JOHN PRENDERGAST: Humanitarian organizer, Africa expert, optimist

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John Prendergast probably makes you feel really bad about yourself. A human rights activist who has worked to promote peace resolution in Africa for over 20 years, Prendergast helped broker an end to the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict in the ’90s, co-founded the genocide-prevention organization Enough and has won multiple awards for notable global citizenship. WEEKEND sat down with Prendergast to gain some insight on how students can figure out a way to help, whether he fears donor apathy and how he once was this close to being slapped by Angelina Jolie.

Q. You worked with the Clinton administration but left the government in 2001. Why was that?

A. The political party that had brought me in, the Democrats, went out of power. When Gore won/lost/whatever, I did decide that I would try to stay. I thought Africa policy should be bipartisan. I kind of wanted to be the Dennis Ross for Africa. But some officials in the Bush administration just made my life so miserable that I had to leave.

Q. Is that a political thing? Do you feel that right-wing politicians are less sympathetic to African problems?

A. No. It’s definitely possible to have conservatives fighting for our cause. We had a very fruitful bipartisan consensus during the 1990s, particularly on issues like Sudan and the Congo. Democrats and Republicans who completely disagreed on every other matter came together for Africa.

Q. But is that kind of conservative willingness to help out waning today, with Rick Perry stating that he wants to cut foreign aid and Herman Cain mocking weird Uzbeki-place-stans?

A. I mean, presidential campaigns provide fodder for some of the worst quotes in global history in terms of international policy. We saw similar quotes from Bush in 2000, but he ended up increasing aid substantially. So, while it is alarming that this is the state of the discourse [among Republicans], we need to remember that we’re still in primary season.

Q. Do you think such politicians represent a general American shift in priorities towards keeping government money domestic and limiting international engagement?

A. They’re really more of the same in terms of statements. But what’s different today is that we don’t have the money we used to have. With deficit reduction so important, the attitude of isolationism will find its way into public policy and, yes, aid will be reduced. I think programs that don’t have a huge constituency, no outcry in America tied to them, will be slashed, such as democracy promotion, sustainable agriculture and micro-enterprise projects.

Q. What’s the solution for these projects, then?

A. They need to find more private financing. European aid budgets are going to be crushed too. We’re really entering a new era in global aid-giving.

Q. Do you think cutting aid is a good deficit reduction policy? If not, why?

A. I think we forget to do cost-benefit analyses around foreign aid programs. Often, $1 today saves $10 in emergency assistance further down the line. Unfortunately, the prevention budget is much more vulnerable than the amount of money that goes out when emergencies break out and emotions get involved. I think that when the argument can be effectively made that aid can save us money, we can reach a more rational decision that’s actually in our interest.

Q. Is “our interest” the main motivation for aid? Why do you think we should give money and care about Africa?

A. There are two reasons. The first is a humanitarian imperative. We are in a position to do things that can save thousands and thousands of lives. Whether it’s by ending the trade in West African blood diamonds or helping run elections in South Sudan, that is something we can do.

There’s also a strategic element. If we build and support healthy governments and economies in vulnerable nations, and stop turning our backs on places like we did with Somalia and Afghanistan, we can cut recruitment [opportunities] and [limit] safe harbors for forces at war with the U.S.

Q. Are American efforts to help welcome in these regions?

A. When properly motivated, yes. The more problematic engagements are really corporate relationships that are seen as imbalanced in terms of the benefits the corporation receives and how much it helps the local economy. I think that, after the help extended through the administrations of Clinton, Bush and Obama, there is very strong support for America in Africa. I personally have tried to build up alliances and relationships with human rights groups in the African countries in which I work. The point is to try to become a force multiplier for human rights.

Q. At Yale, many undergraduates do want to pursue careers that work to find solutions to problems like those in Africa. Last year, there was some talk of adding a “Human Rights” major at Yale. Do students need this type of academic preparation to help meaningfully?

A. You need to learn to communicate well and do the research necessary to understand the issues you’re dealing with. The most important thing is really to get as much overseas experience as possible. If you maximize your study and work abroad, you gain the skill set and field experience that are, I think, more important than your specific major.

Q. Often, students are overwhelmed by the sheer size and array of problems that need tackling. How do you think people should go about deciding where to focus their efforts?

A. It requires discipline and humility. Look, you’re probably not going to make much of an impact your first years out of school. So, for that time, you need to focus and learn. You need to have the humility to recognize that that takes time. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself in terms of seeing where you want to go. You need to be flexible. Four to five years ago, I started working with celebrities. Eight years ago, I would never have seen that happening. Basically, coming out of an undergraduate program, you just can’t know your purpose and place. Finding it is like doing a scavenger hunt. It takes years of exploration.

Q. Another question people are starting to debate on campus is where to draw the line in terms of how much you can help. A very popular play that premiered last semester, “Utility Monster,” explored the life of a young boy who became obsessed with helping Africans and let his cause take over his life. How do you know your limits?

A. Most people who become utterly obsessed with their cause will burn out. It’s a tortoise and hare situation. Everyone needs a human balance, whether with friends, culture or literature. I can’t tell you how many of the most zealous activists in my generation simply burned out. It takes a healthy sense of self-deprecation rather than self-righteousness. Being too sure of the rightness of your cause almost ensures self-destruction at some point.

Q. What was your path from school to service work like?

A. I was an itinerant student — I went to five undergraduate programs and two graduate [ones]. I initially wanted to focus on youth employment and education in this country. But then I saw pictures of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. They were mind-blowing. I needed to understand how this could happen in the modern age, how people could possible starve to death. So I went. And, literally, my destiny was completely altered. I kept a foot in domestic projects with my involvement with the Big Brother program. But my focus shifted.

Q. So, what’s your focus right now?

A. I’m working to create a constituency of conscience. That means a constituency of voters in the U.S. who firmly believe peace-making and genocide matter. We need a significant group like that or we’ll remain completely dependent on ad hoc policies. I hope to build up that constituency, congressional district by district.

Q. Much of your awareness work has involved celebrities. What value do you see in working with them and what do you think drives them to serve?

A. I first realized how they could help the cause when I attended an event with Angelina Jolie. We started talking and I just told her she ought to be delving deeper into the roots of issues and really empowering people instead of just talking about being a great humanitarian. Luckily, instead of slapping me in the face, she decided to travel to Africa with me. When we came back, we planned an awareness exhibit together for the Holocaust Museum. And the day it went up, their site literally crashed because of all the traffic. I realized then that this was by far the best way to recruit new people to care about the cause. It’s a window to recruitment opportunities with the kind of people who never got involved.

[As for their responsibility,] celebrities are just normal people with incredible good fortune. They’re just Americans who think they’ve been given a lot and want to do something with it. And they have this unnatural light shining on them all the time. They want to reflect it onto important projects that don’t get that kind of light.

Q. What needs “light” shone on it right now?

A. There are wars in Africa right now that can be ended. The Congo conflict, which is literally the deadliest since the Holocaust, can be resolved. Every time we buy a cellphone or a computer, we are directly affecting that war, because it’s all about the three Ts — tin, tantalum, tungsten — and gold. The way ending the trade in blood diamonds shut down the conflict in West Africa shows how much power consumers can have. By saying that we are not going to buy products with components smuggled out of the Congo by militia groups, we can control the bloodshed. Right now, though, groups are using rape as a weapon and child labor as an integral part of producing parts that are smuggled through Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi to refineries in Asia and then companies like Apple and Hewlett-Packard.

Q. One more conflict may be ended, but do you think that, with many cultural commentators speaking of issues like “compassion fatigue,” there is still a willingness among Americans to help build a brighter future for Africa?

A. Absolutely. There’s a perception that Americans don’t care and we’re experiencing “compassion fatigue.” But then something terrible, be it Haiti or the tsunami, happens, and fundraising goals are just smashed, not even broken.

The numbers don’t lie. Bloggers and snarky snipers can say what they want, but I am certain that Americans do care about global crises once they’re given the information about what’s going on and how they can make a difference. I only see the trend line improving in this regard.

Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s vice president, once spoke of the “nattering nabobs of negativity.” And I really think that’s what this perception is caused by — a thin slice of the intelligentsia trying to cut down the things ordinary people are trying to do.

CORRECTION: Nov. 7, 2011

An earlier version of this article misstated the origin of West African blood diamonds

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