Since violence erupted six years ago in Darfur in western Sudan, an estimated 300,000 people have died and more than 2.5m have been forced from their homes.

Many parties have been blamed for this destruction: Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir; the rebel groups that launched an insurgency against Khartoum in 2003; the government-backed Janjaweed fighters; a slow-to-act United Nations and African Union; and an international community that doesn’t intervene. Now, according to Mahmood Mamdani, we should add another group to the list: humanitarians who have led the campaign to end the violence.

Mamdani is a Columbia University professor of political science and anthropology. In Saviors and Survivors he targets Save Darfur and similar western advocacy groups for their role in Sudan.

Save Darfur is currently the largest US-based grassroots advocacy group focused on Darfur. Founded in 2004, the organisation is a coalition of more than 180 religious, political and human rights groups, all aimed at ending the fighting in Sudan.

Like many issue-based advocacy movements, Save Darfur organises rallies, plans letter-writing campaigns and lobbies politicians at all levels of government. It wanted to ensure that the international community did not again fail to prevent atrocities – as it had in Rwanda in 1994 – and has mobilised millions of people. It is probably one of the most successful advocacy movements since the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s.

Mamdani extends his argument to advocacy groups in general, but he singles out Save Darfur for attention: “Save Darfur activists combine a contemptuous attitude toward knowing with an imperative to act,” Mamdani writes. “They employ techniques of protest politics against their own government ... and turn a deaf ear to experts who they claim only complicate the story with so many details as to miss the main point.”

He charges the movement with something worse than empty moralising, however. Save Darfur, argues Mamdani, is the newest colonial power in a long history of colonial abuse. Its call for justice in Sudan is “really a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonize Africa”. His volume aims to add “context”, he says – to add “precise knowledge” that challenges those Mamdani believes are content to act without it.

It is ironic, therefore, that Saviors and Survivors is often misleading and contains so many simple errors. Twice he writes that Darfur was a member of the League of Nations – it wasn’t. He claims incorrectly that the largest protests in New York City in recent years have been over Darfur – in fact they were over Iraq. His premise requires that Save Darfur be more powerful than the organisation really is; he paints the Sudanese, both victimisers and victims, as less powerful than they are.

Not everything in this book is misguided. Mamdani is right to highlight that British colonialism sharpened ethnic and racial divisions. But he allows his outrage at colonial crimes to eclipse the current regime’s more recent atrocities.

The root of Mamdani’s argument is his profound discomfort with recent shifts in international affairs, which, he says, have eroded a state’s sovereign rights in favour of humanitarian norms. Since the cold war ended, there has been a growing international consensus that a government cannot use its sovereignty as a shield while it commits atrocities against its own people. In the 1990s, international tribunals were established to try war crimes committed in Bosnia and Rwanda; in 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established as a permanent body to prosecute individuals for genocide and war crimes.

At the UN in 2006, 150 heads of state endorsed the notion that the international community has the responsibility to protect vulnerable populations. In March this year, the ICC issued a warrant for the Sudanese president’s arrest on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes; Bashir is the first sitting president to receive such a warrant.

In Mamdani’s view, however, this new humanitarian order carries its own dangers. Populations are reduced to wards of the international community, he argues, rather than citizens with rights. He sees humanitarianism as only the newest excuse for the unjust intervention of powerful states into the affairs of the less powerful. And given the failure of the League of Nations and the UN to protect its charges, why would any new form of trusteeship be more successful?

This is a serious question, worth asking. Unfortunately, Mamdani does not answer it seriously. In his account, British colonialism is more responsible for the mass deaths in Darfur today than Khartoum.

Colonialism did indeed have a pernicious effect on Sudan. But it defies both common sense – and expert opinion – to argue that the colonial administration of more than 50 years ago is more culpable in Darfur than a ruling regime that armed the assailants. Colonialism planted the seeds; it took Khartoum’s persistent effort to cultivate the conflict.

Mamdani believes that narratives in the developing world have been overly simplified to tell politically convenient tales. Yet he commits the same mistake when he turns his lens on the west. When he considers Sudan, he sees “multiple histories” and nuance. Yet he presents western governments and institutions as monoliths, working in concert and with little internal dissent.

The Bush administration did not see Save Darfur as an ally in its “war on terror.” In fact, such groups only complicated the administration’s efforts. Khartoum had expelled Osama bin Laden in 1996 and co-operated with the CIA – but for the intervention of advocacy groups, Bush could have presented Sudan as more of an ally than adversary.

Nor is Save Darfur as powerful as Mamdani imagines. Neither Bush nor Obama mindlessly followed its lead. The organisation has, however, made it harder for US administrations to ignore the conflict.

Most disheartening is how Mamdani chooses to discuss the violence in Darfur. Having denounced Save Darfur in passionate terms, his language is more deliberate and sanitised when he nears the current violence itself. The government “became a party to the conflict”; Khartoum hasn’t engaged in war crimes, it has led a “counterinsurgency”; Bashir’s military has adopted “irregular practices”; the government “got pulled into this dynamic”. There is no mention of Bashir’s senior advisors who have played a central role in Darfur’s destruction. No one issues orders. They just happen.

Nevertheless, Save Darfur and similar groups should not ignore this book. The narrative is likely to resonate in parts of Africa. Western aid and advocacy groups, although sometimes effective at mobilising opinion at home, have often been slower to appreciate post-colonial environments. They must do more to explain the “context” of their own aims and goals to local populations if they are to allay the concerns of those they seek to help. If they don’t, their work will fall victim to the “contemptuous attitude” of those who would write books such as this one.

Originally published in the Financial Times, May 16, 2009.