Divestiture from Sudan not as simple as it sounds

The recent Crimson op-ed article (“Harvard’s Investment in Sudan Part of a Larger Problem,” Nov. 15) regarding Harvard’s investments in companies associated with Sudan take an overly simplistic perspective on the matter. It’s easy to hear about the horrible genocides in Sudan and decide, in knee-jerk fashion, that Harvard is morally obliged to divest from anything that even remotely offers them any support.

The trouble is that there isn’t an investment in the world that doesn’t offer Sudan support in some sufficiently remote fashion. If I spend a dollar on a cup of coffee, some part of that dollar goes to the employee who just served me. Some part of that money goes to the employee’s savings account, and from there it’s spent in a myriad of ways, depending on the diversity of the bank’s assets. Money travels from hand to hand, and a dollar spent today in rural Iowa could be involved tomorrow on a large Taiwanese company’s accounting sheets. Since the Sudanese government is involved in the global market, most every investment or purchase you can think of probably connects to Sudan within a sufficiently large number of steps.

No reasonable person would suggest that a rural Iowan who spends a dollar, some fraction of which eventually ends up in Sudan after dozens of movements, is morally responsible for helping finance genocide. But supporters of divestiture use the same logic: Harvard invests in a

Chinese oil company, that company then invests in Sudan, and therefore Harvard is responsible for helping finance the genocide in Sudan and is morally obliged to stop. They apply this principle to a less extreme degree, but their argument nevertheless relies on the same principles, and therefore holds just as little water.


To look at things another way: we students provide money to Harvard through tuition, some fraction of which eventually ends up in Sudan. Not only that, we know that it ends up there. Is it now our moral imperative to “divest” from Harvard and go elsewhere? Or is the guilt all cleared up by the time it reaches us? How many transactional “steps” does it take before guilt is absolved?

If Harvard had direct investments in the Sudanese government or in organizations with clear intentions to ensure the furthering of the genocide, I would agree with divestiture. But it is being unreasonable to demand that Harvard’s investors be responsible for money that is no longer theirs. Millions of dollars change hands across the globe every day. It is impossible for moral responsibility to keep pace.



Nov. 17, 2004