stopping the “genocide”. Even if the genocide stopped, if the politics of Darfur remained the same – nothing would change, the root problems would remain. Biddolph argues that this sort of celebrity humanitarianism thinking leads to nothing but the preservation of the status quo and the reinforcement of hegemonic world order.
Even more tragic was the ambition of certain activists to become aspiring celebrities, such as the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announcing an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Bashir more than six weeks before the legal text was finalized . Celebrity involvement has muddled humanitarianism by centering around storytelling and garnering media attention, often translating into the need to simplify a complex situation into a “single story” . This has led some critics to argue that celebrities “increase commodification of humanitarianism” . They attempt to make humanitarianism widely accessible by depoliticizing conflict and simplifying issues while calling for the moral responsibility of the American citizens – but this sort of stereotypical framing only further negates Africa’s agency and reinforces the power dynamic between the West and Africa ; . The negation of African agency leads back to the idea of a Western savior – now accentuated by the stardom of celebrities.
Lastly, even critics who claim that celebrity involvement was not as influential as people think  must not forget that people like George Clooney have wide audiences who tend to trust their words. Even if Clooney was unintentionally repeating the simplified story of Darfur that SDC had proposed, it would now reach a wider audience than before – resulting in the continuation negation of African agency, general Western ignorance of African history, and potentially more difficulties in actually helping Darfur.
As of today, talks about the Darfur genocide have been long gone. The SDC has been disbanded and even the Sentinel Satellite Project has shut down. However, the lessons from the Darfur conflict, especially ones about our perception as Western humanitarian activists, should be highly emphasized. We must always remember to take into account the historical, ecological, and political context of these sorts of problems, before rashly attributing morality where it doesn’t belong, branding black-and-white sides when only gray area exists, and declaring the word “genocide”. We must not rely on humanitarian governance, which only seeks to solve the outcome of a problem, but rather discuss the political issues surrounding a conflict to make effective changes for the people in need. We must not be persuaded by celebrities and claims of oversimplified situations to prevent the commodification of humanitarianism and preserve African agency. We need to become well-informed activists so that even if our advocacy cannot aid those in need, it should at the very least not hinder or dishonor them.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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 Power, S. (2004, August 22). Dying in Darfur. Retrieved May 14, 2021, from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/08/30/dying-in-darfur.
 Sudan, Govt. “Understanding Darfur Conflict – Sudan.” ReliefWeb, OCHA, 19 Jan. 2005, reliefweb.int/report/sudan/understanding-darfur-conflict.
 Sudan: Government Commits ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ in Darfur. (2020, October 28). Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2004/05/07/sudan-government-commits-ethnic-cleansing-darfur.
 Haeri, Medina. “Saving Darfur: Does Advocacy Help or Hinder Conflict Resolution?” Praxis – The Fletcher Journal of Human Security, XXIII, 2008, pp. 33–46., doi:https://sites.tufts.edu/praxis/files/2020/05/2.-Haeri.pdf.
 Seemungal, Martin. “Humanitarian Crisis in Sudan Province.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 6 Jan. 2006, abcnews.go.com/Nightline/story?id=128985&page=1.
 Leung, Rebecca. “Sudan: ‘Rwanda In Slow Motion’.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 21 Oct. 2004, www.cbsnews.com/news/sudan-rwanda-in-slow-motion/.
 Frist. “Doctor’s Diary, Part V: Addressing Genocide in Africa.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 25 Mar. 2015, www.foxnews.com/story/doctors-diary-part-v-addressing-genocide-in-africa.
 CNN. “Powell Calls Sudan Killings Genocide.” CNN, Cable News Network, 9 Sept. 2004, www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/africa/09/09/sudan.powell/.
 Verpoorten, Marijke. “The Death Toll of the Rwandan Genocide: A Detailed Analysis for Gikongoro Province”, Population, vol. vol. 60, no. 4, 2005, pp. 331-367.
 Sanders, Edmund. Was Darfur BLOODSHED TRULY GENOCIDE? 4 May 2009, www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2009-may-04-fg-darfur-genocide4-story.html.
 C-SPAN. Genocide in Darfur, National Cable Satellite Corporation, 30 Apr. 2006, www.c-span.org/video/?192217-1%2Fgenocide-darfur.
 Clooney, George. “George Clooney Speaks About Crisis in Darfur — 4.30.06.” abcnews, 4 May 2006, abcnews.go.com/.
 The National Press Club. NPC Newsmaker: George Clooney and Barack Obama, YouTube, 22 Aug. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmTfImKfs4U&ab_channel=TheNationalPressClub.
 Satellite Sentinel Project, satsentinel.org/.
 Lanz, D. “Save Darfur: A Movement and Its Discontents.” African Affairs, vol. 108, no. 433, 2009, pp. 669–677., doi:10.1093/afraf/adp061.
 de Waal, Alex. (2008). The Humanitarian Carnival: A Celebrity Vogue. World Affairs. 171. 43-56. 10.3200/WAFS.171.2.43-56.
 Biddolph, Caitlin. “Humanitarian Governance and the Politics of Celebrity Engagement.” E-International Relations, E-International Relations, 30 June 2016, www.e-ir.info/2016/06/28/humanitarian-governance-and-the-politics-of-celebrity-engagement/.
 Ženková Rudincová, Kateřina. “Celebrities’ Role in the Conflict Resolution Processes: George Clooney in South Sudan.” Modern Africa: Politics, History and Society, vol. 8, no. 2, 2020, p. 91., doi:10.26806/modafr.v8i2.304.
 Daley, Patricia. “Rescuing African Bodies: Celebrities, Consumerism and Neoliberal Humanitarianism.” Taylor & Francis, Informa UK Limited, 5 Sept. 2013, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03056244.2013.816944?needAccess=true.
 Huliaras, Asteris, and Nikolaos Tzifakis. “The Fallacy of the Autonomous Celebrity Activist in International Politics: George Clooney and Mia Farrow in Darfur.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, vol. 25, no. 3, 5 Oct. 2012, pp. 417–431., doi:10.1080/09557571.2012.710591.