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Why is South Sudan so dangerous for local aid workers?

‘I don’t get to take off my vest. I don’t get to go back to a guarded compound.’

Juba, South Sudan’s capital city, seen from a bird's-eye-view. We see a highway cutting through two parts of the city. Sally Hayden/SOPA Images via Reuters Connect
Juba, South Sudan’s capital city, seen from the sky. The country is one of the most dangerous places in the world for humanitarians, yet aid organisations often misunderstand the risks faced by their local staff.

The number of fatal attacks on aid workers was the highest on record last year in South Sudan, a country that data shows is consistently one of the most dangerous places in the world for humanitarians. Yet aid organisations often misunderstand the risks faced by their South Sudanese staff – who experience the overwhelming share of violence – and in some cases even contribute to the problem.

More aid workers have been killed, wounded, or kidnapped in South Sudan over the past decade than in any other country, according to data aggregated by the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD), an initiative that tracks attacks on aid workers worldwide.

This period overlaps with a civil war that cost at least 400,000 lives, and more recently with a transitional period that has seen less direct fighting between the main warring parties but frequent bouts of violence in the country’s peripheries.

Between 2011 and 2023, 94% of the aid workers killed in South Sudan have been South Sudanese, according to the AWSD. Globally, the proportion of aid workers killed that are national staff is similar, with per capita fatality rates more than three times higher for nationals than internationals, according to one 2018 study.

Interviews with South Sudanese aid workers and researchers highlight how the prominence of local aid workers within their communities – a product of their education, access to relatively high salaries, and proximity to powerful international organisations – can make them a target.

International media outlets should reflect on why they tend to cover aid worker deaths in South Sudan only when expatriate staff are harmed – a moral double standard also laid bare by recent reporting on Israel’s unprecedented killing of aid workers in Gaza.

Interviews also show how national aid workers can become enmeshed in violent struggles between armed groups over access to vital relief supplies.

Humanitarian funding strategies exacerbate these risks by pushing for localisation without granting local organisations adequate funding to keep staff safe. And aid groups have contributed to the problem by enacting hiring practices that create tensions between aid workers and local communities.

To keep national staff safer, international aid groups should take concrete steps to better understand the dynamics that place their workers at risk, including those dynamics that agencies are themselves responsible for.

They must also reckon with the fact that, despite assuming a greater burden of risk, national aid workers are afforded fewer resources, protections, and rights than their international colleagues, and are grossly underrepresented in leadership positions.

Meanwhile, international media outlets should reflect on why they tend to cover aid worker deaths in South Sudan only when expatriate staff are harmed – a moral double standard also laid bare by recent reporting on Israel’s unprecedented killing of aid workers in Gaza.

The anticipated proliferation of humanitarian crises – in South Sudan and beyond – and the necessary boots on the ground that will be required to face them, means the stakes for protecting national aid workers are higher than ever.

‘Revenge killings’ and the politics of aid

Though South Sudanese aid workers often live and work in closer proximity to armed conflict than their international colleagues, many say the greatest risks they face are shaped more by the positions of prominence that they occupy in their communities – a dynamic that reflects the way in which aid has become a major economic force at the local level, with aid workers the foundation of a novel educated middle class.

A mid-level national aid worker can earn over $1,000 per month with an international NGO and more than four times that with the UN, an immense sum when average household spending is under $10 per month and over half the country is acutely food insecure.

These resources have become vital in recent decades as conflict, erratic weather patterns, and recurrent displacement have rendered traditional subsistence livelihoods inviable in much of the country, leaving communities ever more dependent on cash and markets to meet their basic needs.

Aid workers from the Greater Upper Nile region – which has seen particularly high levels of conflict in recent years – said their role as supporters of large networks of extended family can make them targets of so-called “revenge killings” – a retaliatory form of violence typically carried out along community lines.

“If a member of your clan is killed and you want revenge, you won’t take just any life. You will wait for the one who provides, to deprive the family of income,” said a South Sudanese aid worker who requested not to be named in order to speak freely about a sensitive issue.

“As a South Sudanese, the higher the position you have, the higher the risk,” said another local aid worker employed by an international organisation, who also requested their name not be used. “That is the logic of inflicting damage.”

In the past, revenge killings in places like Greater Upper Nile tended to revolve around cattle, the primary determinant of wealth and status in pastoralist society. But as the role of humanitarian labour has grown, revenge attacks now increasingly target aid workers, who occupy “the most opulent part of the political economy”, said Joshua Craze, a researcher for the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based think tank.

Despite the fact that aid workers are targeted by revenge killings – a trend corroborated by several researchers who track violence in the country – some organisations do not include them in fatality counts when they occur outside of an operational context, an oversight that shows a poor understanding of the unique pressures that national aid workers face even when they are off-duty.

“When I go home [from work] at the end of the day, everyone knows who I am, and who I work for,” said one local aid worker who was previously based in Unity State but now resides in Juba, the capital city. “I don’t get to take off my vest. I don’t get to go back to a guarded compound, like the internationals.”

South Sudanese aid workers who spoke to The New Humanitarian said these dynamics can present them with a difficult choice – one often unbeknownst to their international colleagues – between their safety and livelihood.

One aid worker from Upper Nile state said they refused a high-paying post in a neighbouring county for fear of revenge killings. Another, in Warrap state, said that when a project ended in their home area, their organisation asked them to move to a different area where they would be unsafe due to their clan identity. They accepted the risk to avoid losing their job.

Targeted attacks against South Sudanese aid workers also reflect the way humanitarian organisations, which transport large quantities of relief supplies from the capital to rural areas, have become embroiled in the country’s deeply contested politics of resource allocation.

In areas devastated by conflict and flooding, access to vital resources like food can be viewed as zero-sum, said Craze, making aid “an obvious locus of the conflict”.

In Jonglei state, where more than 40% of South Sudan’s aid worker killings occurred in 2023, armed groups instrumentalise the flow of aid – often violently – to vie with one another and collectively punish each other’s community constituencies.

Contexts like this can place aid workers, particularly those involved in transporting food and supplies across conflict lines, at grave risk. Over a third of aid workers killed in South Sudan since 2011 were killed in road ambushes, according to the AWSD.

Skewed hiring practices

Amid a conflict-stunted economy where nearly 90% of youth are without formal work, positions with aid organisations can be the subject of fierce competition, nepotism, and occasionally violence. In such a context, the hiring policies employed by aid agencies can have serious implications for staff safety.

Most aid organisations use differentiated hiring criteria profiles on the basis of nationality, hiring either “internationals” or “nationals” – the latter can come from anywhere in South Sudan. 

However, because most interventions occur in locations facing severe humanitarian conditions, where local populations have experienced repeated disruptions to schooling, and have had limited exposure to English – the working language of South Sudan’s aid sector – even many low-skilled jobs have historically gone to non-local South Sudanese staff.

“Organisations used to bring drivers from Juba; cleaners from Juba; cooks from Juba, [yet] we have these people here,” said an aid worker in Maban County, which hosts more than 170,000 Sudanese refugees, and has been a focal point of violent demonstrations against the under-employment of locals by aid organisations. 

“There was a demand that [these positions] would come from the host community, that the sons and daughters of this area – who are able – would be chosen,” the aid worker said of demonstrations in 2018. “But there was no advertisement here, the advertisement was in Juba.”

In 2021, similar demonstrations spread throughout the country, with non-local national aid workers suffering the brunt of the violence. Such targeting, which may have been driven in part by historical grievances, was also an expression of anger towards the perceived inequality between South Sudanese from different parts of the country, and the way that inequality is linked to employment opportunities.

In deciding who and how to hire, aid organisations’ face difficult choices. Agencies that only hire locally risk appearing beholden to local powers, and may even incentivise authorities to perpetuate crises to attract sorely needed jobs for their constituents. If they hire outsiders, they risk entrenching long-standing inequities and upsetting the very communities they intend to support.

In this delicate balance, there is little indication that aid actors have gotten it right. In late 2023, Maban youth again staged demonstrations – non-violent this time – protesting the perceived under-employment of locals in favour of non-local nationals.

‘The dark side of localisation’

The risks faced by South Sudanese aid workers are exacerbated by the unequal provision of funding between international and national NGOs, leaving many local actors without access to basic security resources, according to experts on aid sector security.

In 2016, the five largest humanitarian donors and six largest UN agencies agreed to “localise” humanitarian response – an effort to increase the sustainability of humanitarian relief by recognising the efficacy of local initiatives.

The number of operational South Sudanese NGOs more than doubled between 2018 and 2023, with large international NGOs and UN agencies increasingly sub-contracting work in areas they deemed too difficult or risky to operate in.

Over the same period, violence against national or local NGO staff has risen, and in the last several years has been comparable to or higher than levels experienced by international NGOs or the UN, despite comprising a far smaller proportion of the workforce.

Aid sector security experts say this trend reflects a shift in the risk assumed from international NGOs to national ones, who have not been granted adequate funding for security equipment like cars and radios, or human resources like security managers.

“It’s the dark side of localisation,” said Abby Stoddard, a partner at the research consultancy Humanitarian Outcomes, and co-founder of the AWSD. “There’s been a transfer of risk without an equitable transfer of risk management.”

Going forward, aid agencies must do more to acknowledge and mitigate the unequal risks that exist within the sector. Previous conversations have failed to do this, though more recent assessments have done well to call for reform.

A broader cultural shift is also needed so that agencies better understand the unique risks their national staff face, including the difficult and often contrasting expectations set by their communities, employers, and political authorities. They should empower staff to say no to risky work without fearing repercussions.

Leveraging local knowledge and putting experienced South Sudanese aid workers in leadership positions, including security roles, is one step that organisations could take to ensure they better account for complex conflict dynamics.

Solutions are unlikely to be straightforward. But any approach must inevitably begin with an honest reckoning of the problem, including the role that humanitarians play in perpetuating it.

A second South Sudan-based aid worker co-researched this story but did not have permission from their organisation to be named as an author.

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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