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Moving Beyond Divestment

In the late 1970s, Stanford University student Steve Hansch helped launch a movement calling for colleges to help combat apartheid by divesting from companies doing business in South Africa. Today, as an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown and American Universities teaching humanitarian aid, Hansch uses his three decades of aid work in Africa to bring insight into the problems in Sudan, where he also lived in the mid-1980s. 

Diverse Senior Editor Christina Asquith caught up with Hansch recently and asked his thoughts on the current situation in Sudan, whether similar “divestment” will be successful and what professors can do to help.


Diverse:  This conflict began in earnest in early 2003, and some say as many as 300,000 people have died and 2 million have been displaced. Yet few in the West can agree on the source of the dispute. Is this a religious conflict between Arabs and non-Arabs? Is it a conflict over scarce resources, power, money and control?

Hansch: It’s not a religious conflict. It’s a conflict over access to land, cattle, water and livelihood. All the factions which are in violent conflict in Darfur are Muslim. It’s not “Muslim against non-Muslim,” which is implied in much of the reportage when people characterize it as “Arab vs. African.” They’re all Muslims, they’re all Black and they’re all Africans.

When we — the Western world — promised a large aid package to southern Sudan if they would end their decades-old war, which worked, we did not think that it would lead then to the prospects for war in another part of the same country. We ought to know that marginalized people in other parts of the country are going to look at that large aid package and ask, ‘Wait, the way to get all that global support and money is to go to war first? Ok.” 

Diverse: You say there is a success story in Darfur?


Hansch: The press insists on only seeing tragedy and has completely missed reporting about all the successful humanitarian aid, donated by Americans, that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives in Darfur. The death rates could have been so much higher. The reason the failure of news reporting concerns me is that the time bomb is still ticking, and these aid agencies need more contributions from Americans to keep the rate of excess deaths down. Without press coverage of their work, American’s don’t know how important their donations are.

Diverse: What about all these celebrities — most recently George Clooney and his father —weighing in on Darfur?


Hansch: It’s great that so many Americans are paying attention to humanitarian crises. The spotlight affect is positive, up to a point. So far, none of the pundits, politicos or protestors are proposing long-term constructive solutions. The next step though is for professionals who are supposed to study these problems to figure out the solutions. 

A real, lasting solution to the complex emergency of Darfur needs to bring to bear the assets we have at universities. We need to harness our best thinkers to find new property rights regimes and economic and livelihood alternatives that resolve these disputes over limited land and other resources that the growing population is fighting over. Underlying the civil war are real problems over an insufficient set of livelihood options, long-term poverty and a growing desert. I’m trying to convince a coalition of universities and university departments — from anthropology to law — to work together on this.

Diverse: What role does the U.S. Christian community play in the history of all this?

Hansch: The U.S. Christian community became mobilized about the crisis in southern Sudan in the 1990s, which was a prominent factor in leading Colin Powell to gave so much attention to ending the war there when he first came into office as Secretary of State. He fulfilled his commitment, successfully ending a decades-old, complex emergency, which embarrassed key Democrats who had not seen that success in past administrations.

In their messaging, the Christian coalition on Sudan, which kicked off the divestment campaign, made use of an even more stark contrast of Arabs against Christians in the south. Although, out of 9 million people in southern Sudan, not very many are Christian. 

Diverse: Today, there is a massive campaign to divest in Sudan, with student activists convincing more than a dozen universities to divest. What do you think of the divestment campaign?

Hansch: In South Africa, it started with the universities, then the states and then Congress and finally the big difference was the big banks got involved. Yet, it would not have worked in South Africa had the country not already been deeply divided. Enough South Africans saw their country as a cosmopolitan and progressive country that they cared not to be isolated. In contrast, despite all our best work in organizing global economic pressure on Burma, the Burmese military junta does not particularly care. Meanwhile, there’s no question that economic sanctions have harmed the citizens of Burma.

Sudan is more similar to Burma than to South Africa. The divestment campaign will hurt the Sudanese government but just as in the case of Burma, the Sudanese can find other markets, like China. China’s disrespect for human rights is the common thread running through numerous student campaigns, from Tibet to Burma, from North Korea to Darfur.

Diverse: The Chinese company PetroChina has been the biggest target of divestment. Does Harvard University removing a few million from a billion-dollar PetroChina really have any effect?

Hansch: Yes. There’s a symbolic effect, which matters to markets and share prices. Every step like this is a part of a larger jigsaw puzzle. If every shareholder worldwide does their share, then the bandwagon will grow and the appropriate pressures and signals will be sent.

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