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
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 Romeo
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
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."