I’d hoped that spending three weeks offline would be a great time for ideas to ferment, much as they do when I’m on vacation. Turns out that this healing thing is harder work than I’d anticipated. Rather than a wealth of insights to write about, I’ve mostly got a backlog of unanswered research questions that I wish I’d been able to research. That, and a new addiction to episodic dramas produced by HBO.
One of the questions I’ve wanted an answer to for some time is how the community focused on Darfur has managed to attract so much attention to their cause. While the situation in Darfur is dramatic and dire, there are a number of other situations on the African continent that demand attention and, generally, receive a small fraction of the attention paid to Darfur. Medicines Sans Frontieres publishes an annual list of stories they feel are underreported, including situations in Somalia, eastern DRC and the Central African Republic. (I wrote at some length on the topic of “underreporting” and these top-ten lists some months earlier.)
My interest in this question about Darfur isn’t because I want to wag a finger at the Darfur movement, but because I hope other movements can learn from it. There aren’t a ton of examples of situations where a large number of Americans have become passionately interested in political and security situations in developing nations without a strong indicator that the US might become militarily involved in those countries. (In other words, Iraq doesn’t count.) Tibet and Darfur are the main ones that come to mind. And while Tibet has been a celebrity cause du jour for years now (and benefits from the substantial charisma and media savvy of the Dalai Lama), interest in Darfur has developed quite rapidly and may have preceded mainstream media coverage of the issue.
(On the to do list is some searching through blog search engines, Lexis/Nexis and the NYTimes site to see when Nicholas Kristof picked up on the issue, in comparison to early blogs like Passion of the Present. A quick bit of research suggests that Kristof wrote his first major piece on Darfur in March 2004, titled “Ethnic Cleansing, Again“. Passion of the Present began publishing in March 2004 as well. I just glanced back at the personal blogs of Jim Moore (a former Berkman colleague) and Ingrid Jones, two bloggers who’ve been passionate and vocal on this issue since early 2004, and wasn’t able to find references before March 2004. Please send links if I’ve got this wrong – it would be very interesting to see a blog conversation about Darfur preceding Kristof’s article. (For what it’s worth, the earliest refernce I found on my own blog is February 4, 2004. And that post refers to BBC coverage, suggesting that it’s an instance of the blogger – me – following the mainstream media.))
One of the core arguments I’ve been making about media attention and the developing world is that it’s difficult to expect people in the developed world to choose to read about stories in the developing world unless someone makes the case that a particular story has relevance for that individual. It’s hard to discover these stories unless either someone in authority (a newspaper editor, a television anchor) leads you to the story, or unless your peer group leads you to it… in which case the homophily problem kicks in. Even if led to the story, it can be very difficult to connect with it – something Joi Ito has refered to as “the caring problem“. The Darfur story is an intriguing exception to these generalizations, and is worth studying as such.
Fortunately, that study is taking place. Charlie Beckett at the London School of Economics POLIS thinktank announced earlier this month that their center will study the emergence of the Darfur story in depth. He’s invited readers to offer their own theories – Rob Crilly, an excellent freelance journalist based in Nairobi, has weighed in with a compelling case:
The roots lie in the civil war of the south, when evangelical Christians from America found it easy to identify with a largely Christian population in the south pitted agains a Muslim, arab government in the north.
They carried their activity across to Darfur, bringing it the attention of many people who wouldn’t otherwise be aware of Sudan’s problems. But it has also attracted a bizarre mishmash of often conservative, religious groupings in an anti-Khartoum alliance.
Their black and white analysis has generally done more harm than good, and has sucked in people with a liberal viewpoint – including many of my esteemed colleagues in the press, who have a romantic notion that rebels are always the good guys.
I’ll be very interested to read the POLIS study and see whether they concur with Crilly’s analysis. I’ll also be interested to see whether there was activist media leading authors like Kristof to the story, or whether the movement picked up with mainstream media recognition and legitimation.