by Jason Zengerle
Late last summer, Sam Bell set out to acquire an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). It was an unusual shopping expedition for a private citizen, much less a 22-year-old only a few months removed from his political science and philosophy studies at Swarthmore College. But, ever since graduation, and even while in school, Bell had been working to do what the U.S. government and the United Nations had so far failed to: stop the genocide in Darfur. He believed a UAV might help that goal, and so, one September afternoon, he put on his one-and-only suit and paid a visit to the Washington, D.C., offices of an aviation contractor called Evergreen International.
Two Evergreen executives received Bell as they would any potential client: enthusiastically. They regaled him with details of their UAVs — how they could be piloted by remote control from the company's Oregon headquarters and how their cameras had a 30-kilometer range and took remarkably precise pictures — and they proposed a strategy for using them. Evergreen would divide Darfur into four sectors, dedicating one UAV to each quadrant; the UAVs would then send photos of the whereabouts of the murderous Janjaweed militia to the African Union (AU) peacekeeping force.
Bell liked the idea, but not the $22 million annual price tag. He asked if the firm had any options for shoppers on a tighter budget. The executives offered an old, low-end, limited-range UAV for $5 million. That was still, as Bell puts it, "a bit out of our price range," but he thought it might be worth splurging — until he and fellow anti-genocide crusader Mark Hanis ran their potential purchase by an expert. "He said, one, a sandstorm could knock the UAV out; two, it could get shot down; and three, if either of those things happened, the Sudanese government could get a hold of it and take hold of its technology," Hanis explains. "So it turned out the UAV wasn't such a good idea."
Bell and Hanis's aborted foray into the world of discount drone shopping was done on behalf of the Genocide Intervention Network (GI-Net). Founded at Swarthmore in October 2004 by Hanis and another student, Andrew Sniderman, GI-Net sought to raise money from private citizens to support the underfunded, undermanned AU peacekeeping force. "We treat genocides like natural disasters, and we throw bags of rice at the problem," says Hanis, who, like Bell, graduated last spring. "We wanted to treat genocide as a security issue."
It was an out-of-the-box, arguably ludicrous idea — college students passing the hat to support a military force for a foreign intervention — but the idea got people's attention. After pitching the concept to a host of foreign policy luminaries — "I'd pull all-nighters e-mailing former secretaries of state," says Hanis, whose prior political outreach experience included running for Swarthmore's student council — a number of them, such as Roméo Dallaire and Samantha Power, gave GI-Net their endorsements, as did several members of Congress. The Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank in Washington, gave the group office space. And, most importantly, hundreds of people started giving GI-Net money. Students at Cornell University hosted a special showing of Hotel Rwanda, raising $5,000 for the group. A Mamaroneck, New York, high school held a battle of the bands. And a Salt Lake City piano teacher donated two weeks' worth of earnings. A year after Hanis and Sniderman first conceived of the idea during an International Club dinner in the college dining hall, GI-Net had collected $250,000 to support the Darfur peacekeepers (and an additional $250,000 to support GI-Net's operations). Now the group's members just needed to figure out how to spend the funds. But, as they soon discovered, raising money to stop a genocide is a lot easier than giving it away.
As GI-Net's founders originally envisioned it, their project would involve a straightforward transaction. They would raise the money, and then they would immediately bequeath it to the AU for items like walkie-talkies or tents. "We wanted the money to go to something tangible, something our donors could touch, not just some fund somewhere," says Bell.
To that end, Gayle Smith, a former Clinton administration National Security Council staffer who's now a senior fellow at CAP, met with AU officials in Addis Ababa on GI-Net's behalf early last year. But, while heartened by the American college students' efforts, the officials told her that they couldn't earmark GI-Net's money for a specific purpose and would be able to put it only into a general fund. "They don't have the time to handle the administrative hassles of keeping track of a $250,000 contribution," Bell explains.
So GI-Net's members began scrambling to find another way to come to the AU's aid. They became intrigued by the idea of giving their money to Rwanda — not exactly a historic model in combating genocide, but one of the most active contributors to the AU's peacekeeping mission. "We approached [Rwanda's U.S. ambassador] and said ... 'Could you take our contribution and deploy a contingent of female police officers to Darfur to protect women when they leave the refugee camps to forage for firewood?'" Bell says. The ambassador was interested, but he said that GI-Net would have to go through the AU — which reiterated its original reluctance.
Getting the runaround on the ground, GI-Net looked up in the air — and to the north. The Canadian government had provided a fleet of transport helicopters to the AU, and Sniderman, who is Canadian, thought his countrymen might be interested in expanding the contribution. "We hoped we could give our money to the Canadians and then they could increase the helicopter fleet by one," he says. He pitched the proposal to some interested mid-level foreign affairs officials, but higher-ups ultimately nixed the idea. "Their bosses said they had concerns about accepting citizen money for a government program," says Sniderman.
But private contractors had no such qualms about taking citizen money, and so GI-Net began to explore ways in which the private sector might help the group help the AU mission. In addition to Evergreen, the group spoke with Pacific Architects & Engineers, a U.S. firm that has a State Department contract to provide logistical support to the AU and was willing to use GI-Net's money to help fuel helicopters. There was just one problem. Fuel isn't "very visual," says Hanis. "A photo of two barrels of petroleum doesn't really motivate people to give more money."
The most surreal moment of GI-Net's search came last November when Sniderman — who is still in school (although no longer a member of the golf team, because he's now too busy) — e-mailed more than 100 private security firms. "I asked whether they'd be willing to deploy armed staff to protect refugee camps in Darfur," he says. "Within 36 hours, I got dozens of replies. Most were saying, 'We've never done anything like that, but we'd love to work with you.'" Operating from his dorm room — he made sure to change his voice mail greeting to "something more serious and somber ... something you'd want your business partners to hear" — Sniderman spoke with several firms about what sort of protection they could offer. "They were taking it very seriously. We were a potential client, and they were trying to figure out exactly what we wanted to do." One firm, whose identity Sniderman refuses to divulge, said that it would go to Darfur even if it did not receive permission from the Sudanese government.
GI-Net quickly concluded that going with mercenaries was a bad idea. But, as their search dragged on, the group's members became increasingly frustrated that they were sitting on a pile of money when, seemingly every day, there was some new horror in Darfur. Finally, in January, GI-Net had a breakthrough. An African NGO was willing to take GI-Net's money and, in tandem with the AU, train a contingent of female escorts to protect Darfurian women when they leave their refugee camps to search for firewood. This week, Smith is in Addis Ababa putting the finishing touches on the deal.
As soon as it's a go, GI-Net will begin raising money to fund more security efforts in Darfur. But trying to do as private citizens what should, after all, be the job of governments has proved tougher than the group ever expected. "Some of us thought we'd do the fund-raising, hand it over, and they'd do the rest," Hanis says. He adds, somewhat wearily, "With giving money, there are a lot more details."
Copyright 2006, The New Republic