Sudan Civil Society Debate

Khalid Al Mubarak
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Date: 16/01/2013


Dr. Carol Lancaster is one of a select group of US academics who managed to cross - more than once - the revolving door between university theoretical analysis and the experience of practical politics at the heart of government. She was head-hunted to become Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1980-81) and later Deputy Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (1993-96).  Her book “Transforming Foreign Aid  :  US Assistance in the 21st Century - August 2000”is out of print because people listen when she speaks and read when she writes.

 In this book, she wrote the following about the Purpose, Management and Organisation of US Foreign Aid  :  “US Foreign Aid for this purpose has been used to symbolise US support for opposition forces demanding political reform.  (By implications, US engagement has also provided those forces a measure of “insurance” against arrest or assassination.)

We witnessed this “insurance” in action when the Egyptian revolution overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt and questioned the US-financed civil society organisations status and role.  The reaction of the US was harsh, to put it mildly.  Top-level officials called publicly for Egypt to reverse its decision and the State Department contacted Egyptians at  “high levels”.  The US Ambassador, Anne Patterson, spoke to the Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal Al Ganzouri.  Ominously, there were direct threats to with-hold aid  :  “We do have a number of new reporting and transparency requirements on funding to Egypt that we have to make to Congress.    The Egyptian Government certainly needs to be aware of that”, said a spokeswoman.

This is the background to what happened after the 22nd November 2012 press conference in which Dr. Bilal Osman, Sudan’s Minister of Culture and Information spoke about the shutting down of four US-financed organisations.  Critics of these organisations referred to the fact that they were not accountable, not democratic or transparent.  One was headed for 20 years by the person who established it.  Others were embroiled in corruption court cases, fighting about their US finance. 
All were remote-controlled, echoing western criticism of the government, and feeding the west inaccurate assessments and information.

Dr. Carol Lancaster
Dr. Carol Lancaster

As if on cue, Dr. Lancaster’s  “insurance” policy was applied.  The Voice of America, the EU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, as well as small US-financed organisations (which I will not name,  in order not to raise their profile or help them claim more dollars), all entered the ring  in defence of the banned organisations.  Some  of these angry voices were silent when 100,000 displaced Sudanese returned to Darfur from Chad.  They were silent when Meroe Dam was completed and the Roseires Dam was heightened.   They were not overjoyed when Presidents Bashir and Kiir signed the 27th of September Cooperation Agreement; but they were heart-broken and provoked when four unaccountable and corrupt organisations were banned!

Since the Sudan is facing sanctions since 1997, no threat of withholding aid was made, the way it was in the Egyptian case.

Relevant Case Study

Is there any substance to support the Sudan’s suspicions that, to quote the American saying, “there is no free lunch”, and that the organisations in question are “their master’s voice” because renewal of the grant is contingent on a review of “behaviour” in a country that is under US sanctions and is targeted by the Israel lobby and its front organisations (like the Enough Project, Aegis Trust, and Waging Peace)?

Jacob Levich provides a concrete example in which US-financed organisations succeeded in destabilising post-Soviet Georgia.  He quotes the Wall Street Journal’s report on 24th November 2006 that the overthrow of Eduard Sheverdnazde’s regime was the result of the operations of “a raft of non-governmental organisations … supported by American and other western foundations”.  Mr. Jacob Levich goes on to quote an official USAID report that says :  “NGOs used to work at arms length from donor governments; … but over time the relationship has become more intimate.”

The US as an example

Dr. Bilal Osman
Dr. Bilal Osman

When the US protested because Russia clamped down on US-financed civil society organisations, the Russians reminded the Americans of their own record.  Since 1938 the US has a “Foreign Agents Registration Act” which is : “a disclosure statute that requires persons acting as agents  of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity, to make periodic public disclosures of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipt and disbursements in support of those activities”.

After the terror attacks of 9/11, this act was used even against Arab Americans who collected donations to send to destitute West Bank Palestinian villages.  This contrasts sharply with the US closing an eye when human rights violations were committed in a context acceptable to the West.  Toleration of transgressions against the opponents of Hosni Mubarak or Israel was a sanctioned  policy as Imco Brouwer has noted in his paper “Weak Democracy and Civil Society Promotion” (2000 published in Funding Virtue - ed.  Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers).

The Unspoken Agreement

What most Sudanese politicians and officials do not say publicly in this regard,  is hinted at in a paper by Joel Lazarus entitled : “Party Aid” (in 3rd Word Quarterly Vol. 33, No. 10).  Quoting Thomas Carothers, the point is made that “democracy promotion” faces “diminished legitimacy”, particularly since the US-led invasion of Iraq.  To this is added the crisis of democracy in the West itself : low voter turnout, crisis of corruption and evisceration of democratic control over economic policy.


We can be more blunt and say  :  after Guatanamo Bay, Abu Graib, Gaza, and the financial crisis, what gives the West the audacity to sit on a judge’s chair and expect to be listened to and obeyed.  Hasn’t the “halo” of wisdom and efficiency gone, partially at least? 

David Held and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen were right to note in “Wars of Decline” - Open Democracy 12th December 2012, that  :  “The Obama administration is less stridently ideological and less fixated upon the crude projection of raw power than its predecessor”.
That was clear in the reluctance to obey AIPAC and Netanyahu and attack Iran without exhausting peaceful negotiations.  But both AIPAC and Netanyahu were the main driving force behind sanctions against the Sudan and (one suspects) the present coordinated campaign in defence of US-financed civil society organisations.  How will the administration’s long-term Sudan policies evolve?

Nobody knows;  but targeting the Sudan because of its moderate Islamist leadership, leads to another question:   Does the West perhaps prefer Islamists of the Mali or Taliban type?

By Khalid Al Mubarak, 16/01/2013

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