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‘‘There may have been no water, but the province was awash with guns’’

Reporting of the conflict in Darfur in the western media reproduces the spurious ethnic categories o

I first went to Sudan in 2003, the year that the insurgency began in the Darfur region of the country. Very quickly, I began to notice something distinctive in the way the western press reported the conflict in the province. I had written a book on the genocide in Rwanda, and academic papers on the conflicts
in eastern Congo and Angola. The global media had treated those events as if they had unfolded in the dark of the night. But not Darfur. Darfur was globalised from the outset and was made the subject of a media blitz.

There was an obvious reason for this. Darfur – unlike Congo, Angola and Rwanda – was the focus of a political campaign in the United States, the Save Darfur movement. But one of the effects of its becoming a domestic issue in the US was a series of distortions of the historical record.

The first concerned just how many people had actually died in Darfur at the height of the conflict in 2003-2004. This is the question that the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an audit agency of the US government, asked in 2006. The GAO got together with the US Academy of Sciences and asked a panel of 12 experts to assess the reliability of six different mortality estimates – from a high of roughly 400,000, from researchers linked to Save Darfur, to a low of between 50,000 and 70,000 by the World Health Organisation. The experts were unanimous that the high-level estimates were the least reliable and the lower figures generally more reliable. A broad consensus identified a WHO-connected research unit in Europe, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), as the source of the most reliable estimate: 118,142.

The GAO report was sent to the US state department, which endorsed the findings. It then made its way to Congress and on to the GAO’s website. But the public availability of this in­formation had little effect on media reports of mortality rates in Darfur. Nor did it affect or temper in any way the claims made by Save Darfur, relayed in full-page ads in the New York Times and on subway and bus posters, that more than 400,000 people had died in Darfur, and that “the genocide [was] continuing”.

Then there was the question of how people were dying. The media rarely acknowledged that the number of dead in Darfur was not the same as the number killed. This is because there were at least two main causes of death: drought and desertification, on the one hand, and direct violence, on the other. The WHO attributed between 70 and 80 per cent of the deaths to the effects of drought and desertification, mainly infants and children who had died from diarrhoea and dysentery. Between 20 and 30 per cent was ascribed to direct violence.

Anyone who does research on mass mortality knows that there is not an impermeable wall between violence and disease. How many who died from disease could have been saved in the absence of violence? The CRED report talked of 120,000 “excess deaths”. “We estimate,” it read, “the number of violence-related deaths to be plus/minus 35,000.” The report further said that the “‘excess deaths’ can be attributed to violence, diseases and malnutrition because of the conflict during this period”.

Should all the deaths have been attributed to “the conflict during this period”, then? What about the drought and desertification which had preceded the conflict and would most likely outlast it? There was clearly a large margin of uncertainty, though you would never have guessed it from most media reports.

More recently, western outlets have taken to reporting figures from a 2008 speech by John Holmes, under-secretary for humanitarian affairs at the UN. Holmes gave a global figure of 300,000 civilian dead in Darfur since the insurgency began in 2003, which most media repeat without comment. His speech contained two qualifications, both of which have been largely ignored. First, he said that 200,000 had died in Darfur in 2003-2004 from “combined causes”. This could only be a reference, however oblique, to drought and desertification, besides violence. But where did he get the figure of 200,000, as opposed to the 120,000 from CRED? Second, Holmes said that another 100,000 must have died since, “assuming the same trend”. But why assume “the same trend” when ground-level UN reports suggested the opposite?

Darfur Timeline

1899 English and Egyptian forces agree to joint dominion over Sudan. In the following decades, closed districts are established and travel from north to south is restricted

1953-54 A British census deepens the divide, categorising the Sudanese as “Arab” settlers and “Negro” natives

1956 Sudan shrugs off British colonisation and declares independence

1987-89 Civil war erupts in Darfur as nomads and peasant tribes fight over fertile land

2002 Sudanese government and southern rebels sign ceasefire agreement

2003 Rebels in western Darfur claim neglect by the government and launch attack

2004 UN accuses Sudanese government of extensive human rights violations

2005 Power-sharing administration established in Khartoum but fighting continues

2009 International Criminal Court issues arrest warrant for President Bashir (pictured). War trials get under way

Research by Tara Graham

Reporters such as Julie Flint of the Independent who have spoken to UN ground staff in Darfur have reported on a sharp decline in mortality, to levels lower than 200 a month, from January 2005. In April, the UN Security Council received a report from the secretary general’s envoy to Sudan that deaths from violence in Darfur between January 2008 and April 2009 had averaged fewer than 150 a month; this was a “low-intensity conflict”, therefore, and no longer an emergency.

The media have also shown little interest in the historical roots of the conflict. Anyone who has worked in or on Darfur would know that the violence there unfolded in distinct phases, starting with the civil war in 1987-89. Darfuris talk of conflicts prior to 1987 as being mainly localised, arising principally from boundary disputes that were easily resolved at tribunals which agreed compensation for injury.

However, something changed in 1987: the civil war which began that year spread throughout Darfur, and was waged with unparalleled and unprecedented brutality. There were several reasons for this mutation in the nature and scope of the violence. The parcelling up of territory into tribal homelands by the British in the early 20th century into unequal areas of land – which favoured settled tribes and left the camel nomads of northern Darfur without a homeland – was exacerbated by drought and desertification. According to United Nations Education Programme studies, the southern rim of the Sahara expanded nearly 100 kilometres over four decades. The effect of this was to push the northern nomadic tribes southwards in search of better land. The result was an ecological struggle between nomads and peasants over the most productive land. Whoever controlled that land would survive.

The civil war in Chad that began with independence in the 1960s was also a factor. Chad subsequently became a theatre in the Cold War after President Reagan declared Libya a terrorist state in 1981, with the US, France and Israel lining up on one side, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and the Soviet Union on the other. With the government in control of N’Djamena, the Chadian capital, the opposition crossed the border into Darfur, from where it mobilised, retrained, rearmed and launched attacks. This meant when the civil war in Darfur began in 1987, there may have been no water, but the province was awash with guns.

For a year, I was a consultant for the Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation, a unit created by the African Union after the 2004 Abuja ceasefire negotiations. The DDDC carried out some research on the dynamics of the conflict. Its findings showed that the violence had spread over two axes: a north-south axis that pitted nomadic against peasant tribes, and an east-west axis, in the south, that led to two kinds of nomadic tribes – those with homelands and those without – confronting one another.

But Save Darfur, and the media in thrall, focused exclusively on the north-south axis, thus creating a further distortion – that this was a conflict between “Arab” and “African” tribes. In truth, the driving force of the conflict was not ethnic identity, but a search for land in an ecolo­gical crisis. Whoever controlled the land would survive the crisis; the losers would perish.

The racial categorisation of the population of Sudan as “Arab” and “African”, and the historical narrative according to which Arab settlers established mastery over African natives, began in the writing of British colonialists – from Winston Churchill’s journalistic The River War to the administrator-historian Harold MacMichael’s A History of the Arabs in the Sudan. This tradition lives on in the work of Sudanese nationalist historians of the post-independence period, as well as British academics. However, elements of a counter-history can be found in work done by American and British historians and anthropologists on specific locales (the sultanate of the Funj, for instance, or the Baggara of southern Darfur), and also that of Sudanese folklorists, whose focus was the tribal preoccupation with genealogies. What emerges from these alternative sources is that there was no “Arab” invasion of Sudan, and that there is no single history of the Arab presence in Sudan. There is hardly any connection, for instance, between the “Arabs” of riverine Sudan and those of Darfur. Indeed, if the former are associated with privilege and power, the latter are the most wretched of the Darfuri population.

The census carried out by the British colonial power in Sudan in 1953-54 divided the population between “Arab” settlers and “Negro” natives. It had three further categories: tribes, groups of tribes (referring to language groups) and races. Whereas in Rwanda, the basic category of colonial policy had been race, in Sudan – and Darfur – it was tribe. Race did not become an operative classification in Darfur until the civil war of 1987-89. This would later have a significant influence on media reporting of the insurgency and counter-insurgency that began in 2003.

For those trying to think how to resolve any seemingly intractable conflict, there are two paradigms available. The first is the Nuremberg paradigm, underpinned by two main assumptions: first, that justice will follow the emergence of a clear victor in the conflict, and would be administered as a form of victor’s justice; second, that yesterday’s perpetrators and victims should not have to face the challenge of living together in the same country – the survivors should instead acquire a new political identity in a separate state, as was the case with the creation of the state of Israel. There is an alternative, however, based on the recognition that neither of these assumptions holds for most conflicts in Africa. Without a separate state for yesterday’s victims, all must learn to live as survivors.

The attempted transition from apartheid is a good example. How do you convince adversaries that it is in their interest to stop fighting? The answer at the Kempton Park negotiations to end apartheid was clear: you don’t do it by prioritising criminal justice – threatening to take perpetrators to court – because the very people you would take to court are those you will have to rely on to keep the peace.

Kempton Park thus distinguished between political justice and criminal justice, and prioritised political justice for groups over criminal justice for individuals. The decision was taken not to put the leaders of apartheid on trial. The trade-off was a pardon for individual leaders in return for their agreement to a change of rules, a political reform that would give a second chance to the living. This was not victors’ justice, but what one might call survivors’ justice.

The South African experience is not an exception. The civil war in Mozambique, in which the Pretoria-funded Renamo resistance specialised in turning kidnapped children into victim-perpetrators, ended in much the same way. Renamo’s leaders now sit in parliament, not in court or jail. In Southern Sudan, too, criminal justice was set aside in favour of political reform. Why could the same not work in Darfur? Could it be because the area became a global cause célèbre after 11 September 2001?

There is an international dimension to the Darfur crisis, too. Current debates over how to end the conflict in Darfur have focused narrowly on the charges brought by the International Criminal Court against the president of Sudan, on a criminal and legal solution rather a political one. When the ICC judges ruled on the application filed by its prosecutor, throwing out the charge of genocide but not that of crimes against humanity, they were not issuing a verdict on the charges but responding to a different question: if the facts stand as presented, would the accused have a case to answer? The facts are not yet on trial, but they will be if President Omar el-Bashir ever presents himself before the court. In that case, many of the most widely trumpeted claims – of 300,000 dead, of a “continuing” slaughter, and so on – will turn out to be unreliable.

Moreover, it is clear that the question of accountability applies not only to the alleged perpetrators, but also to the putative enforcers of justice. Who is to hold them accountable? In the absence of adequate and effective political accountability, the risk is that the law will be privatised and used to implement a narrow and partial agenda. The UN Security Council, for instance, has the power to refer or defer cases to the ICC. And when the Indian government refused to sign the Rome Convention to join the ICC, its main objection was that the court’s prosecutor was highly unlikely to hold to account the permanent members of the very UN Security Council to which the court itself is formally accountable. Experience in the post-11 September 2001 era suggests that this fear was not groundless.

Global justice is a worthy goal, but it cannot exist without a political system that ensures global accountability. In the absence of accountability, claims made in the name of global justice will, as the philosopher Martin Buber once said of the system of trusteeship put forward by the League of Nations, be little more than cover for the exercise of imperial power.

Mahmood Mamdani is the author of "Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror", published by Verso (£17.99)

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge