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"Ask U.S.": State Department 2.0 on Sudan, Darfur and Public Engagement

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, November 9 2009

Tomorrow afternoon at 3:00pm EST, Special Envoy Scott Gration and Samantha Power, NSC Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs, are going to sit down at the White House with the leaders of the largest, most vocal advocacy groups on Darfur issue, Jerry Fowler of Save Darfur, and Layla Amjadi, the student director of STAND (the student-led division of the Genocide Intervention Network). Ho-hum, you might say, yet another behind-the-scenes meeting between administration officials and NGOs, what's new about that?

Well, two things. First, the meeting is going to be streamed live onto the web on not only the White House and State Department websites (in the latter case on their Facebook page, where viewers can comment along in real-time), but also on the Save Darfur and STAND's sites. So the conversation is hardly going to be behind-the-scenes. And second, since last week both groups have been canvassing their memberships to submit and/or select questions to ask Gration and Power since last week when Gration announced the event on the State Department's blog. He wrote:

The Sudan advocacy community is extremely active and deeply committed to raising critical awareness about the situation in Sudan. The Obama Administration is eager to continue an active dialogue with the advocacy community, and as such the White House and the State Department are partnering with the Save Darfur Coalition and STAND, the student-led division of Genocide Intervention Network, to launch “Ask U.S.”

“Ask U.S.” is an effort to reach out to the advocacy communities and to solicit questions on the U.S. Sudan policy from activists deeply and passionately engaged on this critical issue. As part of the “Ask U.S.” campaign, the Save Darfur Coalition and STAND will collect questions from their members over the course of this week and weekend. Next Tuesday, November 10, leaders from these organizations will come to the White House and, in a live streamed video event, will pose selected questions to myself and Samantha Power, NSC Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs.

From the administration's perspective, "Ask U.S." is an extension of outreach work that Special Envoy Gration is doing to engage all parties to the Sudan issue and aimed at building trust directly between the advocacy community and the administration. Since joining the government, Gration has been keen to open a direct channel with the public, pushing for his own blog, for example. "Ask U.S." builds on that approach of avoiding the media middleman, but as far as I know it is the first time the State Department (or any other department) has engaged so openly with groups that, at times, can be quite critical of its policies. (Imagine the Treasury Department holding a public forum with "Public Citizen" and "Campaign for America's Future" on banking policy, for example, or the Agriculture Department doing something similar with the Sierra Club.)

Of course, it's a little hard to say if this is real engagement--where the outcome is uncertain and the stakes real--or "participation theater" where all parties are going through a carefully managed simulation, a sort-of 21st Century photo-op. The proof will be in how tomorrow's live event goes, I suppose, and to what degree the membership of both organizations are a) engaged and b) satisfied by the performance of their representatives in the encounter. In that respect, this "Ask U.S." event is a bit of a double-edged sword: it isn't just the administration's representatives who are exposing themselves to live interrogation (albeit polite and diplomatic, I'm sure) by public advocates; those advocates too will be watched by their supporters and potentially critiqued on their performance.

Over on STAND's website, Amjadi has prominently posted an online poll, listing ten questions generated by the group and asking members to vote to winnow them down to five. "This is our chance to ask tough questions about the administration’s new Sudan policy," she writes. "I need to hear from you – what questions should I ask?" (The questions listed are indeed tough, but the group isn't making the vote public so it's impossible to tell what its members think, or to foster a conversation among STAND members as to how to prioritize them.)

[UPDATE: I reached Amjadi later in the afternoon and she added some additional context: "We view this as a great opportunity to engage our membership," she told me. The questions on STAND's website, she says, were drafted by the organization's leadership team with input from local chapters and STAND alumni. The group has several thousand people on its email list and many local chapters on campuses around the country; she estimated that there were "a couple hundred" voters on the online poll as of yesterday.]

On Save Darfur's site, the forum is featured as one of several current initiatives the group is pushing, along with a petition on the Sudan to President Obama related to his upcoming China trip, a promo for last weekend's Pledge2Protect conference and the group's e-commerce page. If you click on the "Ask the Administration" option, you're taken to a page where you can type in a question. Save Darfur staff are collecting those questions and choosing the five they deem most representative.

About 300,000 46,000 people out of Save Darfur's overall list of one million members were emailed about the opportunity to submit questions; about 450 came in, which isn't bad given the difficulty of the ask and the degree to which Save Darfur's online organizing has mostly been of the "web 1.0" variety (i.e., sign a petition, vote on a campaign slogan, send us a check). Andrea Clarke, the group's senior communications director, says she is hoping that tomorrow's live event will make their activists feel more involve "and show the special envoy just how many people are watching" the administration's effort on the Darfur crisis. She also hopes that tomorrow's event goes well enough that the administration makes it into a regular quarterly event, which would be an unprecedented and most interesting new form of "21st century statecraft."

That said, I'm surprised that there isn't more noise online about tomorrow's event. The Twitter hashtag for it is #AskUS. One would think that Save Darfur, which has 190 member organizations in its coalition, would be lighting up its whole network to engage as many people as possible in participating.

It's worth noting that ever since the administration unveiled its new "comprehensive" approach to the Sudan crisis, Save Darfur and STAND have both taken a fairly low-key approach. Fowler issued a statement saying the group "cautiously welcomed" the new strategy. At the same time, he is very concerned about how the policy will be implemented and in particular, in raising President Obama's personal involvement in the issue.

[Full disclosure: I, along with my family, am a member of Save Darfur. We donate a couple hundred dollars a year to the organization.]