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Losing faith in charity: Is there any hope left for NGOs?

  • Story Highlights
  • Charities now face a crisis of trust in Africa
  • Some of 103 Chad kidnap row children may never be repatriated
  • Charities now working closely with Chad government
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By Brigid Delaney
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The image of a benevolent West has taken a battering in Africa this week, as 103 children earmarked for care by French families were airlifted from a border settlement between Chad and Sudan on a flight bound for France.

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Children play at the orphanage in Chad where Zoe's Arch kept the 103 kids it planned to fly to France.

At the other end of the journey were more than 300 French families who had paid between $2,900 and $8,500 each to French charity Zoe's Ark. They were expected to have children placed with them (Zoe's Ark have shyed away from using the term adoption) and were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the children for whom they had brought winter clothes and decorated spare bedrooms.

But the children never arrived in France. Instead they remain in Chad, while those associated with their removal (including aid workers, journalists and pilots) sit in a Chad jail, waiting charges of kidnapping and extortion.

The accused face up to 20 years in prison. Of the 103 children removed, it was found that 91 of them had been living with at least one member of their family. Chadian authorities accused the charity, which was originally formed to assist in tsunami relief, of kidnapping and concealing the children's identities.

Chad's Interior Minister also condemned the airlift and said Zoe's Ark even dressed the children in bandages and fake drips to make them look more like refugees. President Idriss Deby of Chad said the children would have been sold in France to be sexually abused or killed to steal their organs.

The charity workers have denied this saying they were acting with good intentions. The airlift has not only sparked a major diplomatic incident between Chad and France, but it has placed the spotlight firmly on some aid organizations working in the region.

Do they have the best interests of local people at their core or are they exploiting the '"fog" that exists in this deprived, war-torn and chaotic region to service a demand in the west for adoption?

Major aid organizations operating in the region such as UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (which has been operating in the region since 1978) have responded quickly to the crisis, forming an umbrella group that is working closely with the Chadian authorities.

CNN's Senior International correspondent Nic Robertson who is currently reporting from the region said, "The aid agencies are doing everything they can to support the Chadian government. They are very clear in condoning the misuse or mistreatment of children."

This quick response by aid agencies will definitely minimize any negative impact from the incident, according to Robertson.

Yet Joseph Ochieno of the Uganda People's Congress indicated that a far deeper bond of trust between Africa and the West had been broken following the removal of the children. Video Watch Joseph Ochieno, of the Uganda People's Congress, express anger at the plan »

He told CNN on Friday morning, "I am personally outraged at this modern day slavery. That's the problem with Africa and Africans -- we take you guys, you Europeans for granted. We see you as the good guys, we see you guys as the ones that brought us religion and Christianity. You come to supposedly support us but below the belt, it's quite clear that there's a loss of a huge amount of trust between us and western aid agencies."

His concerns touch a long-running historical wound: That of Europeans who come into war-torn countries with good intentions and ultimately disastrous results.

"We don't stay we should be left alone (by the West)," he said, but said the case of the Zoe's Ark did highlight problems with intervention by Western countries.

Spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Leila Blacking told CNN that "great work is being done in these countries with full transparencies, accountability and knowledge of the authorities. I don't think our work will be affected in any way."

The ICRC doesn't facilitate adoption rather it concentrates on tracing and family reunification yet it seems one bad apple has the potential to spoil the bunch.

Joseph Ochieno said: "One of the questions that we are now beginning to ask is what about these supposed legitimate aid agencies -- do we necessarily trust all their members of staff? We have refugee camps in various parts of Africa... we don't know what goes on there."

Closer scrutiny of aid organizations in the region would be welcomed by the ICRC said Blacking:

"We are ready for this scrutiny. We welcome it, it's important. We're not afraid of being put under greater scrutiny. The onus is on us to work to the highest principals. There are standards of conduct."

The Red Cross said no extra security or protection has been provided to workers in the region. Representatives of some aid organizations have told CNN that the chaotic and devastating conditions in Darfur have created a situation where exploitation is rife.

Conditions include parents wanting to send their children to the West for a better life, and dodgy operators who promise adoptions to good families and then proceed to traffic the children.

Robertson said governments have to maintain particularly strong safeguards for children at times of war. He said at the time of the Bosnian conflict, the government put procedures in place so that children were not removed as "the children are the future of the country."

Stevan Whitehead, head of Oasis a UK-based organization that provides overseas adoption support and information told CNN that sometimes children will come from war-torn countries to the West for respite care or medical treatment but it is highly regulated, supervised and usually there is a concrete time-line for the length of that child's stay.

Whitehead said he suspected Zoe's Ark was "about people wanting to find a better situation for children from Darfur but in this situation appropriate procedures were overlooked. That's why it's a fiasco. It's just hopeless."

He said the difficulties in adopting children from overseas (he said it takes between one to two years in the UK) were because of the thoroughness in background checking applicants which included police checks and communications with authorities in both countries.

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"You have to look at a track record of the organization. There is no shortage of incredible people working for child support world-wide but there are people who need to prove their expertise."

Adoption in many cases, says Whitehead, should be a last resort: "Wherever possible its best for a child to stay in their own community. I would support organizations that help children be kept with their own families rather than in institutions or refugee camps. Children thrive in families." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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