The world isn’t watching

As catastrophe unfolds in Sudan, most of the world continues to turn a blind eye.

Sudan, 2016. Image credit Anouk Delafortrie for the EU ECHO via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

“Don’t worry, Séra, the entire world is watching them, they won’t be able to do anything.”

“You think so?”

“Of course.”

In my heart of hearts, I knew I was wrong. The World Cup was about to begin in the United States. The planet was interested in nothing else. And in any case, whatever happened in Rwanda, it would always be the same old story of blacks beating up on each other.

– The Book of Bones, Boubacar Boris Diop

Several months ago, amid the eruption of the war in Sudan, my grandfather, a British Sudanese national, found himself trapped in his house in a high-risk area next to Sudan’s military headquarters. Despite the British government’s efforts to dispatch dozens of soldiers to evacuate their personnel from the embassy right across the street from my grandfather’s house, they failed to include him in their evacuation plan. After our relentless pleas to include both my grandparents, the main query from the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) we received was “Does he have dual citizenship?”

After a few days, my grandfather was tragically shot numerous times while my grandmother was left to starve to death, as both the Radical Support Forces (RSF) and Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) refused to cease fire. Upon my arrival at Heathrow Airport several days later, the first sight that greeted me was a banner advertising a pet scheme for animals that were trapped in the war in Ukraine. This stark contrast raised pressing questions: Why did the life of a pet in Ukraine seem to hold greater significance than that of a black British citizen? 

Similarly, why was Suliman, another British citizen trapped in the war in Sudan, informed that only he and his kids could evacuate, and that they’d have to leave behind his heavily pregnant wife, as she was not a British national? The Ukrainian Family Scheme in the UK allowed spouses, fiancés, children, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews of UK-based sponsors to access the UK for three years and freely work with no restrictions. The Canadian immigration pathway has taken in almost 100,000 more refugees from Ukraine than from Sudan, providing them with financial support, certification exemption, shorter processing time, and looser requirements for migration. 

Beyond citizenship, we see many Sudanese activists tirelessly pleading for support by stating the concerning statistics of the Sudanese war—how it has produced the largest amount of displaced people globally while the country also suffers the world’s worst hunger crisis. Yet the United Nations has allocated only 5 percent of humanitarian funds for Sudan. The core question to ask here is: Why do certain lives hold more value in the world of humanitarianism than others? 

It is no surprise that when the war in Ukraine broke out, the divide between whose life is considered important and whose isn’t became more evident. In one broadcast on Ukraine, NBC News correspondent Kelly Cobiella stated, “They are not refugees from Syria; these are refugees from Ukraine… They’re Christians. They’re white. They’re very similar.”Although this statement is problematic for numerous reasons, the main issue is the subliminal message it sends. First, the value of life when measured in humanitarian terms depends on one’s nationality, religion, and race. Second, the white man is perceived to be more civilized and less prone to the exposure of war and conflict, and this perception automatically creates a form of supremacy over people of color, who, presumably, attract instability. We begin to see that the body becomes an indication of humanitarian priority. Individuals who don’t fit the characteristics and features of a white man are perceived as “undeserving” of public sympathy and mourning. 

According to historian Achille Mbembe, the West is presented as the “birthplace of reason, universal life and truth of humanity” thus making it seem like the most “civilized region in the world.” It is vital to take into consideration that the index of Eurocentric humanitarianism holds various hierarchies with different levels of importance. Based on that hierarchy, the black life and the Muslim life are at the bottom.

The underlying issue of institutional racism, especially within humanitarian agencies, has not suddenly emerged in the 21st century; rather, it goes back to the formation of these institutions, during a time of prevalent coloniality. In historical terms, the rapid expansion of NGOs in Africa was affected by the fall of European colonial rule. Colonial powers expected to maintain close relations with and a presence in their former colonies in a way that did not make plain that another colonial invasion was taking place. Their rapid expansion focused on aid and development by replicating their linguistic, religious, and socioeconomic structures in Africa. 

The humanitarian interventionists prioritized groups to be assisted, broke neutrality, and advocated Western military intervention for humanitarian purposes. British NGOs, such as Oxfam, would even be reluctant to work on Francophone states, particularly in West Africa, as they perceived these states to be France’s territory of influence. The Human Rights Watch was originally created to monitor the former Soviet Union. The founding father of the Red Cross, Henri Dunant, was celebrated for aiding soldiers in the battle of Solferino and treating men equally regardless of what side they represented, creating the phrase “tutti fratelli,” which translates to “all brothers.” What European history fails to convey, however, is that Dunant had built his empire on colonial resources and was there to pursue his business interest in colonial Algeria.

Granted, humanitarian agencies have reformed since their early years. Nonetheless, the influences of coloniality in many of these agencies remain prevalent.

There are a number of explanations for why humanitarian agencies have not been able to meet the desperate need for help during the Sudanese war. First, in a global context in which numerous crises are breaking out at once, European donors’ interests were redirected to conflicts that were more “relatable,” and thus held more value from a Eurocentric perspective. A white population being oppressed by Russia, the West’s largest rival, creates a “reason” in the Western imagination and thus attracts empathy. Empathy is commonly the construction of reason and interest in the world of realpolitik, consequently affecting humanitarian incentives. In the realm of hegemonic fights for power, the Ukrainian war also supports the West’s agenda of distorting Russia’s image and amplifying the humanitarian persona that the West attempts to convey to the world. 

Second, where realpolitik is put aside and effective humanitarian interventions are considered, prioritization of who receives aid is influenced by the historical structural racism that exists within these institutions. In other words, in a hierarchy of humanitarian emergencies, the black man’s needs, regardless of how critical they may be in comparison to the other emergencies, are always put last. In a year of calamities, from the exodus of Armenians to the continued attacks on Ukraine, Sudan’s conflict was given less importance. 

The Norwegian Refugee Council publishes reports on the topmost neglected displacement crises in the world, in order to shine a light on global sufferings that rarely make headlines, receive less aid, and are not the focus of international diplomatic efforts. In 2022—notably before the Sudanese war—the top 10 countries were all African, and Sudan was number four. In the same year, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway had all redirected aid set to go to other countries and to Ukraine. This therefore slashed UN funds going to various countries in Africa and canceled ongoing pledges of much-needed relief. 

Beyond institutional humanitarianism, Sudan currently faces two dilemmas that deprive it of attaining the same solidarity that current violent escalations, such as the one in Palestine, are receiving from the general public. The implications of identity have contributed to much of Sudan’s internal conflict. Sudan is not Arab enough to the Arab world and is not African enough to the African world. Arabization has placed it in a dilemma where it forcefully attempts to integrate itself into an Arabian identity that does not accept its blackness.  

Similar to Du Bois’s philosophies of double consciousness, the average Sudanese is programmed to look at himself and his blackness through the eyes of others—through the historical gaze of Arab and European imperialism. The illusion of the self creates a divide within the African identity, subsequently classifying Sudan as non-African in the traditional sense.

This in-between identity consequently affects whom Sudan receives solidarity and support from. Discussions on the Sudanese war started trending globally after two incidents. The first was when diplomats and citizens of Western states were trapped in Sudan and pleaded for support from their governments. The second was after the recent tensions in Palestine escalated, increasing global activism and influencing individuals to explore other regions experiencing similar oppression—the slogan that the Palestinian conflict raised is “our struggles are interconnected.” 

The issue with both scenarios is that it took other conflicts on other identities to surface for the loss of Sudanese life to be acknowledged. I would like to note that this comparison is made not to prioritize one cause over another—any form of human calamity deserves full solidarity. However, selective humanitarianism defeats the purpose of humanism, which is that any loss of innocent life is a loss to all of humanity regardless of where or to whom it happens. 

An activist from Iran, who has chosen to remain anonymous, writes in one of her statements that contemporary “activism is deeply enrooted in individualism and performative activism” and that “selective attention” was given to other trending causes while “neglecting” Sudan “as our perceptions are influenced by our conditioning.” Our conditioning is based on whom we resonate with more or who looks more like us. The Sudanese may speak and follow the same cultural or religious beliefs as many Arabs, but they don’t carry the same physical features. In psychology, this is referred to as own-race bias, which involves a tendency to resonate with, favor, and recognize one’s race more than other races. The tendency to downgrade a darker-skinned man is prevalent even within Sudan, where there is a mix of Afro-Arabs. Arabian features in Sudan are associated with the ruling ethnic group and its historical domination of the “enslavable” minorities. 

In the Middle East and North Africa, an Arabian man with a different complexion often will feel superior and degrade black life and its struggles. Black men are called an abd—a racial slur that translates to “slave.” These derogatory attitudes contribute to the perception among Arabs that Sudanese life is less important. In a world of emerging conflicts in Syria and Palestine or natural disasters in Morocco, the story of a Sudanese black child losing his life to a deadly war will always come last.

As such, the politics of identity, and where Sudan belongs, fragments the opportunity of attaining full solidarity from a similar “race” or Arab identity that the people of Sudan have forcefully tried to resonate with—an identity that does not fully accept or stand in solidarity with the black man from Sudan at times of need, thus creating a solidarity imbalance. 

The loss of black life has been normalized in public perception. One commentator on X explains his experience trying to raise public discussions on what was happening in Sudan within a multinational space. He writes that the most common response he receives from the majority of international “activists” when he questions why there is little global solidarity with Sudan compared to other tragedies is that the conflict in Sudan is “just a civil war.”

The lack of public awareness is partially a result of the difficulty of obtaining data, due to limited mobility and internet access within Sudan. However, this ignorance of the geopolitical war between the RSF (weaponized by the United Arab Emirates and Europe to stop refugees from entering Europe through Sudanese borders) and Sudanese Armed Forces (supported by Egyptian military Islamicists for military domination in the region) is primarily due to the lack of interest in and normalization of the loss of black life, and the presumption that Muslim and black bodies are accustomed to violence and that conflict within their regions is to be expected. 

Foucault explains that the body is a “political field—in this context, the reaction to the body’s struggle is destined by the current systemic notions of power. Due to imperial influences, the subconscious mind is programmed to associate violence, poverty, and instability with black and Muslim bodies, reducing the power of this violence. Black and Muslim bodies are marked and characterized with “deadly consequences,” normalizing their struggle. 

In her work on “grievability,” Judith Butler argues that some lives are more grievable and hold more value than others. Ungrievable lives, in her definition, are lives that can’t be lost or destroyed, because they as they already inhabit a lost and destroyed zone. They are perceived ontologically, from the very beginning, as already lost and destroyed—meaning that when these lives are destroyed in war, nothing is destroyed. The Sudanese identity, which blends “blackness” and “Muslimness,” is a recipe for disaster in the world of global solidarity that rejects either one of the two identities or both. 

Former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Anan states that his biggest regret was failing to prevent the genocide in Rwanda. Rwandan activists and humanitarian workers, like those in Sudan, raised warnings of catastrophe prior to the genocide. Humanitarian agencies and the global community turned a blind eye, consequently making it one of the world’s greatest humanitarian failures. 

We are now effortlessly watching history repeat itself. The Sudanese war is on the verge of becoming the next Rwanda. Sudan is in dire need of solidarity and external pressure to increase the chances of holding both General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, accountable for the numerous felonies they’ve carried out over the years. 

Furthermore, Sudan is a victim of Western and Arab imperialism, the former of which is not spoken of enough. Imperialistic presence in Sudan can be overthrown only by the people. There needs to be international pressure on regional players that contribute to the war by supplying arms to the Rapid Support Force, strengthening their forces on the ground. As we are learning from Palestinian activism, international pressure requires a bottom-up approach. Civilians around the world need to place pressure on their governments to use bilateral relations to prevent Sudan’s geopolitical war from further exacerbating. 

Humanitarian agencies are essential during world calamities. Abolishing the systemic racism that exists within humanitarian institutions that promote Western nuisance, favoritism, and hidden political motives is the only way to break imperialistic cycles of exploitation within the humanitarian arena. As Tammam Aloudat, a humanitarian responder, explains in an interview on the podcast Rethinking Humanitarianism, as of now, humanitarian agencies are commonly “driven not by the demand of people” but by those funding it. We must create a deeper understanding of history and its influences on solidarity and humanitarianism in Africa to overcome these hindrances. 

Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire elucidates that we should not deal with people as objects but as subjects. I take that in the humanitarian sense and urge NGOs not to “serve” the people experiencing calamities but to work with them. To work with the Sudanese society, the Sudanese emergency rooms, youth volunteers, and civilian-led humanitarian responders in order to truly assist those in need. This could be done by introducing mutual aid systems within humanitarian organizations. Mutual aid systems are how many volunteers have managed to successfully evacuate Sudanese families or provide them with medical care. How can NGOs institutionalize mutual aid by closely working with civil societies during the war in Sudan to respond to the crisis more effectively? Rest assured that this movement I am urging for is not one that is intended to end humanitarian involvement. Rather, it is a movement for inclusivity that can overcome imperialistic influences to respond to global crises more functionally. 

It is a movement that truly stands in the name of humanity.

Further Reading