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Co-ordinating a Humanitarian Response in Sudan


A man unloading a sack of 'Super Unimix' - a protein-rich nutritional supplement - supplied by UNICEF, from a World Food Programme plane.

Paul Murphy, Regional Policy Adviser, Nairobi CONCERN and Peter Salama, Emergency Medical Co-ordinator, Dublin CONCERN provide an overview of the 1998 crisis in south Sudan and the humanitarian response.


Tragically, 1998 has now been added to the catalogue of Sudan's history of recurring humanitarian crises. Southern Sudan yet again became a focus of attention for the international community and its media. The magnitude of the crisis, in terms of both the population size and geographical coverage was staggering, with up to 2 million people considered at risk, i.e., dependent on some form of external assistance to survive. Furthermore, the complex nature of the emergency, both politically and logistically, required a response from the international community that was not only massive but also well planned, co-ordinated and cognisant of the possible unintended harmful consequences operating in such an environment can produce. Over 50 organisations, the majority members of the United Nations led consortium Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS: a tripartite agreement for humanitarian access between the UN, the government, and rebel movements), as well as a growing number of agencies operating outside of the formal UN framework, contributed to the humanitarian response. This task was fraught with difficulties, some of which were external and therefore outside the influence of the humanitarian programme, while others were linked to its inherent structure and relations. The following highlights some of the key points relevant to the background of the crisis; to the humanitarian response that ensued, particularly as it relates to the Bahr el Ghazal region; and how the mechanisms for co-ordination and setting of standards fared under the stress of such a large scale operation.

Background to the Crisis

Nuer Cattlecamp, Koch, upper Nile

One of the key determinants of the current humanitarian crisis is the civil war between government forces, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLM/A), and southern groupings loosely aligned to the government of Sudan. The roots of the conflict are found in a dispute over the identity of the Sudanese state; over issues of governance of the south, central and eastern regions of the country; and over control of its natural resource base and economic system. The conflict is fuelled by local ethnic divisions and interests, which have often been manipulated by political and military elites on all sides, in an attempt to garner support for territorial and ideological objectives. Even before the war, the basic economy of southern Sudan constituted subsistence production, with farmers selling their surplus for cash in good years and using a variety of other livelihood strategies to reduce vulnerability to recurrent drought and food deficit. The delicate livelihood systems, which vary greatly according to specific locations, encompasses livestock, agriculture, fishing, wild foods and trade practices. However, due to the violent political dispute, these livelihood systems are experiencing frequent stress. The past few years in particular have seen an intensification of these shocks upon livelihoods, culminating in widespread malnutrition and mortality among the civilian population. Characteristics of the crisis, and typical of the factors that have undermined the ability of people to survive adequately, include:

  • Looting and deliberate crop destruction which, in combination with three consecutive years of poor crop harvest (floods of 1996, drought of 1997, and flooding again in 1998), have caused an increase in both the severity and duration of the hunger gap in recent times.
  • Curtailment of trade routes and exchange relationships.
  • Military attacks on areas of population concentration.

This has resulted in:

  • Abandonment of agriculture and loss of key assets such as cattle and goats.
  • Reduced sources of secured storage.
  • Displacement of people and increased abnormal migratory patterns: up to 4 million are estimated to have been internally displaced.
  • Loss of technical expertise and education facilities generally.
  • Ill health and lack of adequate health services.

As a consequence, livelihood resilience and food security have deteriorated on a chronic basis, while removing available opportunities to recover from extreme forms of stress. Among the most visible signs of the crisis in 1998 was the prevalence of acute malnutrition in many areas, especially in Bahr el Ghazal. For example, malnutrition in some of the acutely affected sites such as Ajiep and Panthou (Gogrial county), were reported to be in the region of 80% and 70% respectively (Epicentre survey, August 1998). Repeat assessments in September/October, despite intensive inputs, showed that the prevalence of global malnutrition in Ajiep was persistently high (48%). Rapid assessments in other areas indicated that levels of malnutrition were abnormally high throughout Northern Bahr el Ghazal (e.g. 30% wasting in the county of Aweil West County). Alongside this went very high crude and under five mortality rates with CMRs as high as 20-30/10,000/day being recorded frequently in the early stages of the crisis. What shocked many practitioners and commentators was how quickly the situation seemed to have deteriorated and how the estimated number of at risk people went from thousands to almost two million in less than six months.

An Evolving Humanitarian Response

Given the existence for over nine years of a humanitarian response mechanism for southern Sudan (OLS), some have questioned - including those who were part of the crisis response - whether 'the assistance community could have detected the tragedy developing sooner; reacted more quickly; and responded more effectively'. The answers however are complex and deserve greater, and perhaps more distant reflection than this introduction offers. The decline in livelihood resilience, mentioned above, was essentially the precondition. In particular, the presence of a government backed warlord-type commander, Kerubino Kwanyin, who had inflicted terror and widespread displacement in northern Bahr el Ghazal for the previous 2/3 years, was significant. Poor returns on the harvest for two consecutive years had also negatively impacted on the food security situation. Other factors that contrived to intensify the crisis included the defection of the same renegade leader (Kerubino) to the SPLM/A and the subsequent unplanned attack his forces launched on the government garrison town of Wau. This act precipitated civilian deaths and further displacement. Restricted aircraft access by the Government of Sudan during the months of February and March, effectively blocked humanitarian assistance at a critical time. Finally, the humanitarian programme scaled up at a time when access to Sudan was problematic, both in terms of the effects of heavy rains and flooding, the availability of aircraft over demand, and restricted access. The conditions often defeated the very best of available logistics. By March, a sharp slide in the nutrition status had commenced, but its pace and intensity was interpreted differently by the humanitarian actors on the ground. Early projections of a crisis on a large scale were being heard. Some members of the international media picked up these messages and ran with them. Other agencies argued against simplistic interpretations, and stressed the often unacknowledged coping mechanisms people practice and how they should be strengthened. By May, the crisis was 'visible' in certain areas and stress clearly evident. Throughout this time, the atrisk numbers estimated by WFP rose monthly, and the same organisation launched the largest food airdrop in history, with 17 aircraft aiming to deliver up to an average of 15,000 MTs of food per month. A scramble to obtain emergency seed inputs intensified in June, spurred by the late arrival of the rains and therefore an unexpected extended lead-in time to distribute. The other mainstay of the humanitarian response was selective feeding: at this stage, a small number of agencies (mostly those with a presence already established on the ground), were addressing a rapidly growing nutrition problem through feeding interventions. By July, the famine was advanced and the scale of the problem was acknowledged widely among the assistance community, though there were growing differences of opinion over the quality of data available and the design of the emergency response. A number of agencies admitted for the first time that they were not coping with the size of the problem, and the task of matching additional resources with growing need was problematic. New agencies were appearing on the scene and other already established ones were offering their services to assist in emergency nutrition rehabilitation. General ration distributions had been substantially increased however, though targeting mechanisms came under stress as the project expanded. By September, the programme had massively scaled up and a vast quantity of resources was being delivered. Sudan was a flurry of aid agencies. By November, early signs of improvement were evident and the agencies who had been advocating exit strategies for emergency interventions were beginning to be heard. By December, the situation while fragile, was stabilising in many areas.

The Burden of Co-ordination

Airport in Lokichockio (Logistic base for south Sudan in Kenya)

Despite the obvious successes and the impressive statistics that generally focus on indicators such as amount of food delivered and number of beneficiaries targeted, there were many problems with the humanitarian response. The practical constraints facing implementing agencies were indeed monumental, but the quality of the response was uneven. For instance, a lack of rigorous assessment and analysis often led to standard uncritical responses without adequate recognition of the lack of homogeneity from one location to the next. In Bahr el Ghazal region alone, 45 supplementary and therapeutic feeding centres were established reaching some 35,000 beneficiaries. The agencies reacted as rapidly as they could, responding to the familiar blend of obvious need; media attention; encouragement from the OLS consortium body and, in many cases, pressure from their own head offices to mount a high profile emergency intervention (most typically, selective feeding for children). The number of agencies that struggled over what was an appropriate intervention to mount was striking. This led to arguments between, but mostly within agencies.
A common criticism cited was the lack of adequate co-ordination, always a target for post-mortem assessments. The principal delivery mechanism is OLS, which began in 1989. UNICEF serves as its lead agency in southern Sudan and had the formidable task of co-ordinating over 40 separate organisations in the south. This is a very difficult if not near impossible task considering not only the sheer number of agencies involved, but also the crucial differences between them. These include for example, levels of professionalism, areas of technical expertise, attitudes towards advocacy and finally towards relations with official local counterparts, principally the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA) and the Relief Association for South Sudan (RASS): both humanitarian wings of the insurgent movements. Relations with local counterparts deserve particular attention when addressing the effectiveness of coordination. In many respects, the humanitarian crisis and the subsequent international response eclipsed the capacities of indigenous humanitarian agencies and accentuated the weaknesses inherent in their organisations. Take the SRRA: essentially a (humanitarian) part of the SPLM, which as a rebel movement lacks formal international recognition and legitimacy. Yet the SRRA is the official point of contact for agencies operating under SPLM/A control. The fact that the SPLM is introducing a civil administration, and transferring powers from SRRA to them, further complicated the coordination relations among the players.

The position of individual agencies, vis à vis the SRRA for example, differed greatly. Some within OLS distance themselves, reluctant to acknowledge their role as partners in the humanitarian response: wary of compromising their professed neutrality. The diversion of aid, another controversial issue during the crisis and which deserves a separate analysis, deepened the rift between some international agencies and the counterparts. Others argued differently, that although the SRRA has its problems, particularly in terms of resources and capacity, it is only through constructive engagement that such an organisation can build its capacity to assist in co-ordination, improve its accountability and represent the community more effectively. Finally, there were those who appeared unsure what their position was towards counterpart organisations. The lack of a consistent and constructive approach has had its impact on co-ordination and the creation of a problem solving environment in the programme.
Similar variances exist among agencies operating outside of the OLS framework. Some agencies choose to be outside the OLS umbrella because it allows greater flexibility, especially in reaching geographic areas that lie outside the UN agreement and consequently receive far less resources and services from the international community (e.g. the Nuba Mountains). These agencies may still coordinate closely with OLS both informally and formally. Other agencies prefer independence as a consequence of their mandate, e.g. ICRC, while a few make no apology for their explicit support of the people of southern Sudan and indirectly or directly, the SPLM/A.
There is in fact very little that binds the non-OLS organisations together and the extent to which they co-ordinate with each other and the OLS consortium depends very much on individuals and varies from agency to agency. On the other hand, save for security, ready access to OLS flights (until 1999), and regular meetings, there appears little more that binds the OLS agencies together. Another tendency found among NGOs with particular technical knowledge and long-standing experience in emergencies, is that they consider rightly or wrongly that they have superior operational expertise to the coordination agency, and are therefore reluctant to submit to any genuine co-ordination. The scale and complexity of the programme has placed understandable pressure on its overall co-ordination function and has contributed to perceptions that OLS co-ordination lacks sufficient technical authority to be able to conduct comprehensive assessments, effectively direct NGOs to areas of greatest need, monitor and evaluate NGO programmes, and advise them on how to improve if necessary. The result is that despite a lot of time and resources spent on co-ordination, many NGOs still guard their autonomy jealously and go largely unregulated.

This introduces another dominant and controversial theme raised by the 1998 crisis: the issue of minimum standards. Most agencies currently working in southern Sudan have expressed a commitment to minimum standards in emergency intervention by either publishing technical guidelines and recommendations or subscribing to initiatives such as SPHERE1. The experience of humanitarian intervention in Sudan clearly brings with it an important message for the steering committees of bodies like SPHERE. Without an independent technical body of authoritative expertise with a mandate to monitor and evaluate NGO performance, as well as mechanisms to enforce standards, these initiatives may not have the desired effect of fixing shared norms in emergency responses. Once faced with difficult operational circumstances, there is a risk that standards once described as minimum become optimal or even unrealistic in the minds of practitioners. Sudan, as it has so often done in the past, again posed a challenge for many NGOs as the line between 'contextualisation' and below standard performance became obscure.

A frequently cited example of the costs of inadequate co-ordination on both strategic and operational levels in southern Sudan in 1998, was that of Ajiep in northern Bahr el Ghazal. Ajiep was quickly described as the epicentre of the famine, received a great degree of media attention and material inputs and became an important touchstone for the humanitarian response. The population of Ajiep swelled from approximately 3,000 to 21,000 in the course of the crisis. The reasons for this were complex but included the relative degree of security and the intensive inputs brought into the area: i.e. general food ration, selective feeding interventions, blanket feeding and health services. Rates of global malnutrition reached 80% and reported crude mortality rates were amongst some of the highest ever recorded. The adverse operational conditions in Ajiep (flooding) put additional strain on the few agencies based there. Despite massive inputs in Ajiep and perhaps to some extent because of them, mortality rates remained unacceptably high for some months into the crisis. The general ration was adequate in terms of absolute number of beneficiaries targeted and content, but it was clear after some weeks that many of those families who most needed it were not gaining access to a full ration. The coverage of selective feeding programmes remained low for too long and sanitation concerns were not addressed quickly enough. An epidemic of shigella (sd1) dysentery compounded the problem in July and August, resulting in further loss of life.

According to the OLS Annual Needs Assessment2 for 1998, poor coverage by the humanitarian agencies and the lack of early funding impeded a swift response. The view of the SRRA Annual Assessment Report3, is that UNICEF as the designated lead agency failed to effectively coordinate and monitor feeding programmes in Bahr el Ghazal. This report also goes on to lament the fact that the SRRA also failed in its co-ordination and facilitation duties, but contends that these failures were partially due to a lack of resources and a lack of formal recognition in a binding agreement of its declared mandate.

Tragically, the crisis is not over. 1999 threatens to bring similar conditions for the many Sudanese people at risk. However, it is possible that with improved strategic planning and better operational co-ordination, the effectiveness of the humanitarian response will be enhanced and situations like the one described above will be mitigated more effectively in the future. There are lessons to be learned.

1The Sphere Project is a programme of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) and Interaction with Voice, ICRC and ICVA. The Sphere project is responsible for the production of the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response, ISBN: 92-9139-049-6.

2SRRA Annual Needs Assessment Report, 1998/99, November 1998.

3OLS Annual Needs Assessment November 1998.

Imported from FEX website


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