Standing up for the downtrodden

Standing up for the downtrodden
© Jeff Trussell

John Prendergast has helped end one of the deadliest wars of the 1990s, partnered with George Clooney, investigated the financial networks of human rights violators and had Ryan Gosling give a speech at his wedding.

And it’s possible none of it would have happened if he had a TV remote when he was in his 20s.

“I happened to come across one night very, very late the photos that were emerging and video from the famine that was just beginning to unfold in Ethiopia in 1983,” he recalled in a recent interview with The Hill. 

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“I was maimed at the time with a sprained ankle, so I would have probably just hopped up and turned the station when the game that I was watching turned off, but I had it adjusted up there and didn’t have one those remote control devices. I don’t know if they had been invented yet. I certainly didn’t have one with my black and white TV with the aluminum foil posing as the antenna.

“And so I after a short while became transfixed with images that were coming out. I just could not intellectually fathom that suffering could occur on such a dramatic scale.”

Some 30 years later, Prendergast is an influential figure in U.S. foreign policy in Africa, with a career that includes working in the State Department and National Security Council for the Clinton administration. Nowadays, he heads up the Enough Project, which seeks to sway policymakers as it tries to end genocide and crimes against humanity.

Prior to stumbling across the horrors coming out of Ethiopia, Prendergast had planned to work in domestic policy on issues related to disadvantaged youth.

But after that night, he switched gears and almost immediately decided to go to the region.

He applied for a visa to Ethiopia. What he didn’t know at the time was his boss, then-Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.), had just introduced a sanctions bill against Ethiopia. Prendergast worked in Gray’s constituent services office in Philadelphia.

He was denied the visa to Ethiopia but eventually got one for Mali and went there.

“I was schooled and educated from the grassroots that so much of what we were doing at the time, the United States was doing at the time, was dumping our surplus commodities that were heavily subsidized with taxpayers’ money and destroying the local production markets in Mali and increasing the food insecurity of the very people we were claiming to help,” he said of what he learned during his trip.

In 1996, he joined the National Security Council (NSC) as a fellow after having what he described as a “spirited discussion” that was “not altogether non-contentious” with Susan Rice at a conference. Rice, currently the national security adviser to President Obama, was the senior director for Africa at the NSC at the time.

His work mainly involved going on peace-making trips to engage with warring parties. Among his greatest accomplishments, he counts his participation in the negotiations to end the Eritrean-Ethiopian War.

At the time, it was the deadliest war in the world, with mortalities in the tens of thousands. The peace negotiations were “textbook diplomacy,” he said.

He left the government in 2001 and co-founded the Enough Project in 2007 with Gayle Smith, who served in the NSC under then-President Clinton and does again under Obama.

The idea behind Enough was to combine in-depth field research, policy work and constituency building in one organization, he said.

In the pantheon of foreign policy issues, Africa tends not to be at the forefront of American minds. But after years of experience, Prendergast has realized the Enough Project mainly needs to convince three core constituencies to influence policymakers: students, religious groups and celebrities.

“It doesn’t matter if everyone walking down the street knows what’s going on in Congo or Nigeria,” he said. “It matters that certain politically important constituencies, important to policymakers or politicians, are expressing their interest and their concern and their desire to see more action.”

For example, in 2010, when the war between the north and the south in Sudan looked like it was going to re-erupt, the Enough Project harnessed those three constituencies to launch the “Sudan Now” campaign. Of the three prongs, Prendergast highlighted students, as well as Clooney and Don Cheadle on the celebrity side.

The campaign led to constructive meetings with Obama, Prendergast said.

In September 2010, the president spoke at the U.N. General Assembly about the issue, convinced China and Russia to get on board and pressured the Sudanese to have a referendum on the independence of South Sudan. The referendum was held in 2011, and South Sudan became an independent country.

“It was quite a display of deft diplomacy,” Prendergast said. “I watched it and saw it and saw it unfold and saw alteration in the destiny of that country as a result of the diplomacy of the Obama administration. Our role was just to build the political will again and to cry out to say if something isn’t done, something terrible is going to happen here.”

Right now, the Enough Project is involved in the early stages of The Sentry, a project Prendergast co-founded with Clooney.

The Sentry is trying to get to the root cause of failed states by hiring financial investigators to dig into who might be profiting from conflict, such as mining companies, oil companies and arms dealers.

“Where are they hiding their money, what are the methods by which they are stealing these countries blind and what’s illegal about it,” he said of the questions The Sentry is asking.

Once enough information is gathered, Prendergast plans to present the findings to the U.S. and foreign governments to convince them to take action. Specifically, he wants the tools the government uses to stop money flowing to terrorists to also be used to stop money getting to human rights violators.

“It’s a gamble,” he said. “It’s a policy play, a policy bet that we’re making, and we’re putting all our resources into that, and we’ll see what happens.”