For aid workers in South Sudan, no good deed goes unpunished

For aid workers in South Sudan, no good deed goes unpunished

Recent analyses show that 94 percent of aid workers who have died violently in South Sudan were nationals. (Reuters)
Recent analyses show that 94 percent of aid workers who have died violently in South Sudan were nationals. (Reuters)
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Escalating violence against humanitarian workers, particularly local staff, represents one of the most acute, yet largely obscured, trends in fragile, conflict-prone regions. In 2023, a troubling uptick in such incidents led to the death toll doubling to almost 300 aid workers within a single year. This surge in targeted attacks is not dispersed evenly across the globe; instead, it has emerged in concentrated pockets, with South Sudan being the most potent in terms of risk and fatalities for humanitarian personnel.
Painstaking research and investigative reports have uncloaked an unsettling reality — local aid workers, integral in the distribution of critical assistance — face elevated risks that are not mitigated by current strategies. Due to their activities in environments where safeguards fall alarmingly short, these individuals become ensnared in a cycle of increasing danger.
UN resolutions and the mandates of international humanitarian law echo all the right notes and ethos about the need to protect aid workers, both local and foreign. However, despite the uncharacteristic harshness of prepared statements and calls for decisive action, attacks continue with near impunity. Kidnappings, injuries and assaults that often target female aid workers increase alongside brutal murders, layering psychological dimensions on top of already extensive humanitarian crises.
Differential access to justice, fear of reprisals and a lack of legal instruments worsen conditions on the ground and only heighten vulnerabilities. These gaps are most evident when considering the nationality of the worker; local staff endure barriers foreign colleagues are less likely to face. Recent analyses show that 94 percent of aid workers who have died violently in South Sudan were nationals. This statistic is not merely a reflection of the work’s inherent danger, but also signals the broader socioeconomic factors at play. Aid work in a country with minimal household incomes can inadvertently elevate individuals to a position of economic prominence, making them targets for conflict-driven retributive attacks.
These local workers encounter heightened threats emanating from the sociopolitical fabric of their own communities. Their work’s visibility makes them accessible targets and the localized dynamics of the conflict entangle them further. This situation is exacerbated by questionable employment practices within the humanitarian sector, which can contribute to existing tensions and, ultimately, violence. Moreover, retribution, an unevenly scaled access to recourse and deliberately obscured paths for seeking legal redress collectively feed into a climate where accountability will always remain elusive.
Compounding these issues is the limited action from the international community in curbing conflicts or securing aid operations. Local aid workers find themselves navigating through areas sometimes either besieged or controlled by hostile forces, with international stakeholders failing to provide adequate support or protection. The implications of these failures are profound, raising questions about the responsibility and efficacy of global humanitarian practices.

Recent analyses show that 94 percent of aid workers who have died violently in South Sudan were nationals.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Another issue that arises from the failure to secure aid operations is a potential complicity in enabling the conditions that perpetuate violence. As mentioned above, the skewed hiring practices and the differential treatment of local versus international staff, for instance, not only reflects inherent gaps within the humanitarian aid work, but also risks inflaming local tensions, sparking a cycle of unmitigable violence that undermines the very mission of humanitarian aid.
The global community must consider not only the direct implications of these failures, but also the broader questions they raise about the structure and intentions of international aid. This includes critical examinations of how the securitization of aid — viewing humanitarian operations through security and political dimensions — may ultimately detract from the altruistic goals of these missions.
Understanding and incorporating the perceptions and insights of local aid workers is a crucial, but often missed, “low-hanging fruit” when crafting policy and practices that ensure the holistic protection of all those involved in humanitarian operations. This necessitates a shift from the traditional top-down approach to one that centers on inclusivity, local partnership and credible dialogue. Such strategies should encompass not only physical protection measures, but also the economic and social well-being of aid workers, acknowledging their invaluable role within both the humanitarian ecosystem and their respective communities.
Systemic failures in safeguarding aid operations in South Sudan serve as a critical reminder of the need for a concerted, inclusive and reformed approach to humanitarian aid that is responsive to the complexities of modern conflicts, respectful of the local context and reflective of the principles of equity and justice. Without such introspection and action, the international community risks undermining the efficacy, integrity and, most importantly, the humanitarian spirit of aid work.
The South Sudan context positions its national aid workers as central, not merely as essential service providers but as actors entwined with the conflict’s economic and social dimensions. The lack of international mobilization shapes the narrative around their experiences and the fundamental challenges of delivering aid in conflict zones. The statistics present more than numerical values; they reflect the struggles of those who endeavor to maintain a lifeline to communities under siege. South Sudan thus serves as a pronounced example, but by no means an isolated one, where aid workers must balance being both conduits for critical support, while besieged by the very crises they aim to alleviate.
This harrowing contradiction calls for a recalibration of rigid support mechanisms and protective measures — a mandate that the global community cannot afford to ignore. The systematic unshielding of local humanitarian workers is a distressing signal and the inevitable fatalities must now catalyze comprehensive reforms in policy, practice and international cooperation.
In practice, such reforms to respond to the horrifying realities faced by national aid workers could, for instance, position South Sudanese professionals in vital leadership roles. This will leverage local expertise for more effective decision-making but also foster trust-building in community relationships, which are crucial for navigating fragile contexts.
Aid organizations can also utilize technological systems that allow for real-time monitoring to better manage threats and protect humanitarian work in conflict-prone areas. Alongside changes to how humanitarian organizations operate, reforms in policy and practice must be coordinated since no country, organization or group can unilaterally address the persistent vulnerabilities national aid workers face in volatile contexts — in South Sudan or elsewhere.
In sum, the experiences of South Sudan’s humanitarian personnel necessitate an urgent reexamination of aid strategies, both locally and internationally. The goal should be to both improve the safety of aid workers and enhance the effectiveness of humanitarian efforts in areas where access is continually compromised by conflict. This reframing should guide policy-level discussions toward better structures for support, engagement and protection that acknowledge the evolving roles and risks of aid workers in extremely volatile contexts.

  • 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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