Saving Darfur, Multiple Steps at a Time

A 2006 rally on the Mall organized by the Save Darfur Coalition attracted thousands, including Amer Makol.
A 2006 rally on the Mall organized by the Save Darfur Coalition attracted thousands, including Amer Makol. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007

Lobbying groups regularly get their way in Washington, but few have had as much impact in a short period as the Save Darfur Coalition, an organization that has been pressing for international intervention in war-torn Sudan.

Over the past two years, it has flooded lawmakers' inboxes with pleas for assistance, filled the Mall with protesters and blanketed the airwaves with heart-rending commercials. One ad showed photos of anguished, starving Sudanese and asked, "How will history judge us?"

These activities have been credited with keeping the issue in high profile and with spurring President Bush's decision this week to impose economic sanctions on Sudan. "It's done something that none of us thought would ever be possible -- to start a mass movement on Sudan," said Alex de Waal, a scholar on Africa.

Since 2003, as many as 450,000 people have been killed and about 2.5 million displaced by Arab militias with the backing of the Sudanese government.

None of the money collected by Save Darfur goes to help the victims and their families. Instead, the coalition pours its proceeds into advocacy efforts that are primarily designed to persuade governments to act.

Lately it has also pressured Fidelity Investments and Berkshire Hathaway to divest holdings in PetroChina, a large Chinese petroleum and natural gas company involved in Sudan's oil industry.

Save Darfur was created in 2005 by two groups concerned about genocide in the African country -- the American Jewish World Service and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Today, the coalition is comprised of more than 180 groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals and the American Society for Muslim Advancement.

The coalition has a staff of 30 with expertise in policy and public relations. Its budget was about $15 million in the most recent fiscal year. Its funds come from individuals, Fortune 500 companies that match gifts from their employees and from foundations, such as the Oak Foundation and the Public Welfare Foundation.

In addition to its ads, the coalition provides updates about Darfur to 700,000 people across the country and routinely asks them to call or write to Bush and Congress.

Save Darfur will not say exactly how much it has spent on its ads, which this week have attempted to shame China, host of the 2008 Olympics, into easing its support for Sudan. But a coalition spokeswoman said the amount is in the millions of dollars.

Foreign policy experts in Congress credit the coalition with laying the groundwork for Bush's new policy. "Save Darfur's efforts to pressure the administration and Congress and keep the issue alive have had a tremendous impact," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Bush administration spokesmen said the president's sanctions decision was based on advisers' first-hand knowledge of the region's deteriorating situation. But they also acknowledged that groups such as Save Darfur were instrumental in making the issue a priority.

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