Recent experience from war-torn countries underscores the importance of a new approach to conflict resolution. The typical sequence involves political talks and an agreement; international peacekeeping and a policing operation to create conditions of security; assessing conditions on the ground; convening a donor’s conference; collecting pledges; and implementing early recovery activities. This process can take years. Without a tangible peace benefit at the front end of the process, political talks and security arrangements may derail, thereby perpetuating a cycle of violence and undermining efforts to realize sustainable peace.
Using Darfur as a test case, Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Human Rights (CSHR) has undertaken a three-year study to consider whether it is possible to engage in post-conflict activities while conflict is still underway.
CSHR convened Darfurians from the diaspora and Darfur experts from the United Nations, donor countries, academia, and advocacy groups in December 2007. Acknowledging that the historic marginalization of Darfur is one of the prime sources of unrest, participants agreed that a lasting solution to the Darfur conflict needed to address its root causes that lay to a large extent in the extreme poverty of the region. They also emphasized that sustainable peace requires solutions of the development crisis, along with strategies that address reconciliation among the parties, immediate improvements in security, and a robust response to humanitarian needs. In addition, participants discussed how focusing on a ‘‘development horizon’’ could yield a peace dividend, thereby creating incentives for peace.
In June 2008 CSHR published the Darfur Early Recovery and Development Dossier. The dossier identified opportunities for recovery and development in areas of relative stability that have been less affected by the conflict than other areas or where rapid action would be possible in the event of a peace agreement. It presented studies of Darfur’s water supply and directly affected sectors: agriculture, pastoralism, and health. In addition to providing descriptions of conditions in Darfur, the dossier identified quick impact projects that could be implemented right away in areas of relative stability, longer term development goals, and data gaps. It also recommended topics for future research.
The dossier was used to brief UN agencies and donor country representatives and to establish CSHR’s bona fides on the Darfur issue. It was also a calling card for more deeply engaged Darfurians.
With support from Canada’s International Development Agency, CSHR held a series of meetings at the American University in Cairo. Darfurian participants represented the spectrum of Darfur’s diverse civil society. With one voice they emphasized the importance of seeking common ground, working together, and incorporating the development dimension into the future peace agreement for Darfur. Darfurian civil society leaders insisted that Darfur’s various tribal groups and fractious rebel movements cooperate with one another.
The Cairo meetings were held at the same time that mediators from the United Nations and the African Union (AU) were convening to try to broker a peace agreement for Darfur. When representatives of bickering rebel movements failed to show up at a UN–AU sponsored conference in Libya, the government of Sudan blamed their factionalism for the demise of the Darfur peace agreement. The United States was also growing impatient. Washington could not justify the continued spending of one billion dollars a year on emergency supplies absent progress on political talks.
In that context, UN and African Union mediators shifted gears and decided to focus their efforts on civil society. The strategic shift was based on the premise that building consensus among civil society would encourage the rebel movements to overcome their differences and reinvigorate negotiations between Darfurians and Khartoum. Many Darfurians who were working with CSHR were invited to join the Doha process, a series of meetings hosted by Qatar to explore the principles for a peace agreement.
CSHR’s Darfurian partners shifted the center of gravity for their efforts within Sudan. They also decided to institutionalize their cooperation by establishing the Darfur Development Advisory Group (DDAG) to complement efforts by UN–AU joint mediation.
The Darfurian-led initiative involves prominent and respected Darfurian scholars and technocrats. Based on a central secretariat in Khartoum, satellite offices are being established in El Fasher, Nyala, and Geneina. DDAG plans to map local nongovernment offices (NGOs) and conduct qualitative assessments of their activities. Based on its findings, DDAG will develop a curriculum designed to build capacity and provide training across Darfur. It also plans to gather and evaluate data on field conditions so that activities can be enhanced in the event of
a peace agreement.
DDAG fills a critical gap between the international community and the Darfurian community and is empowering Darfurians as change agents in Darfurian and Sudanese society. From its beginning DDAG members have sought a cooperative relationship with the government of Sudan. Officials as well as Sudanese and African media representatives have been kept informed.
To be sure, development does not occur in a vacuum. CSHR’s efforts were made more complex by Khartoum’s decision to ‘‘Sudanize’’ relief operations and evict 13 international groups working in Darfur. Despite the trend toward Sudanization, DDAG arranged for CSHR’s project director to go to Sudan where he was received by senior Sudanese officials. The government of Sudan pledged its full support and the facilitation of CSHR’s activities, including field work in Darfur.
Sudan is entering the difficult phase in which efforts are being made to implement the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the North–South civil war. The agreement calls for a referendum to determine the South’s status. A real risk exists that that could spark renewed violence not only between North and South Sudan but in Darfur and other restive regions as well.
Darfurians insist on moving forward. CSHR will continue to act as a catalyst facilitating dialogue and strategic planning by Darfurians for as long as they require that support. Meanwhile, DDAG is giving hope to those who are deeply traumatized by conflict. It is also inspiring other Sudanese who have struggled to find the peace and prosperity that have eluded them since independence in 1956.
About the Author
David L. Phillips is a scholar and director of the Darfur Development Initiative at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Human Rights.