This is not how the Prendergast/Mamdani debate went down…

I had to share this post from since it refers to my Huffington Post piece.

This post is not a very good description of the debate. It sounds like what Prendergast would’ve written had he been allowed to write a press release rather than actually debate Mamdani.

I agonized over the Huffington Post piece — I didn’t want to paint an overly critical picture of Prendergast’s performance just because I admire Mamdani’s critical thinking. And I don’t think I did a bad job — unlike other bloggers out there, I made no mention of Prendergast’s clothing, hairstyle or any other comments irrelevant to the debate. On the other hand, I also did not dwell on the people in the question-and-answer session who attacked Mamdani for a couple of reasons: (1) they seemed to be speaking with an agenda — not necessarily a bad thing, but their comments did not respond to what Mamdani had actually said and (2) in at least a couple of cases the questions were ugly personal attacks against Mamdani that he did not deserve. Speakers accused him of being a liar, a bad Muslim and basically complicit in the killings in Darfur. Whatever else you may say about him, Mamdani certainly does not deserve that kind of slander. I do not think it would have been valuable to repeat those things in my Huffington Post piece.

I have no doubt that those speakers who attacked Mamdani were speaking from a place of real emotional pain. However, because their comments did not correspond to what Mamdani actually said — he did not, for example, deny the suffering in Darfur, he just questioned Prendergast’s account of the scale of killing — it seemed to me that what they were really reacting to was seeing Save Darfur coming under attack. And I can understand that, because I’m sure as a refugee from Darfur it would feel as if the Save Darfur Coalition is your link to justice and an org that has done a lot for your cause, and it would feel terrible to see it come under attack.

The thing is, there are certainly interesting arguments to be made against Mamdani’s position. It’s just that Prendergast didn’t make them. One is that, whether or not Save Darfur has oversimplified (and in some cases gotten wrong) their description of the Darfur conflict, they have played a hugely important role in even putting Darfur on the map at all. Were it not for the movement — whatever its movitivations — I seriously doubt people would be having these high-profile discussions right now.

Prendergast could have said this in the debate. He didn’t. When the YouTube version of the debate is posted, it will speak for itself.

What would be interesting would be to see activists, who especially at the grassroots level are full of a lot of positive good will and good intentions, listen to some of the academic criticisms of Save Darfur and maybe take them into account in their activities. There was a sign of that in the debate’s Q-and-A, when a woman, who I believe was affiliated with Save Darfur, thanked Mamdani for his perspective and asked what he thought the effect of the ICC case would be on the prospects for peace.

Grassroots organizers are not image-obsessed robo-activists, and I hope debates like this will provoke a lot of thought in the community.

3 thoughts on “This is not how the Prendergast/Mamdani debate went down…

  1. Thanks for balanced coverage of the complexities of Darfur. While it’s useful and necessary to hear many views, it’s helpful to see them synthesized and compared. Please keep it up.

  2. Glad to see the discussion continues, I appreciate you and others sharing your views of the debate. This is in response to the initial Huffington Post piece – they have a word limit (which I discovered after writing it) so I couldn’t post it there…..

    I too attended the debate, and came away with a drastically different impression than that given here — I would say there was no “TKO”, and that neither side won. What shocked me most was the lack of evidence given in support of the arguments made on both sides. As someone who worked in Khartoum and Darfur for almost two years, I was looking forward to hearing from two people with arguably intimate knowledge of the conflict discuss the multiple layers of influence – global, regional, local – that affect the conflict and are in turn affected by it, and the multiple viewpoints present at each of these levels as to the causes and “ways forward”.

    Instead, I felt that Prof. Mamdani’s argument that Save Darfur lacked context was undermined by his own choice of a relatively arbitrary starting point to ground his history (why 1987 and not 1984, or the 1970s?), and disappointed that some of his statements were just plain false (see below); that Mr. Prendergast’s argument was drastically oversimplified given the audience’s presumed level of knowledge and his own background as a research at Human Rights Watch, and that he seemed unwilling to step outside the policy spotlight to offer nuanced answers during the question session at the end; and that both sides did a disservice to everyone involved by dismissing mortality estimates as nothing more than a guessing game, as if these people’s deaths did not warrant or receive at least attempts at real documentation.

    Mortality figures were, in fact, a central theme of the debate, and several important points were made through them. Yet while the blog writer above quotes Prendergast’s “guesstimate” statement, it’s a shame he doesn’t delve further into the issue. Columbia University is a particularly salient venue for this type of debate as several of our professors were involved in surveying mortality in Darfur, Iraq, and other highly politicized conflict zones. Among them is Dr. Ronald Waldman at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, who was one of the “expert reviewers” in the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study cited by Prof. Mamdani, which reviewed the validity of different mortality estimates.

    Mortality surveys are both rigorous scientific exercises and political hot potatoes, and if well-understood and picked apart, can offer a window not only into a population’s suffering, but also the political responses to that suffering. Sources involved in a mortality survey following an outbreak of Hepatitis E in Darfur have recounted how the determination of a recall period was so politically sensitive that in the end, Kofi Annan was left to negotiate with the government in Khartoum over whether Darfuris should be asked to recall the number of deaths in their household in the last 6 months versus the last 9 months. Changing this recall window has obvious implications for the figures you will find.

    Another area for debate is the determination of “excess mortality”, or how many more deaths occurred than would be expected. And as Prof. Mamdani touched on, the determination of “cause of death” is open to interpretation – does one die from dysentery, or from the intentional denial of health services that caused that dysentery to be deadly? When genocidal intent is suspected, this question becomes even more important.

    As Alex de Waal, another Sudan researcher, writes on his blog, “we know a great deal about violence in Darfur.” My point is not to say that mortality figures are perfect, only to point out that when discussing what is still needed, it would be fruitful to have a fuller understanding of what already exists. For those interested in this debate, starting points include Alex de Waal’s blog entry “Data for Deaths in Darfur” ( Prof. Mamdani also mentioned the environmental roots of the conflict. While climate change is insufficient in itself as a cause of the ongoing conflicts in the region, it is certainly an important contributor. A report by the NGO Tearfund, carried out in consultation with several Darfuri universities, and is a good resource resulting from an all-too-rare international-local collaboration

    Both Prof. Mamdani (who I had been looking forward to hearing for a long time) and John Prendergast (to a lesser extent) made important points. Prof. Mamdani’s call on Americans to pay more attention to the excess mortality caused by their own elected government is much needed, and his discussion of the reasons Americans seem more concerned with the fate of Darfuris than Iraqis (or Afghans, for that matter) is deserving of our fuller consideration. Absent though was any discussion of national or regional influence (again, Prof. Mamdani’s role with the AU would make one suspect he has interesting opinions to share on its new leader, Gaddafi), or of the tremendously varied perspectives of Sudanese people themselves, including people from different parts of Darfur, from the South, from the diaspora, and from the North and East where other rebellions have/are taking place. While several powerful Darfuri voices spoke during the question session, many other Darfuri perspectives were absent, and the audience should be careful to avoid assuming that those attending the debate represent the viewpoints of all affected groups. For real discussions on peace, it is precisely this plurality of viewpoints that must be brought forward, discussed, and considered thoughtfully in order to find a solution that is meaningful to all involved, and thus stands a better chance of actually working.

    More interesting questions to ask are, for example: What can we learn about unity governments as a peacemaker by studying the responses of Sudan’s own Government of National Unity, which has vice-presidents both from the South and Darfur? How can the grassroots power harnessed by a movement like Save Darfur be applied to issues that Americans arguably have more power and responsibility to address, such as the plight of Iraqis and Afghans, and even of Palestinians and Israelis? How might the African Union’s involvement in Darfur be influenced by its new chairman, Libyan President Muammar el-Qaddafi, whose long history of political maneuverings in the region have undermined, not supported, peace in both Sudan and neighboring Chad? During the question session, one woman from South Sudan called on the organizers to never have another talk on Darfur with three white men sitting on the panel. Out of personal interest, I would be interested to know how Prof. Mamdani, who is of Indian descent and raised in Uganda, felt at being lumped under this label considering his own history of migration and exile.

    While a debate format may be expected to push each person into their ‘corner’, they should defend themselves well while there. I would hope that both Professor Mamdani and Mr. Prendergast take it upon themselves to continuously review their arguments in light of new information, to actively elicit the viewpoints of different groups, and to continue to respect the dignity of all Sudanese as they dedicate more of their time and efforts to this region.

  3. AP, thanks for your thoughtful comments. You are right that the numbers issue was a bigger deal than I indicated. I left it out of the Huff Post article for the most part because I felt that it wasn’t a great use of the limited space for a general audience. Besides, in terms of the debate, Prendergast really said nothing substantial about the numbers, except that they were guesstimates and based on small sample sizes. This dismissal of the GAO’s and Mamdani’s work is silly — the math of statistics is of course always based on sample sizes, and that it is why you can use confidence intervals, etc., to compare different studies, as the GAO did. Prendergast’s rebuttal to Mamdani’s claims about the numbers was not worthy of the thought and expertise that, as you point out, went into estimating them.

    The reason I called the debate a TKO for Mamdani is that Prendergast seemed intellectually overwhelmed. I don’t think he brought his A-game. He did not engage any of Mamdani’s more complex ideas and instead seemed to think that the audience would be sympathetic to his portrayal of Mamdani’s scholarship as a conspiracy theory (maybe Mamdani should have been debating you instead!).

    In terms of Mamdani starting his analysis in 1987–in the debate, at least–I’m sympathetic to that considering the format. The darn thing was already three hours long. The striking thing is that Prendergast and Save Darfur’s analysis of the conflict rarely discusses any events before 2003. And if you read Mamdani’s book, you will find a very rich discussion of Darfur’s history that long predates the 1970s.

    How did Mamdani feel being called a “white man”? You’d have to ask him, but that comment was unfounded on many levels and I can imagine it would be really irritating. The guy’s been kicked out of Uganda because of his ethnicity; in Africa he’s considered an Indian and in India he’s considered an African, and now someone (who did not even stay to hear the answer to her questions) is willing to dismiss all of his ideas based, again, on his ethnicity. I appreciate her frustration, which I share, with the lack of diversity among faculty and students at Columbia and other universities, but that was a cheap and inaccurate way to attack Mamdani. He is absolutely the exception to that lack.

    I want to hear more Darfuri perspectives, too. Clearly the people who spoke at the debate came from a place of real emotional anguish, but they also clearly had an agenda. Shouting insults at Mamdani also did not help their credibility.

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