Monday, October 20, 2014

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Finding Civil Society in Darfur

Understood differently by international actors, the state and locals, Darfur's civil society is in a state of continuous re-invention.
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Locals gather around a Western NGO in Darfur. Photograph by Nite Owl.

Walking the dusty, derelict streets of a town in Darfur, one is immediately struck by just how globalised this marginalised rural area of western Sudan has become. One sees office after office run by international organisations such as World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, Red Cross, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and many others.

For all its vibrancy, a closer examination of how international dynamics interweave with local traditions of conflict resolution and the state's understanding of what 'civil' constitutes, reveals that Darfur's civil society is highly unique, fluid and often the source of contention.

The international element: INGOs

Many Darfuris mentioned that, since the latest eruption of the conflict in 2003, they have started to rent their homes to international organisations for three to four times their usual value. The homeowners themselves often relocate outside to the main city or even to Sudan’s capital Khartoum.

Regular homes have thus largely disappeared from the streets and been replaced with the offices of international NGOs (INGOs). International staff members can be seen across the town too, and Darfur's regular stores – in response to the demands of their new consumers – now stock products that might not be found in some developed capitals of the world.

Young people have also started to flock to centres of Peace Studies and Community Development at Darfur's three major universities (Nyala, Al Fashir and Zalinegie) in order to be qualified to work with these international organisations, which pay a lot more than local ones.

Informal diplomacy

The proliferation of INGOs in Darfur, however, has not only gained the attention of locals but also of Khartoum. Concerned about international bodies’ operations possibly sliding into what could be seen as ‘intervention’, the Humanitarian Affairs Commission (HAC) was set up to help ‘organise’ and/or monitor INGOs’ work.

INGO representatives are thus continuously in touch with the state apparatus, which includes a mix of national security and humanitarian affairs officials alongside local civil society representatives. Khartoum claims that HAC is necessary to protect both the sovereignty of the state and the local formations of civil society, which might not be able to compete with international organisations in terms of financial resources or human capabilities.

In that sense, INGOs take on an informal diplomatic role in that they are forced to work hand-in-hand with the local civil society and operate under the eyes of the Sudanese state. Given their ubiquity on the ground in Darfur, it seems these restrictions have not discouraged international organisations.

Traditional civil society

But how does internationalised humanitarianism and conflict resolution sit alongside local forms of civil society?

Traditional formations existed in Darfur long before the fall of the region's last Sultan, Ali Dinar, and the region’s integration into Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1916. These formations included hierarchal systems for the division of leadership at a tribal level, and conflicts, whether familial or tribal, were resolved within these divisions. On the whole, disputes were resolved peacefully through this system.

It was only after integration with the rest of Sudan, and the growth of the modern state and its own mechanisms of dealing with conflicts that things began to change. Native administration hierarchies started to be either ignored and demolished (as in President Gaafar Nimeiry's era) or politicised and incorporated within the state (as in President Omar al-Bashir's era). In this way, there is now no single coherent native administration but several.

Recreation of Civil Society in Darfur: Between Civil and Uncivil

In Darfur then, there are numerous different elements all affecting the nature of civil society. The INGOs who have internationalised Darfur, those abiding by the region’s traditional grassroots formations, and Khartoum all have their own definitions of ‘civil’ and together complicate what constitutes civil society. Traditional conflict resolution mechanisms that have been incorporated into the state, for example, may not seem to constitute ‘civil society’ by typical Western-led understandings of the concept; whereas human rights lawyers or native leaders that do not comply with the instructions from HAC do not count as being part of civil society in the eyes of the state. It perhaps therefore makes more sense then to talk of numerous civil societies rather than a single civil society.

Defining civil society on the ground, however, is more than a mere semantic or theoretical issue, and how groups are seen and presented is crucial in terms of maintaining international support, the state’s goodwill and local legitimacy.

Local organisations in Darfur thus often recreate themselves in manners specifically designed to suit international understandings of what NGOs are, in order to gain moral support as well as funding. At the same time, however, these same societies often must retain traditional elements that on the one hand separate them to an extent from the modern meanings of civil society but also therefore allow them to represent themselves to the people and to the state as being authentic and legitimate. This makes for a completely different form of hybrid local activism that might seem completely different from purely local ones and/or those familiar to Western conceptions. It also means civil society in Darfur is in a constant state of recreation in which the boundaries of civil society are rarely certain and continuously shifting.

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