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Special Report
Last Updated: 02/04/2008
Save Who from What? Exploring the Ethics of the Save Darfur Coalition
Maggie Schwalbach

Save Darfur patently aims to “save Darfur” by raising awareness, not by providing on-the-ground humanitarian assistance. This is clearly defined on the organization’s website. Yet, through the advertising techniques employed in its media campaigns, the Save Darfur coalition misleads the public by giving off the image of a humanitarian relief organization.

Maggie Schwalbach takes a closer look at the coalition’s media campaigns and investigates the assumptions present in the advertisements by exploring the moral consequences of raising awareness based on victimization and perpetuating stereotypes of Africans as helpless.


Engrossing visuals. Catchy sound bites. Slick mood lighting. Glossy photography exhibits. Celebrity endorsers. Rock bands, movie stars, screaming fans…

It must be the launch of new running shoe or a summer Hollywood blockbuster, right?

Wrong. This is anti-genocide advocacy for the 21st century: a hybrid of promotional branding, simplified foreign political coverage and interventionist missionary ideology.

Today’s information landscape in the United States is saturated with commercial brand endorsements and increasing controlled by a monopolization of media industries, characterized in particular with a marked increase in local reporting and entertainment stories and a significant downsizing and simplification of foreign news coverage.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE SAVE DARFUR COALITION

With a budget of $15 million[1], the Save Darfur coalition is designed to raise public awareness and mobilize efforts to take action to stop the genocide in Darfur.

Founded on July 14, 2004, the Save Darfur Coalition began at the Darfur Emergency Summit hosted by the Graduate Center of City University of New York. In the past three and a half years, the Save Darfur coalition has grown into an alliance of more than 180 faith-based, advocacy and human rights groups with over one million activists and 1,000 community groups. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it employs a staff of 30 professional organizers, policy advisors and communications specialists. [2]

Although the intentions of the Save Darfur coalition are plainly available on its website, the recipient of the advertising (the media consumer) is misled into thinking that donating will help the suffering people portrayed in the advertisements, not help fund a senior creative in a New York PR firm or a lobbyist in a Washington.

A great disconnect thus divides the coalition’s evocative humanitarian messages and its actual operational mission. Unfortunately, the public is none the wiser.

MEDIA LANDSCAPE

To analyze the tactics used by Save Darfur, it is important to appreciate the conditions under which the coalition was started and equally integral to understand today’s mainstream American media landscape and its general apathy to foreign news coverage.

The topography of the American information landscape is flat and insular. US media favor local coverage over foreign affairs. For example, surveys report that twice as many Americans, approximately 60 percent, are interested in local news as in foreign coverage.[7] Cynics would argue that news agencies are in the business of making money and the news provides viewers with want they want. So, if the consumer doesn’t have a taste for foreign affairs coverage, then the media isn’t going to serve up world coverage. As a result, in-depth coverage on distant humanitarian and political crises is limited.

The reduction in international coverage has brought criticism from policy analysts who argue that the decline in foreign affairs news coverage has fueled a new isolationism in the United States. Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, complains, “The media cover violence, conflict, and instability abroad and little else, and have made international involvement look very undesirable.”[8] In turn, the argument posits, the extended apathy to look outside national borders leads to a failure by US politicians to exercise appropriate leadership in the world. A poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations seems to back up this theory. Americans who described themselves as "hardly interested" in international affairs jumped from 3 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 1998. [9]

It appears evident that the structure of the news business reflects Americans’ distaste for profound international news reporting (or, perhaps is the cause of it). It is not in the scope of this paper to determine whether declining international news coverage in the US media is the cause of public disinterest in international affairs or the effect of a public appetite for local coverage. The relevance of the issue lies not so much in the chicken-egg debate “which came first the media or the audience”, as in the integral importance that contemporary media trends reveal about American news in times of humanitarian crises.

Two concrete trends can be discerned. One, US media do not prioritize international political or humanitarian news coverage. Two, the percentage of foreign affairs news as compared with local news is limited not only in terms of the total number of stories, but also in the depth of the analysis. This may be due to the reduced number of well-informed foreign correspondents and the mounting pressure by market forces spearheaded by profit-seeking commercialization of news industries. [10] Alternatively, this may be due to a US public aversion to foreign stories in faraway places. What is certain is that these highly interrelated factors have led to inadequate foreign coverage in the United States mainstream media and a general public disinterest in overseas crises.

SAVE DARFUR IN THE US MEDIA LANDSCAPE

If the current US media landscape is marked by disinterest in anything “foreign,” how then does one convince the American public to pay attention to a complex humanitarian crisis going on halfway across the globe?

The answer is simple.

Put the “WE” back into the world.

Present “US” with a goodwill mission.

This is exactly what the Save Darfur coalition has done through its advocacy campaigns. The group has launched a massive public relations movement portraying positive images of Americans righting the wrongs “out there” and has painted the problem – and its solution – simplistically in broad strokes.

Although the actors in the Save Darfur alliance are most likely well-intentioned and act out of a desire to help, rather than out of an evil plan to manipulate[11], it is nonetheless essential to understand the fundamental suppositions the coalition presumes when it employs media tactics that create “effective” awareness-raising campaigns.

If truth be told, the very name Save Darfur begins from a position of supposed American moral superiority and dominance. The name presupposes that: one, the Darfuris need saving and two, the United States has the capacity to save them.

As will we see, the media campaigns launched by the Save Darfur coalition are grounded in a deep-seated belief of America’s ethical responsibility to “save the helpless in Darfur.” The underlying fundamental presupposition is that the best way to get Americans to intervene in foreign affairs is through concentrated advocacy campaigns. Once the US public is aware, the coalition assumes, it will act and this united voice of solidarity will then help to save Darfur.

FIVE ETHICAL GUIDELINES

[12]

Aristotle’s Golden Mean: “Moral virtue is the appropriate location between two extremes.”

Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act on that maxim which you will to become a universal law.”

John Stuart Mill’s Principle of Utility: “Seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

John Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance: “The most vulnerable party receives priority.”

Judeo-Christian Persons as Ends: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

MEDIA TACTIC #1: ETHICAL GAMES – HUMANIZING OR TRIVIALIZING?

Classified as an “ethical game”, the ethics of the Darfur is Dying video game are unclear. For starters, the word “game” seems to be problematic. The website lists the interactive video experience as a “narrative based simulation.”[14] Further showing the unfamiliar territory of the industry, the term “ethical game” currently competes with the term “serious game.” [15] In a hope to clarify, Julian Alvarez and Olivier Rampnoux from the University of Poitiers’ European Center for Children’s Products attempted to classify Serious Games in 5 main categories: Advergaming, Edutainment, Edumarket games, Diverted games and Simulation games.[16]

Darfur is Dying is self-described as a “viral video game for change that provides a window into the experience of the 2.5 million refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan.”[17]

The game’s designer, Susana Ruiz, was a graduate student at the Interactive Media Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts when she won the Darfur Digital Activist Contest sponsored by mtvU, the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and the International Crisis Group.[18] The idea was to create a game that would serve as an advocacy tool about the situation in Darfur.

The Save Darfur Coalition was actively involved in launching the competition’s winning game. As 1st prize winner, Darfur is Dying was officially released on March 30, 2006, at a Save Darfur Coalition rally. Ample media coverage was on-hand, as was celebrity fanfare.[19]

Rather than describe in detail the lay-out of the game, it is suffice to point out that on the opening page, www.darfurisdying.com, the website details its principal objectives: “Players must keep their refugee camp functioning in the face of possible attack by Janjaweed militias. Players can also learn more about the genocide in Darfur that has taken the lives of 400,000 people, and find ways to get involved to help stop this human rights and humanitarian crisis.”

The language here is intriguing. In one continual line, virtual reality is mixed with reality. The objectives of the game you are about to play are based on actual physical realities happening “a world away” in Darfur and, at the same time, you are reminded that you can take action not only by playing the game, but also by getting involved to stop the real brutality others experience and you are about to experience in virtual reality.

The simple, static graphics on the opening webpage feature a large red banner reading “DARFUR IS DYING” amidst a desert landscape with scattered thatched-roofed huts. A central button reads, “Help Stop the Crisis in Darfur: Start Your Experience.” The intended message in this statement is implicitly captivating: clicking on the button will not only bring you actively into the theater of conflict (an ironic and interesting term), but will also enable you personally to put a cessation to the crisis in Darfur. It is an irresistibly alluring proposition.

In this fascinating blurring of lines between action, experience and emotional response triggers, the gamer thus becomes the activist. But what kind of activist? Darfur is Dying, we are told. By playing a game, how can a gamer stop the crisis occurring a world away?

HOW TO TAKE ACTION WITH SAVE DARFUR

If the player is motivated at any point during the game (perhaps after being captured by militia a number of times or being frustrated by the labyrinth grid of the refugee camp) s/he can “Take Action” by clicking a link at the top of the screen.

With a click on the “Take Action” button, a new window opens up with a bright red banner reading, “SUDAN.” Then, in brackets: “[TAKE ACTION] HELP STOP THE CRISIS IN DARFUR.” Underneath, an approximately 20 cm x 10 cm window continually plays a loop of images. One flashing after the other, the black and white images are separated from one another as they bleed momentarily into red. The bold red color imparts a sense of urgency and drama to the scene. The selected five images heighten the feeling of urgency and chaos.

The loop of rotating images begins with a photograph of a young boy in a sleeveless top. With squinted eyes, he stands looking at the camera. In the background is a cluster of straw huts in what appears to be a rural village setting. As the image bleeds red, we can see that the boy’s expression is disturbed. He is not smiling, but sullenly regards the camera with pursed lips.

After a flash of red, the screen briefly turns black before a new image appears. The next image is a close-up photograph of two little girls – the first, with shells braided into her hair, looks squarely at the viewer, while the other, covered in a headscarf, looks away. The intimacy of the image is startling, as is the expression in the young girl’s eyes: in the black and white photo, her bright white eyes stand out. Moisture (a tear?) gathers in the lower corner of her eye, but this is not the standard photo of a young child throwing a tantrum. The rest of her face is cropped, so our focus is directed directly to her stare – a challenging, frustrated, defiant stare.

The next image is a child’s drawing. On the familiar lined pages of a school notebook, multiple drawings of armed men on horseback and camelback are sketched. A helicopter spews a trail of dark smoke. The pictures are exclusively of men and all are mounted with large weapons. Some of the guns are portrayed as shooting into the air and the scene looks as if all of them are hurriedly fleeing in chaos. A child’s handwriting is scribbled haphazardly in Arabic letters under the drawings.

The next photograph calls attention through its stoic stillness. A couple sits on a woven mat on the floor of a reed hut. The woman is wrapped in a dark fabric. Her covered head is bowed in eminent sorrow. Her hand, outstretched, clasps the hand of an older man dressed in all white. His face, turned slightly away from the camera, reveals a grief-stricken gaze. Their stillness and their sorrow seem frozen in time.

The last image captures a crowd dispersed throughout barren land. The scene looks hot, parched and desolate. Off to the side, a toddler stands vulnerably alone in the dust. In the foreground, a covered woman appears desperate, her lips parted and her face contorted uncomfortably in the heat.

Above the rectangle of flashing images a text message reads, “No matter how large or small, every action taken to increase awareness about the severe human rights abuses happening in Sudan is an important step. Educate yourself, support the Darfuri people, advocate for an end to the crisis, and inspire others to be active on the issue as well.”

Below the message, written in small font, the text urges the viewer to “Do something now to stop the genocide in Darfur.” Echoing the same idea, a grey box to the right reads, “ACT NOW. END THE KILLING.”

MEDIA TACTIC #2: PRINT CAMPAIGNS SEND THE WRONG MESSAGE

Among the many media tools used by the Save Darfur coalition to gather support, including video game launches, radio spots, TV commercials, promotion of documentary films, full-page newspaper ads, and printed news articles, among others, certainly one of the most powerful is the wide distribution of massive billboard campaigns.

The billboards themselves are artfully designed. The lay-out, lighting, images, and production quality are all top-notch. These are advertisements worthy of any fancy corporate public relations blitz. Sleek, seductive and shocking, they immediately capture the on-looker’s attention.

One particularly arresting poster is a black and white image of a young girl wrapped in rags. Upon closer inspection, the viewer realizes that her arm has been reduced to a stump. Her gaze stares directly at the camera (hence, right at the viewer). The most shocking part of the advertisement, however, rests not in its image, but in its language.

The upper left-hand side of the poster has six bold lines in alternating shades of grey and black. They read:

WE TALK.

SHE SCREAMS.

WE WAIT.

SHE STARVES.

WE ACT.

SHE SURVIVES.

These lines speak volumes about the mentality of the coalition and its underlying assumptions about the relative positions of American and Sudanese citizens. A literally black and white, life-or-death situation is presented. We are told that while we negotiate, we allow ruthless suffering. If we stall, we permit hunger to go unchecked. But, the moment we take action, that will be the moment we can save this little girl, and indeed, Save Darfur!

This ad is the ultimate representation of the underlying foundational error of the movement. As if it were a poster advertising shoes or movies, the billboard reduces a complex historical and political conflict into slogans and glossy images. Recognizing that American media consumers are usually apathetic to distant world affairs, the campaign uses the power of brand advertising to slap the public awake by bringing a message of local urgency. The coalition brings back the WE in world politics by crying, “Wake up out of your isolationist mentality and rescue the helpless!”

The billboard is exceedingly simple, overtly provocative, and, in the standard fashion of modern-day advertising, utterly captivating. Soundbites replace background information in remarkably simplified terminology. We are shown what appears to be a helpless young girl. We are told that talking isn’t working. The conflict is between Good (victims, and, implicitly, the Americans who save them) vs. Evil (President al-Bashir). Now, if only the American viewer will take action, this genocide will stop. The poster even tells us how.

Right on the advertisement, we are informed, “Diplomacy alone has failed in Darfur. President Bush must ACT NOW.” Grey bullet points resembling an executive or military action plan are then listed below. Action Plan A and Plan B are presented to the media consumer. Plan A was diplomacy, the billboard says, but that “has failed.” Now its time to enforce sanctions, increase the UN peacekeeping force, implement a no-fly zone, fund humanitarian aid missions, and cooperate with the ICC. These all sound like reasonable, peace-loving things to do. How can the viewer say no, or pause to consider the implications of action, when a young life hangs in the balance?

The glaring failure of the campaign is that it provides absolutely no historical or political background information about the conflict, information which would inform the media consumer about whether or not the proposed action steps are viable, necessary, or appropriate in the Sudanese context.

But, that’s not its intent.

This is not an educational piece about conflict triggers or the social/political actors living in an Eastern African nation. After reading this poster, a viewer would not be able to place the country of Sudan on the map, nor would s/he be able to say anything about the nation’s culture, language, lifestyle or industry. Unfortunately, the average American seeing this Save Darfur billboard sees nothing but a little girl who is in grave danger of abuse. Darfur is helpless and dying. Hurry, hurry. We act, she survives.

PRESS AND SCHOLARLY CRITICISM

The print advertisement analyzed above was part of a high-profile awareness campaign launched in February. The campaign came under scrutiny from aid workers and activists and picked up some negative press, in both the United States and abroad.

As reported by New York Times journalists Lydia Plgreen and Stephanie Strom, “Many of the [aid] groups opposed some of the tone and content of Save Darfur’s high-decibel advocacy campaign.”

Sam Worthington, the president and chief executive of InterAction, a coalition of aid groups listed on the Save Darfur website as a reference for relief organizations working in the field, complained to David Rubenstein, Executive Director of Save Darfur, that his advertising was confusing the public and damaging the relief effort.

In an e-mail to Rubenstein, Sam Worthington wrote, “I am deeply concerned by the inability of Save Darfur to be informed by the realities on the ground and to understand the consequences of your proposed actions.” [20]

Worthington went on to refute the claims put forth in the Save Darfur advertising campaigns that it worked with relief agencies in the field. He made clear that Save Darfur did not represent any of the organizations working on the ground in Darfur. Worthington further accused the alliance of “misstating facts.” He said its endorsement of plans that included a no-fly zone and the use of multilateral forces “could easily result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of individuals.”[21]

Other aid organizations were also upset with the campaign’s push to advertise a no-fly zone as a viable action step to stop genocide. They argued that banning flights could stop aid flights and endanger aid workers because many relief organizations fly white aircrafts that may look similar to those used by the Sudanese government.[22]

Save Darfur also came under fire in the UK when the primary British advertising watchdog chastised the coalition for advertising inflated figures. In all of its February ads, including the poster analyzed above, Save Darfur claimed that 400,000 people had died so far in the conflict. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that Save Darfur should have stated that figure as opinion, not fact. Sudan's government lists 9,000 as dead. Most experts put the number as at least 200,000.[23] Save Darfur accepted the ruling and admitted that its figures were not infallible.

African scholar Mahmood Mamdami, professor at the Columbia Institute of Political Affairs, worries about the ethical implications of Save Darfur. In a radio interview on June 4th of this year, he voiced his concerns over the mismanagement of funds and misguided focus of the coalition’s efforts.

When I went to Sudan in Khartoum, I had interviews with the UN humanitarian officer, the political officer, etc., and I asked them, I said, “What assistance does the Save Darfur Coalition give?” He said, “Nothing.” I said, “Nothing?” He said, “No.” And I would like to know. The Save Darfur Coalition raises an enormous amount of money in this country. Where does that money go? Does it go to other organizations which are operative in Sudan, or does it go simply to fund the advertising campaign? To make people aware of what is going on, but people who then, out of awareness, give money not to fuel a commercial campaign, but expecting that this money will go to do something about the pain and suffering of those who are the victims in Darfur, so how much of that money is going to actually -- how much of it translates into food or medicine or shelter? And how much of it is being recycled? [24]

The answer to Dr. Mamamdi’s question is that no funds are directed toward humanitarian relief efforts on the ground in Sudan. Although the factual response to his question is evident, the underlying, open-ended implications of his probing ethical inquiry are far more difficult to answer.

So is Save Darfur an ethical organization? It is easy enough for me to start labeling the coalition as ethical or unethical and defend my arguments based on moral criteria set forth by dead white men. However, doing so does not help me sleep at night. I very much admire the movement for galvanizing the American public to sit up and take notice of a humanitarian crisis that would have otherwise been ignored. Rather than damning the Save Darfur coalition as unethical on the whole, I would urge the media activists involved to rethink their approach and try to empower, rather than dehumanize, the people in the conflict.


[1] Based on 2006 Save Darfur budget as cited in New York Times article “Darfur Advocacy Group Undergoes a Shake-Up” by Plgreen, Lydia and Stephanie Strom. New York Times. June 2, 2007.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Save_Darfur_Coalition

[3] http://www.savedarfur.org/pages/organizational_members

[4] http://www.savedarfur.org/pages/unity_statement

[5] http://www.savedarfur.org/pages/faq

[6] http://www.savedarfur.org/pages/faq/#3

[7] Parks, Michael. “Beyond Afghanistan. Foreign News: What’s Next?” Colombia Journalism Review. Issue 1: Jan/Feb, 2002. http://cjrarchives.org/issues/2002/1/Foreign-Parks.asp

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] For a thorough analysis of the effects of media ownership on contemporary American news media, see Bagdikian, Ben H. The New Media Monopoly. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).

[11] Various critics have questioned the motives behind the coalition and some have attacked Save Darfur as a puppet of political interest groups. I have found no convincing evidence that leads me to believe in a grand Jewish or American conspiracy to control Sudan by manipulating public opinion.

[12] Lengthy descriptions of the following guidelines are outlined in Christians, C. G., M. Fackler, Kim B. Rotzoll. Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning. (New York: Longman, 1998). pp. 11-18.

[13] Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Belknap Press, 1971.) pp. 118-192.

[14] www.darfurisdying.com

[15] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serious_game

[16] Alvarez, Julian and Olivier Rampnoux. “Serious Game: Just a question of posture?” in Artificial & Ambient Intelligence, AISB '07, Newcastle, UK, April 2007, pp. 420-423.

[17] www.darfurisdying.com

[18] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darfur_is_Dying

[20] Plgreen, Lydia and Stephanie Strom. “Darfur Advocacy Group Undergoes a Shake-Up.” New York Times. June 2, 2007.

[21] Plgreen, Lydia and Stephanie Strom. “Darfur Advocacy Group Undergoes a Shake-Up.” New York Times. June 2, 2007.

[22] Ibid.

[23] BBC News. “Row over number of Darfur deaths” Published 2007/08/20 http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/africa/6951672.stm

[24] Mahmood Mamdani on Darfur: "The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency." Democracy Now podcast. June 4th, 2007. http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/06/04/1334230&mode=thread&tid=25




Maggie Schwalbach is a Masters degree candidate in the Media program at the UN madated Universtiy for Peace in Costa Rica.
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