Influence for good: Working together to divest from Sudan

By Sandy Robson

Since the Darfur conflict began in 2003, more than 200,000 black Sudanese have been murdered by government-funded Arab militias. Thousands have been raped or tortured, an estimated 2,000 villages have been burned and more than 2.5 million people have been displaced. How can the Sudanese government, with a debt of more than $17 billion, finance such a massive military campaign? The answer may lie in our pension funds, our endowments and our gas tanks. Oil companies are contributing to violence in Sudan, and some of us may be unknowingly benefiting through our investments. Although the notion is disconcerting, it means we may have a degree of influence over a problem that otherwise seems beyond our control. Macalester is in a position to use this influence by divesting from companies that cooperate with the Sudanese government

After the discovery of oil in southern Sudan, government-funded militias violently cleared certain potential drilling sites of human settlement. Some oil operations subsequently denied humanitarian organizations access to airstrips and potable water. Oil exploration, drilling and transport processes do such serious damage to soil and water resources that some places may not be able to sustain refugees who return in the future.

The Chinese National Petroleum Company, the poster child of offending companies (along with its publicly traded daughter company, Petrochina), has invested over $6 billion in the Sudanese petroleum industry, providing an incentive for Beijing to weaken or block international intervention in Darfur. In recent years, the Sudanese government has spent more than 70 percent of oil revenues on military expenditures. China has also facilitated more than $83 million in arms transfers with the Sudanese government-and a great deal of these arms are believed to be used against Sudanese citizens.

More than 50 universities, 20 states and nine cities have developed Sudan divestment policies. This means that they have removed certain offending companies from their portfolios and agreed to refrain from investing in them in the future. Divestment lowers stock prices and threatens corporate reputations, thereby pressuring companies to reform. Some universities have opted to engage in a dialogue with the offending companies, giving them a three to six month window in which to reform before the institution actually divests.

The companies are identified by an organization called Sudan Divestment Task Force, whose analysis excludes industries that benefit the general population (i.e. 3M, which sells window film to help protect vehicles of UN aid workers in Sudan). The task force model was created with institutional investors in mind, making it relatively safe to divest without decreasing returns. In reality, it is unlikely that this list of roughly 30 companies comprises a large share of Macalester’s endowment. Our real influence lies in public relations and the power of example. The divestment movement, similar to one directed to end South African apartheid, will only be successful if many investors around the world take part.

The Macalester Social Responsibility Committee is currently considering a Sudan divestment proposal. If it is approved, the Board of Trustees will hear the proposal in March. Thus far it has won the support of Amnesty International, the Student Anti-Genocide Coalition and Afrika!, and will be considered by MCSG in coming weeks. This article is in no way intended to criticize the administration-leaders have been very supportive thus far.

I encourage all students, faculty and staff to examine the proposal and to express their views in order to clearly demonstrate the sentiments of the Macalester community to the Board of Trustees. In addition, I urge everyone to examine their own investments or retirement funds and to express these concerns to their asset managers.

It is my hope that the divestment movement will call attention to the ways that Macalester’s endowment and our own individual investments affect the world. A common argument against socially responsible investing is that such policies “politicize” investments, opening the floodgates for a wide range of political concerns that may compromise returns on the endowment. Yes, Sudan divestment may open a can of worms, but many at Macalester-and at 50 other universities-believe it is well worth opening.

Figures above come from the Sudan Divestment Task Force (, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Calvert Group, Ltd.

Questions? Concerns? There will be a 20 minute presentation of the role of the oil industry in southern Sudan at noon on Tues., Feb. 12, on the 2nd floor of the Campus Center.

Contact Sandy Robson ’08 at [email protected]