Relative quiet in Darfur: a window for progress in Sudan and eastern Chad

In order for Sudan to avoid a backslide into war, outside humanitarian aid work needs to cede the floor to local-led projects.

International nongovernmental organizations and United Nations agencies have created and supported hundreds of new schools in refugee camps in Darfur and eastern Chad. The fact that they have been successful is big news considering the region has been gripped by genocide and unrest for years. Today, there is relative calm and more children – particularly girls – are getting an education. This points to the chance for major progress in the region.

At the same time, last month’s agreement between Sudan and Chad to stop supporting each other’s proxy armies, and recent accords signed this month with some powerful rebel factions, have set the stage for such productive opportunities in Darfur.

Now comes the harder work for the international community: shifting beyond funding purely humanitarian projects toward economic development. Only through such development can Darfur avoid falling into another war.

Areas are calm enough that many Darfuris, about 3 million of whom still live in camps, regularly return to their villages to plant and harvest crops. Fighting does continue to flare up in some pockets of the region and many bands of rebels are ambivalent about the negotiations occurring in Doha, Qatar. Yet the scale of violence has greatly declined during the past four years.

And with funds to rebels now largely choked off, many camp residents are looking to return to their homes full time. But six years of fighting have accelerated the process of deforestation, drought, and desertification. Unless access to land, water, and other scarce resources are accessible, conflicts may reignite between villages, ethnicities, farmers, and nomads.

Right now, productivity is poor or nonexistent. International aid in Darfur and Chad has, understandably, and heroically, devoted resources to the here-and-now of humanitarian projects like sanitation, education, and medical supplies.

But the region needs long-term peace-building, environmental rehabilitation, and economic development assistance.

The well-meaning aid groups are not the groups who should or can provide these next steps forward. In fact, they could actually unintentionally stymie development efforts. Because of their scale, reputation, and organizational muscle, internationalist agencies could crowd out new and potentially effective initiatives.

So who should help Sudan and Chad? Given the scale of destruction in Darfur, rebuilding in the region needs a unique focus. Donor nations and multilateral organizations ought to create a special Darfur development bank that would fund infrastructure projects and nurture interethnic collaboration. Such a bank could be a microversion of institutions like the World Bank or African Development Bank.

Before the crisis, land in Darfur was managed communally. Given the rivalries of the past several years, such collaboration may now be distant. Support should be given to local councils that intimately understand such divisions and can peacefully determine and map title to land.

Such councils already exist. Some were created by the international community to give voices at peace talks to leaders who weren’t warlords. These councils have included Darfur’s various ethnic groups, and women. Unlike most rebel groups, who plunder from their own supporters, they tend to accurately represent opinions of long-suffering residents.

Their power should now be expanded. Similar councils should be created among nomad leaders who renounce violence. Schedules and routes for nomads should be carefully and consensually mapped.

Using funds from Khartoum and the international community, a Darfur Development Bank should be created that funds such projects and insures and compensates for lost crops and herds. An emphasis should also be placed on solar investments and a paved highway.

Khartoum and the international community must recognize that many residents may never return to the life of farmers and will choose to remain in the highly urban milieu of camps that ring cities like Nyala, Abeche, and El Fasher. Therefore, Kartoum must lift restrictions on movement to cities, a system that distorts trade and penalizes would-be workers by isolating them.

The government of Sudan presently offers high school graduates from Darfur free scholarships to study at universities in Khartoum. Programs like this should be expanded by creating technical colleges throughout the region and having universities worldwide create scholarships for students from Darfur and eastern Chad.

To be sure, the Khartoum regime has backed away from previous political settlements in Darfur and so caution is called for. Yet indications exist that the stand-down in Darfur and eastern Chad may be different this time. That’s because, unlike past agreements, this latest rapprochement wasn’t generated by outside interests. Before, international forces had led the two countries to peaceful water but they couldn’t make them drink.

Now, for the first time in years, prospects for building a peaceful Darfur seem possible. Humanitarian aid work needs to cede the floor to local-led projects that offer Darfur’s long-suffering communities – including their young – the chance to regain some balance, peace, and prosperity.

Dorn Townsend is studying economics at Columbia University. From 2005 to 2007, he was a UN aid worker in Darfur.

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