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How mutual aid networks are powering Sudan’s humanitarian response

‘The beautiful thing is that we come together and spend time doing this.’

A Sudanese woman who fled the conflict in Geneina, in Sudan’s Darfur region, helps her relative to carry her bucket after she filled it at the water point in Adre, Chad July 30, 2023. This image is an altered illustration from a photograph. The women are seen passing each other an orange bucket filled with water. We cannot see their faces. A Burgundy circle has been placed behind them and between them and the image background. Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
A Sudanese woman, who fled fighting in Darfur, helps a relative carry a bucket of water in Adre, Chad. Mutual aid groups have been central to Sudan’s humanitarian response since conflict broke out in April.

Community-based mutual aid groups are continuing to play a leading role in the humanitarian response to Sudan’s conflict, especially as rampant insecurity restricts international relief agencies from accessing the most affected areas.

 

Yet the grassroots groups – which morphed out of neighbourhood activist networks that spent years fighting against authoritarianism – are facing growing threats from the warring parties and are receiving little financial support from international donors.

 

“There are many threats,” said Mohammed Ibrahim*, a member of a local group providing meals to people in the Gerief West area of the besieged capital, Khartoum. “Either a shell falls on us while we are cooking or [the warring parties] raid the place.”

 

Sudan’s conflict began on 15 April and pits the country’s main paramilitary group – the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – against the regular army. Nearly four million people have been displaced by the fighting, which centres on Khartoum and the Darfur region.

 

Youth-driven volunteer networks have set up “emergency response rooms” across the country in response to the fighting, the collapse of the state, and a slow-moving international relief effort.

 

Members of the emergency rooms – which are sheltering displaced people, supporting hospitals, and securing food and water supplies – said their decentralised, horizontal structure and people-centred principles showcase a different kind of politics in Sudan.

 

In interviews with The New Humanitarian and Ayin Media, the volunteers said they are also building on a history of mutual aid in Sudan – one cultivated by communities facing wars waged by the state and, in more recent years, with flooding and the pandemic.

 

Still, the responders said they face multiple obstacles that challenge their work. They said they risk being arrested by both the RSF and the army, which accuse volunteers of supporting their rivals, and see the groups as something to control rather than support.

 

Emergency rooms currently receive most of their money from local and diaspora donations, but volunteers said these funds are not commensurate with their needs, and they are hard to receive due to the collapse of the banking system.

 

Though some international NGOs are working with the groups, progress has been slow, said Sara Abbas from the Sudan Crisis Coordination Unit at Shabaka, an organisation that amplifies diaspora and civil society groups in the aid sector.

 

“There still isn’t enough support coming through for the local grassroots response,” said Abbas. “There is still a mentality that the local response is an afterthought, that it is not really something that is integral to the international humanitarian response.”

 

Filling the void: ‘Beautiful values emerged from this hardship’

The emergency rooms include many members of Sudan’s resistance committees. These non-hierarchical groups were central to the protests that forced out former leader Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and set the stage for a democratic transition.

 

The committees were marginalised from the transition process, however. While they called for full civilian rule, internationally supported processes led to unpopular power-sharing deals between military actors and civilian politicians.

 

The committees and emergency rooms have gained increasing prominence in recent months as they have filled gaps left by international aid groups, which are facing what the UN has called the toughest humanitarian access conditions in the world.

 

“I picked up the volunteer's phone number from social media and asked for help, and they immediately responded and brought me water. I was so grateful.”

 

Many aid agencies have been unable to operate in Darfur, Khartoum, and other conflict-affected areas. As a result, they have had to suspend programmes and lay off hundreds of mostly Sudanese aid workers

 

Bureaucratic impediments imposed by government authorities have further restricted international agencies. They have struggled to get visas for expatriate staff, and permits to import and move aid supplies are regularly withheld.

 

By contrast, emergency rooms and their members have remained active across the country, performing work that has helped solidify bonds within communities, said Ibrahim, the volunteer in Gerief West.

 

“The beautiful thing is that we come together and spend time doing this, which is therapeutic and purposeful,” Ibrahim said, while preparing beans to feed people. “Beautiful values emerged from this hardship, and I hope they will continue afterwards.”

 

A key task for the emergency rooms is assessing local needs and mobilising volunteers to address them. Members may find local electricians to fix damaged power lines, support medical staff to return to hospitals, or source fuel for ambulances.

 

The groups also provide their own services, which have effectively replaced the state system. They have taken the lead in organising displacement sites, and have set up community kitchens and cooperatives to buy food for people trapped in hard-hit areas.

 

Sarah Ahmed*, a resident of Gerief West, said members of the local emergency room recently walked for three-and-a-half kilometres in scorching heat to deliver two barrels of water to her Al-Taif neighbourhood after the supply was cut. 

 

“Al-Taif was lacking water for days,” Ahmed said. “I picked up the volunteer's phone number from social media and asked for help, and they immediately responded and brought me water. I was so grateful.”

 

Vivian El Kheir*, a pregnant woman who also lives in Gerief West, said the same emergency room has provided her with a critical humanitarian lifeline over the past few weeks.

 

Kheir said she has been unable to support herself and her unborn child since the war broke out and has depended on food distributions and health services organised by the group.

 

Authorities clamp down: ‘They want to practise their usual corruption’

The logistical and security challenges that arise when providing these services are hard to navigate, according to several volunteers who spoke with The New Humanitarian and Ayin Media.

 

Emergency rooms operate without permanent offices for fear of army aircraft bombing them, volunteers said. Telecommunication networks are also weak, and stocks of food and medicine are routinely in short supply.

 

“The emergency response room youth were making great efforts. Now, they are targeted by authorities because of their political classification as members of the resistance committees.”

 

Volunteer groups have seen their members killed while out on the streets, and others have struggled with turnover as activists escape areas when the security situation deteriorates or when an opportunity to flee presents itself.

 

Emergency rooms have also increasingly been targeted by military authorities, which view the volunteers with suspicion given their links to the resistance committees that oppose army rule.

 

“The emergency response room youth were making great efforts,” said Adam Ahmed*, a volunteer from White Nile state. “Now, they are targeted by authorities because of their political classification as members of the resistance committees.”

 

Ahmed said authorities in White Nile recently ordered the closure of an emergency room in the state, and formed a committee to take charge of a shelter that volunteers had set up for displaced people fleeing Khartoum.

 

Sami Kamal*, who works for an emergency room in Gedaref, in eastern Sudan, said local authorities have also been trying to dismantle his volunteer group so they can control the humanitarian aid they are receiving.

 

“They want to practise their usual corruption as they have done in the past,” Kamal said. “The emergency rooms ensure that aid reaches those who deserve it, not the authorities, and they don’t like this.”

 

Omar Rigal*, a volunteer from an emergency room that is sheltering and providing food to displaced people in Sennar state, said his group has been rebuffing local authorities that want to work alongside them. 

 

“We refused because we know their intentions well,” Rigal said. “They don’t want to provide food for the displaced; they have personal interests. We enjoy the trust of the local community and merchants.”

 

Donor reluctance: ‘We are really trying to push for a partnership mentality’

Emergency room members said their initiatives are being supported by diaspora and local groups, including mosques, churches, local businesses, and market merchants. But they called for more financial support.

 

“The numbers fleeing are large and constantly increasing. We need intervention from capable international bodies.”

 

Ahmed Al-Tay, a member of a resistance committee in Wad Madani, a city southeast of Khartoum, said displaced people are experiencing harsh conditions that local volunteers cannot fully address.

 

“There is a great shortage of food, and many of the displaced barely eat a meal a day,” Al-Tay said. “There are popular efforts towards them, but the numbers fleeing are large and constantly increasing. We need intervention from capable international bodies.”

 

Several international NGOs are supporting the emergency rooms, aid officials told The New Humanitarian and Ayin Media, though the vast majority of donor funds are still controlled by UN agencies and, to a lesser extent, by international NGOs.

 

Abbas of Shabaka said international organisations are more used to partnering with national NGOs in Sudan, which operate very differently to the “agile” and “flexible” volunteer-based emergency rooms.

 

More international support may be in the works. The head of USAID, Samantha Power, said in June that the agency wants to transition from an assistance model that is reliant on the UN to one that recognises community-based groups in Sudan.

 

Still, international support may bring its own problems. It could saddle emergency rooms with donors’ cumbersome due diligence processes, aid workers warned, and it may attract the attention of the conflict parties who want to control humanitarian relief.

 

Conscious of the security risks, several of the international NGOs that are funding the emergency rooms have decided not to speak publicly about their efforts, said a senior aid worker who asked not to be named.

 

Abbas said there’s also a risk international aid agencies use the volunteers purely as a short-term solution to overcome access challenges rather than a long-term way of delivering assistance in Sudan.

 

“It is very important that they use the civil society now as a way of responding to the needs on the ground,” Abbas said. “But it shouldn’t be thought of as a stop-gap measure. We are really trying to push for a partnership mentality.”

 

A blueprint for the future: ‘Replacing the dominant state with grassroots councils’

Resistance committee member Mohamed Obaid said the emergency rooms should not only be seen as humanitarian groups. He said they have introduced a new form of decentralised service-delivery that could replace the state itself.

 

“I see this as a normal development of the Sudanese youth groups which are initiating self-governance in their neighbourhoods, replacing the dominant state with grassroots councils… based on people’s demands – not the war leaders’ demands,” he said.

 

Ibrahim, from the Gerief West emergency room, said the principles of the volunteers stand in stark contrast to the divisive politics of past and present Sudanese regimes.

 

“We need to stand against hate and racism,” said Ibrahim. “In here, no one is better than another. No one is asking people about their backgrounds or looking down at anyone.”

 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of sources.

This report was funded by the H2H Network’s H2H Fund, which is supported by UK aid.

Tom Rhodes reported from Nairobi, and Philip Kleinfeld from London. Rawh Nasir, who is part of the Gerief West emergency room volunteers group, reported from Khartoum. Edited by Andrew Gully.

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