The civil war in South Sudan is a never-ending series of horrors. Troops there are burning civilians alive, crushing them under tanks, raping women, and forcing two million people to flee their homes. After 18 months of fighting, it’s hard to say when or how the conflict is going to end, despite efforts of peacekeepers.
A new project called The Sentry is attempting a different approach to ending African conflict: Tracing the source of money that funds it–from blood diamonds to illegal oil sales–and outing the people who are profiting from the war.
“In some of these protracted civil wars, most of the effort of international communities is expended on sending peacekeeping troops, which costs billions of dollars a year, and sending humanitarian assistance, which costs more billions,” says John Prendergast, founding director of the Enough Project, who co-founded The Sentry with actor George Clooney. Less attention and money goes to figure out what is causing–and sustaining–the conflict.
“Some of these issues, like ethnic divisions or inequalities, are hard to address from the outside,” Prendergast says. “But from our view, the thing that wasn’t as difficult to address was the question of who was profiting from and funding this violence and the money trails–the extraordinary profits that were being made on the back of human misery.”
The Sentry has a team of financial researchers who will use some of the same tools that have been used since 9/11 to track money flowing from terrorist groups and organized crime networks. “If you gather all this information and put it in the system, you’re going to find connections that would have taken years to figure out manually,” he says.
Algorithms might help draw links from a name, to a bank account, to a board of directors, to a shipping manifest that proves a crime took place. The Sentry will also work with a team of researchers on the ground in conflict zones and add anonymous tips from local whistleblowers.
It’s all data that others could have mined earlier, but that just hasn’t happened. “I remember that old military adage: If all you possess is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Prendergast says. “We have peacekeeping troops, so we send peacekeepers to wars. I just feel it requires a leap of faith and imagination to shift a paradigm that has failed. … It’s really a question of being open minded to reinventing the way we respond to conflict.”
The organization will map out the connections between the illegally mined resources that funds each conflict, such as diamonds in the Central African Republic and gold in Congo to elephant poaching throughout the region. “These kinds of natural resources are I think the primary means through which violence gets sustained in the deadliest wars in Africa,” Prendergast says.
As the funders are revealed, The Sentry will work with the prosecutors and agencies that have ways to take them down–whether that’s the U.S. Justice Department or Scotland Yard. The next step will be outing them on the website. “Then it’s name and shame, and public exposure,” he says. “We’ll focus on the bad activity, and who’s doing it, and potentially drive anyone who wants to remain in the legitimate economy out of collaboration with those people.”