The Clooneyfication of Southern Sudan

My problems (and non-problems) with Clooney and Sudan

I will jump right in and leave the overview of the Clooney what-have-you below rather than introduce it here.  I imagine most have already seen the major discussions out there.

I don’t know what I think of Clooney’s Satellite Sentinel project in and of itself … but there’s something about it that makes me uneasy.  My biggest problem with Clooney is, in fact, his connection to John Prendergast.  I’m not going to pre-judge Clooney’s knowledge because he’s an actor, or jump on the snarky commentary bandwagon, and I don’t doubt that he’s made a real effort to learn about Sudan.  I have no way of assessing what he knows about the place or the quality of his expertise.  I won’t pounce on the idea that he knows nothing.

But.  He is a Western pop star, a product of the Western media, and it is this very media that is playing a dangerous game with Sudan.  Not only would I worry that the project could backfire because of the technical issues critics have raised, I worry that Western political biases will color responses to data obtained by it.  Not just the kind of covert, hidden-agenda-type biases of subterfuge, but biases that many staunch and passionate advocates of causes bring to their projects without even realizing it.

Now, as a social researcher and academic, I generally fall into the “needs more research” camp described by KM on a Dollar a Day.  I won’t pretend to have more expertise than I do, but I also recognize the extent to which I can talk knowledgeably about something.  I’ve been studying Sudan for five years and have written two thesis-length research papers and a book chapter on various aspects of the history, society, and culture of Southern Sudan and Darfur.

It is Prendergast-inspired zeal I have the most worries over.  In the case of Darfur, he was quoted by CBS News (which, for it’s part, refers to Darfur’s designated African groups as “the tribal blacks”) as saying:

The Janjaweed are like a grotesque mixture of the mafia and the Ku Klux Klan … These guys have a racist ideology that sees the Arab population as the supreme population … They’re criminal racketeers that have been supported very directly by the government to wage the war against the people of Darfur.

This demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the region’s history and politics.  It also assumes that “racial” distinctions, i.e. Arab and African, are the same in Sudan as they are in the US.  (In fact, as Alex De Waal points out, these categories are not even transferable from Southern Sudan to Darfur.)  It is loaded with assumptions about race and ideology that may work in a Western context but simply do not translate in Darfur.  The statement also expels Arab Darfuris from their homes; these Arab herders are people of Darfur. This exclusion is a byproduct of a larger Western narrative that sees Arabs in Sudan as migrants, and Africans in Sudan as indigenous – within the context of a “single history of Arabs and ‘Arabization’ in Sudan.”[1] But the reality is not so simple, and the Arab proxy militias (there are several; it is not a unified movement), popularly referred to as the janjaweed, are probably the least studied and least understood of all the parties to the Darfur conflict.[2]

What this portrayal has done, essentially, is to wrongly equate the marginalized Arabs of Darfur and other regions of the country, including Southern Sudan, with the powerful ruling élite in Khartoum.  (Although the Baggara Arabs of the south tend to be more politically and economically powerful than the Abbala of the northwest and Darfur; Mamdani goes into great detail in his book.)  The Western narrative also pins sedentary lifestyles to the “African” groups and pastoral lifestyles to the “Arab” ones, but most Dinka and Nuer groups in the Southern Sudan and some “African” groups in Darfur are pastoral—and the ruling “Arab” groups of the north are sedentary.

My concern, then, is that in an over-simplified framework in which “Arabs” are always the bad guys, there is a tendency already to always expect “atrocities” coming from one side and “retaliation” from the other.  There have been a number of stories in the past few days detailing clashes in the disputed border region of Abyei (most of them failing to note that Abyei is not participating in the referendum on southern independence) between the Missiriya and Dinka Ngok. My concern is that without attempting to understand how local conflict resolution mechanisms might help contain violence, and without recognizing how the creation of an international border cutting through a Missiriya migration route may affect Missiriya nationality and security, what will happen is simply that (among other things) the demonization of Sudanese Arabs will continue. And the attempts to foist Western racial categories; Western notions of “democracy”; and Western modes of justice on a group of societies – which have their own ideas of what these things mean – will backfire.

So my problem with Clooney is not really Clooney. It’s not even his satellite project.  It’s the danger posed by the misinterpretation of categories, and of preconceived notions of who is “good” and who is “bad.” The Enough Project seems to have its mission set pretty clearly, and Prendergast and Clooney seem to be the two-headed public face of that mission. But I don’t think it’s enough to be moved and passionate when drawing attention to a cause. Those are good things, to be sure. But if you are also misrepresenting  the situation, or the people involved, you are creating a “truth” that is not reflective of the experiences of those people you claim to be defending. That is a political act, and in many ways a neocolonial one, which often times amounts to epistemological violence. And that can create even more problems.

If you are truly passionate and moved by empathy, you must dedicate sufficient time and energy into understanding the history and nuances of the places you are interested in and the points of view of the people you claim to be fighting for. It doesn’t take much, there are researchers who spend their lives on very specific places – find the experts (including academics from the region itself), get recommendations, and read a few books. Then realize that it is not your place to fight for “them.” “They” are not voiceless – they have myriad voices and they should be heard and amplified, not spoken for. At the same time, do not remain blind to your own politics, or your own political and social roles. Do not fall into the trap of only seeing the crimes committed by the side opposing the one you chose.

What bothers me is the Clooneyfication, so to speak, of conflicts that should really be interpreted before they can be made into a narrative that a Western audience will understand.

In Case You Missed It

Yesterday there was quite a bit of discussion on Twitter and the web about George Clooney and his response to criticism of his Satellite Sentinel project.  The aim of the project is to monitor troop movements on the north-south border between Sudan and Southern Sudan and perhaps dissuade or at least document violence. Most of the criticism of the project brings up technical issues; that satellite imagery is still not precise enough to be helpful, that misreading data could be counter-productive or dangerous, etc. Developing Jen argues, however, that despite the lack of granular specificity the satellite images could still be very useful. KM on a Dollar a Day provides a nice summary of the Clooney ado from a knowledge management perspective.

Other aid and development bloggers were highly critical of Clooney and his involvement; Laurenist recalled how after a similar Amnesty International project in 2007, “Darfur was saved after millions of people updated their Facebook statuses with a link to blurry photos of sand.” Foreign Policy writer Joshua Keating provided a nice overview of the general response of the blogosphere’s highly-critical-of-celebrity-activism “snark brigade.” Texas in Africa wrote that internal political problems in Southern Sudan are more worrisome than north-south tensions or even the disputed Abyei region.

Clooney’s reaction to criticism

Most of what I picked up, at least in the conversations I read, were concerned with Clooney’s reaction to the criticisms more than anything else. As quoted in the Daily Globe and Mailhe said:

“I’m sick of it,” he said. “If your cynicism means you stand on the sidelines and throw stones, I’m fine, I can take it. I could [sic] give a damn what you think. We’re trying to save some lives. If you’re cynical enough not to understand that, then get off your ass and do something. If you’re angry at me, go do it yourself.  Find another cause – I don’t care. We’re working, and we’re going forward.”

This just-get-up-and-do-something—anything—no-matter-what-it-is passion is exactly what the smart aid camp and blogs like Good Intentions are not Enough (which takes on Clooney’s reaction in the post “George Clooney and Hatorade“) have spent so much time and intellectual energy cautioning against.

There were also some good conversations going on about how Clooney failed to separate the celebrity bashing from the constructive criticism, and instead took both personally. But even that I don’t feel that strongly about. As KM on a Dollar a Day notes, he’s an advocate, not a scholar.

Another good point, which I agree with, was brought up: why is this referendum suddenly all about Clooney and his project?  While in one sense I get it, in another sense I was kind of tired of seeing the token Clooney photo in every single photo essay of the referendum I saw. As Keating’s piece demonstrates, the indifference in Sudan itself is notable:

“Who is that man talking?” a Sudanese journalist asked, gesturing to a white man with a group of reporters around him. When told it was George Clooney, a movie star, the Sudanese journalist looked confused and walked away.

But this isn’t really Clooney’s fault, is it? Which is why what I have a problem with is Clooney the Image, along with the other representations of a sect of Western media and activism of which he is a part, not Clooney himself or even his Sentinel Project.


[1] Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009), p. 93.


[2] Julie Flint, Beyond ‘Janjaweed’: Understanding the Militias of Darfur (Geneva: Small Arms Survey, 2009), p. 15.

About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
This entry was posted in Opinions. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Clooneyfication of Southern Sudan

  1. The Satellite Sentinel Project is such a great way for the United States government to monitor the oil fields in Central Africa and keep an eye on what the Chinese are doing there. Kudos to George Clooney for becoming a propaganda tool to ensure American economic supremecy in the world.

    I’m starting a petition to have the capital of the new People’s Republic of South Sudan to be called Clooneyville.

    USA! USA! USA!

    [extreme snark intended]

  2. Pingback: George Clooney and Hatorade | Good Intentions Are Not Enough George Clooney and Hatorade | An honest conversation about the impact of aid

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