International relief efforts have ratcheted up as Sudan’s conflict rages for a third month, but the response is being held back by funding and security constraints, and a long list of bureaucratic obstacles imposed by local authorities.
Relief workers are struggling to get visas, there are restrictions on importing supplies, and permits needed to move aid across the country are often being withheld, measures that suggest an attempt by authorities to tighten control over humanitarian efforts.
Some aid workers say the hurdles underscore the need for international donors to step up support for the local organisations better placed to operate in conflict hotspots, in particular the neighbourhood-based resistance committees and emergency rooms.
“It is really the local grassroots responders that have been there for the people during this period,” said Sara Abbas, from the Sudan Crisis Coordination Unit at Shabaka, an organisation that amplifies diaspora and local civil society groups in the aid sector.
Sudan has long been a tricky place for international aid agencies to work. Humanitarian needs have been high for many years, and government institutions are known for closely monitoring foreign NGOs, some of which were kicked out by past regimes.
Operational challenges have multiplied since war erupted on 15 April between the country’s main military factions: the powerful Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group – which has its roots in the Darfur region – and the regular army.
Around 25 million people – roughly half the population – are now in need of humanitarian assistance, and almost three million have been displaced by the fighting. A large number of them are being supported by host families and communities.
The situation is especially critical in Darfur – where RSF militias are accused of ethnically targeted violence – and in Khartoum where the army is bombing RSF ground forces with little regard to the millions of people still trapped in the city.
“There is suffering everywhere,” Khartoum resident Haitham Mohamed Salih told The New Humanitarian earlier this week. “We have been living for around two weeks without electricity. It is a miserable situation.”
Access constraints and funding gaps
The UN says more than $3 billion is needed from international donors to fund the humanitarian response, both in Sudan and in the neighbouring countries that have received hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Yet donors committed just half of that amount at a pledging conference last week in Geneva, a gap that will make it hard “to respond at scale”, according to Kate Phillips-Barrasso, vice president of global policy and advocacy at Mercy Corp.
“We are feeling very frustrated with the international and regional communities which have left us alone. But we got the lesson: to depend on ourselves.”
Aid groups are, meanwhile, struggling to distribute what they do have. Though nearly three million have received aid since April, there are no safe humanitarian corridors to conflict-hit areas, leaving people largely reliant on neighbours and mutual aid networks.
“We are feeling very frustrated with the international and regional communities which have left us alone,” said Salih, the Khartoum resident. “But we got the lesson: to depend on ourselves.”
Barakat Faris Badri, operations director for Sudanese Red Crescent Society, which describes itself as the largest humanitarian responder in the country, said insecurity is the main obstacle facing his organisation.
Badri said they recently brought supplies from the World Food Programme to residents of Khartoum but that much more is required. “There is a high need for more food to be distributed, for more action to be taken,” he said.
The widespread looting of humanitarian warehouses and offices has caused further problems for aid agencies, which have had to shut down their Khartoum headquarters and relocate to the eastern city of Port Sudan, which lies on the Red Sea.
Both the RSF and the army have been accused of the looting and aid diversion, which undermines commitments they made to facilitate humanitarian assistance following mediation efforts last month in Saudi Arabia.
Visa delays and a ‘culture of distrust’
The army and aligned government institutions have, meanwhile, introduced a maze of administrative red tape over the past two months, according to interviews with half a dozen aid officials and public statements by some relief organisations.
Since April, authorities have approved only a handful of visas for international aid workers. This has prevented organisations from bringing in specialists, and has put an added strain on local staff, many of whom are personally affected by the conflict.
UN agencies with stronger connections to different Sudanese line ministries are faring better in obtaining entry permits, several humanitarian workers said, though they are experiencing hold-ups too.
The reason behind the obstruction is unclear. Some aid workers said authorities are simply overwhelmed by the conflict, while others cited a deep-seated suspicion towards international aid workers.
Over the years, relations have been especially tense between relief groups and the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), a government agency that manages aid work and which is considered to be closely associated with military intelligence.
“Clearly there are people among the authorities who don't want INGOs getting visas,” said one senior aid worker who asked not to be named to avoid reprisals. “There is a massive institutional culture within the security services of distrust of internationals.”
Armed escorts and ‘continuous operational interference’
Other administrative hurdles appear to reflect the military’s desire to take control over humanitarian relief, an objective likely shared by the RSF. Both sides see it as a lucrative resource, and a tool of war and propaganda.
Military authorities appear to have the upper hand as things stand because they control Port Sudan, which has become the main aid coordination hub in lieu of besieged Khartoum.
Authorities have designated the city the sole port of entry for relief supplies, which officials said limits the operational freedom of humanitarian agencies, preventing them from bringing in aid through other crossings and land borders.
Some aid officials also described military intelligence putting padlocks on warehouses storing relief supplies in Port Sudan, while organisations have publicly criticised authorities for denying them permission to move supplies and personnel out of the city.
“Donors shouldn’t walk away just because it is not the easiest humanitarian crisis to respond to.”
In some cases, authorities have blocked humanitarian agencies from travelling to Khartoum, which may be linked to the fact that much of the capital is controlled by the RSF, some aid officials argued.
However, in other cases described to The New Humanitarian, local officials have blocked travel from one state to another because they wanted aid to be delivered to communities under their jurisdiction.
Aid officials also described the creation of new government committees tasked with overseeing aid work and “continuous operational interference”, including requests to accompany needs assessments and distributions.
“There is recognition that there is power and authority and financial incentives to control the delivery of aid in Sudan,” said the senior aid worker. “This has been exacerbated by the current crisis, but there is nothing now that isn’t without precedent.”
Authorities have also required that aid groups use armed escorts, including in areas not impacted by the conflict. Some organisations have accepted this demand, while others have pushed back, officials from several different groups said.
Those opposed to escorts argue that they expose relief workers to attacks, increase the risk of aid diversion, undermine humanitarian impartiality, and will encourage RSF forces to impose the same requirement in the areas they control.
Phillips-Barrasso of Mercy Corp said the operational challenges – which also include disruption to markets and the banking system – may lead donors to limit what they spend on the response, especially at a time when some are facing funding pressures.
She said such a decision would be a mistake given the scale of the crisis. “Donors shouldn’t walk away just because it is not the easiest humanitarian crisis to respond to,” she said.
A ‘test case’ for localisation
National humanitarian organisations are also facing major operational constraints during the conflict, including the dispersal and displacement of their staff members and volunteers.
Badri of the Sudanese Red Crescent Society said half a dozen staff from his organisation are currently coordinating their entire country operation from Port Sudan, down from around 100 workers previously based in their Khartoum headquarters.
Meanwhile, resistance committees – the neighbourhood groups performing the bulk of the response, from distributing food to rehabilitating hospitals – have reported their volunteers being subjected to arrests by both RSF fighters and the Sudanese army.
Some international aid organisations have provided cash support to the committees and their emergency rooms over the past few weeks, but the groups are still largely dependent on local and diaspora funding.
Abbas of Shabaka said Sudan’s conflict presents a “test case” for measuring the willingness of international actors and humanitarian organisations to localise response efforts – a subject of much policy chatter but little concrete action.
“Engaging local actors is not some kind of add-on but is really central to an effective response,” Abbas said, describing the work of the grassroots organisations as the “main response” to the crisis.
This project was funded by the H2H Network's H2H Fund, which is supported by UK aid.
Edited by Andrew Gully.