A more courageous, smarter humanitarianism is needed to ease Sudan’s pain
I hovered at the ill-defined Sudan-South Sudan border watching the Nuba Mountains being firebombed. It was 2013 and the region was besieged by then-President Omar Bashir’s forces. Witnessing his relentless scorched-earth policy, I pondered on how to bring humanitarian succor to people cowering in Nuban caves.
Locals showed me how. When dusk fell, they emerged from ramshackle shelters in South Sudan’s border town of Yida and left food packages at the frontier — culled from their own meager refugee rations. Their Sudanese kith and kin collected them when darkness forced the warplanes to leave.
That is how local solidarity kept the Nuba alive. Barred from themselves crossing the border into Sudan, enlightened aid agencies that recognized the resourcefulness of refugees increased their aid allocations. Knowing that part of that would get into the Nuba Mountains, they understood that was a cost-effective way to help. There was no concern with corruption or aid going astray because the beneficiaries were unlikely to steal the milk from their own babies’ mouths.
I am reminded of that experience now while watching the unfolding of the latest chapter of Sudan’s decades-long trauma. The warring between the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudan Armed Forces has already displaced more than a million people, including large refugee outflows into South Sudan, Chad, Egypt and Ethiopia, adding to these countries’ own instabilities. Thousands have been killed and wounded, alongside raping, looting and pillaging. Public services providing water, electricity, healthcare, internet access and communications have broken down and hunger stalks the land.
International humanitarian agencies must be honest about what they cannot do in Sudan, especially when trust is so low
When peace-making proves difficult, we offer humanitarian aid as consolation. And so, while waiting to see if ceasefire mediation will succeed, the UN has sharply revised upward its international humanitarian appeal for Sudan. This demands $2.6 billion for critical food, health, nutrition, water, protection, shelter and education. The needs are unarguable: some 25 million Sudanese, or more than half the population, require urgent life-preserving assistance.
But in contexts where civilians are targeted and violations of international humanitarian law and war crimes are common, how will the aid get to needy people across this vast land? Not just photographed and tweeted on arrival in Port Sudan before being stockpiled indefinitely due to security problems that hinder their distribution.
If we cannot do that, we risk creating an illusion of assistance. This is cruel — somewhat like displaying a glass of water just beyond the reach of a thirsty person. What, then, is the point of a multibillion-dollar appeal, other than as an abstract exercise in the quantification of inhumanity?
International humanitarian agencies must be honest about what they cannot do in Sudan, especially when trust is so low. That was eroded when most of the foreign angels of mercy working there flew away after fighting erupted on April 15. Abandoning their local colleagues and clients to face the horrors on their own was an echo of the similar abandonment and dire consequences seen in Afghanistan in 2021. This shames the modern humanitarian system, which has become more and more risk averse, even as it has expanded in size, ambition and complexity, demanding ever more resourcing.
That is not to overlook the courage of individual aid workers who stayed or did not want to leave Sudan but were obliged to do so by their employers, as several frustrated colleagues told me.
At the root of the problem is the institutionalization of humanitarianism; this is no longer a vocation but a business. And like any prudent enterprise, it must be run so as to minimize risks and liabilities. Caring organizations doing their duty to keep their staff out of harm’s way can hardly be criticized.
The Sudanese are entitled to ask why they should bother with international humanitarians when they cannot be relied upon when most needed
But the perverse consequence is that humanitarians’ operating space and contribution gets ever more limited and their relevance diminishes further. The Sudanese are entitled to ask why they should bother with international humanitarians when they cannot be relied upon when most needed.
Compounding the concern are the metrics of humanitarian assistance, such as counting stomachs fed, diseases cured, roofs provided and so on. In our technocratic but depersonalized age, we have forgotten that, in circumstances where the giving of aid is not possible, there is still the imperative to hold a suffering person’s hand, hug a lost child, shed a tear alongside a distressed mother. Or just witness what is going on.
My previous experience in Sudan’s darkest moments is that, when people are most distressed, their sense of reality is sharpest. They jettison false hopes of rescue when outsiders cannot or will not help. Nevertheless, they still do not want to be left alone or forgotten by the outside world. Because, as one Sudanese mother told me, their suffering is then meaningless. And that is unbearably heart-breaking.
But measuring the value of bringing consolation and compassion through our presence without necessarily being able to provide physical assistance is very difficult. Perhaps that is why there is no space in Sudan’s multibillion-dollar appeal for a humanitarian goal of “providing empathy.” In any case, it would be very difficult to do that through conventional humanitarian operations because these operate on the principles of neutrality and impartiality, which require an objective distancing from the suffering, rather than getting closer to the victims.
If international agencies cannot deliver effectively under the current circumstances in Sudan, why should its mammoth UN appeal be funded? Besides, even if they are able to do something here and there, it will be through local partners and an inefficient transaction process that consumes 30 percent of aid given. That cannot be right at a time when there are immense humanitarian needs, limited resources and a moral imperative to maximize the benefit of each humanitarian dollar. For example, in the global marketplace of misery, Sudan is competing with 68 countries, for which international organizations want $55.9 billion in humanitarian aid.
Why don’t donors go directly to local agencies that know their own people and needs and can devise creative delivery methods while willingly going where other angels fear to tread? Just like the Nuba I saw a decade ago. Sudanese doctors, engineers and myriad local community groups are already doing that in the current crisis. But in supporting local efforts, it is important not to transfer risk to them; all six aid workers killed so far this year were local Sudanese.
The reason that supporting Sudanese aid groups directly is not popular is that granting small amounts to many agencies is hard work for donors, who prefer writing big cheques to a few large global bodies that monopolize the international system. A further excuse is lack of confidence in the integrity of local organizations, although fraud, corruption and other abuses within international bodies is more costly.
Fortunately, the Sudanese are not waiting for international agencies. Their large diaspora in the Gulf, Africa, Europe, US and Australia has found ways to help their relatives and friends through informal money transfers. Expatriate Sudanese across the world are busy through their networks and social media mobilizing resources.
The advantage of trickling aid in small, decentralized ways is that this has a greater chance of getting to the people who need it most. In contrast, dumping billions of aid dollars, including via the shiny warehouses and vehicles beloved of big agencies, provides tempting targets for looters and fuels the war economy. But small-scale aid is not so photogenic for the media covering Sudan’s drama and, therefore, gets less recognition.
Sudan will eventually get beyond the current crisis, whenever its rulers are ready for peace. Meanwhile, there is plenty of pain and suffering to be endured. It is the duty of humanitarians to lighten that burden and it requires more courage and smarter working. This means trusting and supporting the Sudanese to help their own people in their own way.
- Mukesh Kapila is Professor Emeritus of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs at the University of Manchester and a former senior official at the United Nations and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.