Do-Gooders Gone Bad

The children's bandages were just for show. Workers from the little-known French charity Zoe's Ark had wrapped gauze around the heads and bodies of their young charges to speed them through checkpoints. But the plan went disastrously wrong. Before dawn on Oct. 25, Chadian soldiers intercepted 103 youngsters—described as orphans from Darfur—before the children could board a chartered flight for France. Six activists from Zoe's Ark, along with three journalists and seven flight crew, were arrested and charged with kidnapping. Aid workers on the ground questioned whether the kids really had lost their parents—or indeed whether they were even from Sudan. Chad's President Idriss Déby called the operation "pure and simple abduction." Zoe's Ark insisted its intentions were good. "It's unimaginable that doubts are being cast on these people of good faith," a spokesman said last week.

In many ways the Zoe's Ark mission was a sideshow. The more important Darfur developments last week took place in Libya, where peace talks foundered after the main rebel leaders failed to show up. "Now they are informal talks, and informal talks are just public relations," says Yahya Bolad, a spokesman for one of those absent rebels, Abdel Wahid el-Nur. But the two incidents raise the same awkward question—whether the global Darfur advocacy movement really has been good for Darfur.

Certainly the Save Darfur Coalition—a movement that claims to represent 130 million people through its alliance of more than 180 faith-based, advocacy and humanitarian organizations—has been astonishingly effective. It's transformed a remote African crisis into an international cause célèbre. That, in turn, has helped humanitarian agencies get funds from Washington and bolstered efforts to have U.N. peacekeepers deployed to Darfur.

Yet for all their success in raising public awareness, there's been little improvement on the ground. And critics say the activists' growing influence hasn't always been helpful. "The simplicity of their message is getting in the way of a response," says Harvard University's Alex de Waal, a leading Sudan scholar. Earlier this year aid groups were furious when Save Darfur launched an aggressive ad campaign calling for a no-flight zone over the region; they argued that the ban would cripple efforts to get aid to refugees. They also say that another Save Darfur ad—which claimed that "international relief organizations" had agreed that the time for negotiations was over—prompted the government in Khartoum to hold up visa applications and otherwise interfere with their ability to work. The Zoe's Ark operation will no doubt focus more suspicion on NGOs in the area. "One of the worst outcomes is the loss of confidence and trust," says Melissa Winkler of the International Rescue Committee, which participated in the well-organized resettlement of some 7,000 "lost boys" from southern Sudan in the United States.

Part of the success of Save Darfur's campaign has been to draw the conflict in stark terms—the Sudanese government and its marauding Arab militiamen versus defenseless African villagers. That certainly helped in getting Congress and the Bush administration to classify the violence as genocide in 2004, which in turn gave a boost to fund-raising efforts. But in fact, the trouble is at least partly rooted in scarce resources: a long drought has drawn an influx of Arab tribes from Chad and northern Darfur onto already settled land. Nor is the fighting solely between the two ethnic groups; an upsurge in violence among Arab tribes this year has left an estimated 600 dead.

All the focus on Darfur, too, has naturally drawn attention and resources from other crises—even in Sudan itself. The peace agreement signed in 2005 in southern Sudan—a diplomatic coup for the Bush administration that ended a 21-year civil war—has begun to fray in recent weeks. Former Christian rebels complain that the government has failed to implement parts of the deal, including withdrawing troops from the south, and they've "suspended" their involvement in a national unity government. De Waal believes the focus on Darfur has been "disastrous" for southern Sudan. "You can't have a solution for Darfur without finding a solution for [all of] Sudan," he says.

Of course, no one is arguing that it would be better for activists not to get involved in conflicts like Darfur. John Prendergast, a Save Darfur director, thinks the activist model pioneered by the coalition will help other humanitarian causes. He's started a group called the Enough Project to draw attention to other desperate regions like Somalia and Congo. "These kinds of atrocities have common roots and have common solutions," he says. The hope is that the lessons learned in Darfur can be reapplied elsewhere. The danger is that the mistakes will be, too.