Sudan needs a new approach to aid — and fast

Sudan needs a new approach to aid — and fast

The crisis in Sudan has unfurled a cataclysm of suffering with profound repercussions for the region. (Reuters)
The crisis in Sudan has unfurled a cataclysm of suffering with profound repercussions for the region. (Reuters)
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The crisis in Sudan, exacerbated by violence between the Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces that broke out in April 2023, has unfurled a cataclysm of suffering with profound repercussions for the region. Despite the continuing conflict, the traditional mechanisms of international aid have been remarkably ineffective, creating a necessity for rethinking the global community’s response to Sudan’s needs and those of neighboring countries.
To date, the civil war has resulted in an unprecedented displacement catastrophe, with more than 8.6 million people uprooted. Harrowing images of indiscriminate violence against the populace, including gender-based brutalities and signs of ethnically targeted mass killings in Darfur, raise the urgency of considerable humanitarian demands to critical levels. The sobering realities on the ground — with the stark underreporting of casualties, currently at 14,700, and the looming specter of famine endangering almost 5 million people — are not merely a snapshot of a prevailing chaos but also demand immediate action.
In parallel, the ramifications of the war reverberate throughout the region. Both South Sudan and Chad are suffering from the conflict’s spillover. South Sudan’s hunger crisis has worsened, plunging the nation into socioeconomic insecurity and rising food scarcity. Chad, meanwhile, is now host to over a million refugees, even as it grapples with a grave lack of resources for its own population.
The unfolding crisis exposes the sheer deficiencies in current approaches to international aid that insist on temporary fixes where comprehensive surgery is necessary, given the glaring discrepancies in the funding-to-needs ratio. Up until the International Conference on Sudan held in Paris on April 15, international responses stood at a mere 42 percent of the $2.57 billion required in Sudan and less than 40 percent of the $1 billion targeting refugee assistance — a colossal underfunding now contributing to Sudan’s worsening woes. Such affronts in a swelling crisis are neither sustainable nor strategic. The April 15 conference among almost 60 countries, where donors pledged about $2.1 billion in humanitarian aid, stands as a welcome relief, and a positive sign that Sudan has not yet been forgotten.
However, pledges do not automatically translate to direct, immediate and comprehensive apolitical support that is also immune from the polarizing dynamics of yet another proxy war. Promises of help will not feed a third of Sudan’s 51 million people who now suffer from hunger, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Nor will those most at risk suddenly gain uninterrupted access to adequate nutrition, medical care or stable living conditions, such as the 200,000 children, pregnant women, and mothers with newborns at risk of malnutrition in the coming months.

Rising to meet Sudan’s needs is not merely a necessary response but a moral imperative.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

It would be unfair to allow pessimism to temper well-intentioned aims to deliver relief to those desperately in need. The trouble, as always, is not in the “what,” but in the “how,” due to the inherent flaws in current aid delivery systems that oscillate between emergency aid and no aid. It is a system that has stubbornly resisted reform despite the increasing severity and frequency of humanitarian crises around the globe. In the northeast Africa context, piecemeal assistance being a normative response to burgeoning crises not only intensifies existing systemic governance and socioeconomic challenges, but also makes future conflicts and regional conflagrations inevitable.
Instead, what Sudan needs — and what the sub-region really needs — is recalibrated approaches to aid, which necessitate innovations beyond the reactive; it calls for intertwining assistance with sustainable development initiatives, local-level engagements, and tackling of climate change’s cumulative impacts. In lieu of armed intervention, which carries its own manifold complexities and potential for further aggravating crises, Sudan and its neighbors need a new approach and fast — and preferably one that deals with the immediate need for basic sustenance and, ultimately, the enduring support that will be critical for long-term stability and growth.
First, such a system must be grounded in what experts call “integrated support,” which targets the consequences of a confluence between episodic violence, conflict, and historical governance failures. This convergence created systemic difficulties, for instance, where inadequate infrastructure, catalyzed by war, goes on to  exacerbate impacts to sanitation, healthcare, and access to essential public services.
Thus, the Paris conference, and others like it, while commendable, must realign priorities to not only provide relief, but also make the development of robust civil systems foundational, rather than an afterthought. With millions internally displaced and critical infrastructure decimated, an integrated aid approach is more than humanitarian benevolence — it is a strategic necessity to stabilize and eventually rebuild a nation.
Second, neighboring countries directly affected by Sudan’s civil war also need new approaches built on the underexplored potential of local actors and community-based initiatives. These vital groups are often at the front line of humanitarian responses due to their accessibility and inherent understanding of the conflict landscape, from the cultural to the logistical. They exist on the periphery of larger aid agencies’ operational scope, and have consistently emerged as beacons of resilience and responsiveness in areas that are inaccessible. Current and future fundraising successes must, therefore, be channeled to empower well-placed local entities to deliver targeted interventions that help stem widespread violence pushing some communities to the brink.
Lastly, climate change, particularly in Sudan’s context, where food production and distribution networks have virtually collapsed not only due to conflict but also due to climate anomalies. International aid must, therefore, include strategies for climate resilience in tandem with urgent humanitarian relief. Integrating climate adaptation with aid not only addresses immediate survival concerns, but also lays the groundwork for sustainable agricultural recovery and resilience for the country’s predominantly agrarian society.
Given these imperatives, the global community must rise to the challenge of increasing humanitarian aid through a collaborative, multidimensional approach that weaves together development assistance and the agency of local actors. This would fulfill both the immediate requisites for basic sustenance and the enduring structural needs critical for Sudan’s long-term stability and growth.
Rising to meet Sudan’s needs with a revamped approach is not merely a necessary response but a moral imperative. Absent boots on the ground, it is crucial to revise traditional frameworks for humanitarian aid delivery and foreign assistance, by committing to a new playbook targeting the intersecting challenges of conflict, instability, and climate change. A new strategy would also be the greatest commitment to safeguarding human security in the pursuit of actionable peace, justice, and strong institutions.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. X: @HafedAlGhwell
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