For all its marble-floor, golden-curtain glamour, the Rotana Hotel in Khartoum does not take credit cards. Neither, for that matter, does anywhere else in Sudan. The U.S. placed a trade embargo on Sudan in 1997, which prohibits the import and export of goods, technology or services between Sudan and the U.S. The embargo is an addition to sanctions imposed in 1993 on property and interests of the Government of Sudan, which the U.S. listed as a state sponsor of terrorism for hosting Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal. Both fall under the Sudan Sanctions Regulations (SSR), administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
Much has been written on the crippling effects that trade embargoes have on countries. Aimed at changing the political calculus of governments, embargoes stifle economic growth, and negatively affect social and humanitarian conditions. In Sudan, I am in constant awe at how business owners go about their affairs, how education facilities get what they need, how manufacturers manage spare parts. Of course, that’s not just about the embargo, but it certainly doesn’t help. Sanctions on government assets have some degree of targeting; trade embargoes are a blunt tool that punishes the entire population of a country.
And that includes people working for social change in Sudan. The embargo has a particular effect on anyone trying to use technology for the social good. Try buying server space or purchasing a domain name without a credit card. Don’t get clever and think you can use PayPal: if you try accessing your account from Sudan, you’ll lose access (and it’s very hard to get it back). If you’re a coder, most online resources including Net Beans and Google Code are blocked. If you’re a mapper, you can’t download Google Earth or any Esri products. You can also forget about doing surveys using Survey Monkey, that too is blocked. If you want to collaborate remotely, you can’t download Dropbox or Skype. If you are… well, anyone using a computer really, you can’t download virus checkers like McAfee.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Of course, there are alternatives to most of these products. Or you can use a VPN to access them, if you have the patience for the slower connection that results. For products that are one-time downloads (Skype, Dropbox, etc), you can ask a friendly khawaja (foreigner) or anyone traveling out of Sudan to download them and bring them in. (And in case you are worried, bringing in free download products for personal use is covered by an exemption.) Or you could download them from an alternative server that is not in the U.S. Once installed, there is no problem using them. But good luck getting updates.
Most digital activists are creative about work-arounds and find a way to do what they need. What is most frustrating is that it’s not always clear what is covered by the embargo. Individual companies post the policy that covers embargoed countries, like here or here, but there is no comprehensive list of what is blocked. Worse still, it seems that some companies are forced to block additional items as their lawyers discover new needs to comply with the embargo. Take Google products: Gmail and Google Docs are available; Google Earth and Google Code are not. Until recently, Google Apps were available, and a number of Sudanese NGOs and civil society groups had accounts with them. Like many other international NGOs, they ran their organization email, calendars, etc via Google Apps and used various other support tools. On January 1 this year, they arrived in their offices to find that the embargo had extended to Google Apps. Let the work-around begin.
Just to be clear: this is not Google’s fault. Or any other company’s fault, they are complying with U.S. law. This is also nothing like the current debate on collaboration with the NSA: the embargo is a public, transparent policy and there is no question of it being unconstitutional. It may be a bad policy, but that’s a different story. In fact, in my experience, most companies are willing to find ways to support the use of technology products for the social good if they can. For example, it’s possible for companies to allow use of their technology by NGOs working in some parts of Sudan under the Specified Areas exemption, which covers South Kordofan, Blue Nile, Abyei and Darfur.
But wait: the Government of Sudan also censors internet services, so how do we know a particular tech product is blocked by U.S. sanctions and not by Sudan? It’s easy: ready the error message.
Over the past years, the number of civil society groups working with technology to change Sudan for the better has grown. Take a look, for example, at the current response to flooding organized by digital activists under #Nafeer. The trade embargo makes their work more difficult, more time consuming – and that comes on top of an environment that is already tough because of the tight hold the Government keeps on civic space. What really gets me is that these difficulties don’t seem to be outweighed by any positive impact sanctions could have on expanding the space for civic action. The last time the OFAC published a report on the effectiveness of the Sudan Sanctions Regulations in 2009 they acknowledged that:
“[...] the most meaningful measure of a sanctions program is whether and to what extent it is exerting pressure on relevant decision makers such that it affects their behavioral calculi. That said, it can be notoriously difficult to measure regime thinking and attribute the impact of sanctions. Even when regime-level behavioral changes do occur, it is difficult to identify the precise role that sanctions might have played.”
A trade embargo won’t be what brings social changes to Sudan. Change will come from within, and digital activists will play an important role in it. The trade embargo as it affects technology products gets in the way of their good work. At the very least, the U.S. administration should consider extending exemptions to technology products that are commonly used by civil society. It’s not impossible to exempt certain products from the embargo; in fact there is already one that is exempt. Sudan is the world’s largest producer of gum arabic, with 70-80% of global production. Gum arabic is an essential ingredient to all soft drinks, it’s the strange glue that holds them together. In 1997, when the trade embargo was first introduced, the food industry lobby negotiated an exemption for gum arabic. If you can do it for Coca Cola, why not do it for civic activists too?