The Saving Game

By William Wheeler | Boston Magazine |

The SSP accomplished a slow-motion version of this last year, when they successfully predicted the Sudan Armed Forces’ invasion of a disputed territory called Abyei. They did so by piecing together disparate scraps of intelligence: the building of an elevated road (for moving heavy armor, they inferred); the construction of a fueling facility; and the buildup of forces and materials, including tanks, artillery, MI-24 attack helicopters, and infantry. As a result, Rebecca Hamilton, the Washington Post special correspondent in Sudan, said the invasion was “perhaps the most clearly forecast crisis in history.”

The SSP takes pains to conceal the precise locations of troops and weapons. Otherwise, says Benjamin Davies, its operations manager, “We would basically be putting [the war] on steroids. But if we say, ‘This city is going to get hit and we’re worried they’re going to use disproportionate force,’ we are giving an all-points warning: ‘An ax murderer is on the loose in Cambridge. Beware.’ We’re not saying where yet, we’re just saying he’s out there and he’s got an ax.” In this, like in many aspects of their work, the SSP team has to write its own rules; there is no playbook.

As with all HHI programs, the SSP is a collaboration among unusual partners — in this case, publicly traded DigitalGlobe provides the satellite imagery and aids HHI with its analysis, while the Enough Project does the advocacy. And though the seed money comes from Clooney, SSP’s budget is reliant on DigitalGlobe, which gives the project access to satellite imagery worth millions of dollars. DigitalGlobe is funded in large part by the U.S. defense community.

THE SSP IS AN EXAMPLE of what technology can do for humanitarianism, says VanRooyen. “It’s non-CIA, non-state-sanctioned surveillance — it’s crazy that this is the future.” And in that way, it’s one of the game-changing tools that he’s looking for.

But as he’s learning, it’s hard to revolutionize something as deep-rooted and complex as “doing good” on a massive scale. Davies notes that his work is “culturally terrifying to humanitarians.” Case in point: Human Rights Watch’s Sudan senior researcher, Jehanne Henry, says that she doesn’t put much faith in the value of the SSP findings. But after the SSP’s report on mass graves in the South Kordofan region made headlines on CNN and in the New York Times, Henry did check out their images of the graves. “I don’t think I could take them as hard-and-fast evidence,” she says. “They looked like blobs on the screen.” She questions whether the International Criminal Court (ICC) would use these images as evidence — a hypothetical question, she says, since the court doesn’t seem to be pursuing a case in that region.

But that’s changed. On December 3, Time magazine reported that the ICC was compiling verification of recent war crimes in southern Sudan, allegedly directed by Sudan Defense Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein, the same man said to be responsible for the crimes eight years ago in Darfur. According to ICC documents acquired by Time, a “significant portion of this new investigation is based on data from the Satellite Sentinel Project, a network of private spy satellites and analysts organized by George Clooney in partnership with John Prendergast’s Enough Project. The satellites have been snapping pictures of northern Sudan since December of last year.”

VanRooyen just may be on the right track. These changes are coming because they need to come, he says. From his perspective, they can’t come soon enough.

  • Joshua

    This article is adulatory. VanRooyen is described in glowing terms. The author does not indicate any scepticism about the achievements and work of the Harvard Humanitarian Institute.

    Most serious critiques of the humanitarian business are rooted in the economic and bureaucratic institutions that humanitarianism has created. None of VanRooyen’s suggestions work to solve these problems.

    Furthermore, the author has not spent any time, it seems, either actually working out whether the SSP reports on Sudan are accurate, or looking at the effect of the distortions caused by the simplified language of these reports, which bang the drum for war at the expense of a considered understanding of the political dynamics on the ground.