There was an academic roadtrip last week from Durham to Oxford for a symposium on Sudan. The symposium – as with a talk by an FCO representative on the Wednesday before – had the same failing, in that in both cases the speakers attempted to not make predictions while also making predictions.
I think it’s generally felt that Sudan, both north and South, will be in real difficulties in every way in the short, medium and long-term. I don’t know anyone who, when pressed, gets really distressed, stressed and frustrated by their views of what will happen, particularly to South Sudan. I become extremely annoyed with people who refer to South Sudan as being a ‘failed state’ in the making. It sounds like meaningless and flippant pessimism, and it depersonalises and generalises a really frightening and worrying time.
So, both the FCO talk and the Oxford symposium tended towards prediction and pessimism. There was a certain amount of one-upmanship; as one speaker put it, if you predict the worst, then if you’re right you can say I told you so and if you’re wrong then that’s good. But when a speaker’s being stridently pessimistic in his I-promise-they’re-not-predictions, it does depress me: I don’t feel that, as academics trying to make sensible comments about a really changing and exceptional situation, we have to sound like we aren’t afraid on behalf of the people whose lives and livelihoods are at stake. I don’t think that’s academic distance or objectivity.