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EXCLUSIVE: Sudanese aid workers face hundreds of job losses

‘Most of my colleagues are all displaced, they all lost their homes.’

This is a photograph taken in Cairo, Egypt May 7, 2023. A woman is photographed sitting in the back of a van that's filled with boxes that contain medical supplies. These will go to from Cairo, Egypt to  to Sudan, after the crisis in Sudan's capital Khartoum. The woman has a white head covering and wears a purple long sleeve shirt. She is looking outside the window of the van. She 's hugging a seat of the van Hadeer Mahmoud/Reuters
A volunteer humanitarian worker in Egypt arranges supplies of medical aid for Sudanese impacted by the conflict. Local aid workers are playing a central role in relief efforts, yet many have lost their jobs after programmes were suspended.

Sudan’s conflict has had a devastating impact on local aid workers, even as they take the lead in reaching millions of people in need of assistance. Many have been forced to flee their homes or can’t collect salaries due to a shattered banking system. Now, some are losing their jobs as organisations suspend programmes in areas where they say they can no longer operate safely. 


More than 100 Sudanese workers with Save the Children were recently told they would lose their jobs because they are based in areas where security concerns have forced the organisation to suspend operations, according to documents obtained by The New Humanitarian and Ayin Media.


Employees of five international and national aid organisations operating in Sudan told reporters that their employers had suspended humanitarian and development programmes, leading to job losses or unpaid salaries for Sudanese workers. 


The Norwegian Refugee Council, for instance, has let go 71 of its 338 staff based in offices that have been unable to operate “due to the absence of necessary security assurances and managerial oversight”, Will Carter, the organisation’s country director in Sudan, told reporters via email.


An aid worker from an international NGO, who asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak about job cuts for local aid workers, said: “It is a process that probably a lot of organisations will have to go through, and it is heartbreaking.” 


Before the current conflict, 174 national NGOs, international NGOs, and UN agencies had operations in Sudan, according to data compiled last December by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. As of late July, three months into the conflict, that number had dropped to 85. The total number of job cuts, however, remains unclear.


The job cuts at Save the Children are a combination of terminated and unrenewed contracts, affecting around 20% of the organisation’s workforce in Sudan, according to three current staff members who shared documents and recordings of internal meetings that discussed the job cuts with reporters. They said they would not be personally impacted by the cuts but wanted to share the information in support of their colleagues. All three asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak publicly about the situation or share internal documents. 


“I personally am very disappointed, especially because the staff [losing their jobs] are the most affected by the current crisis,” said one of those staff members. “People in Darfur and Khartoum, where the war is ongoing, in the midst of the shooting and the crisis, they lost their livelihood source.”


In an emailed statement to reporters, Save the Children’s Sudan country office confirmed that the organisation was unable to retain some staff stationed in areas where “programmes have been suspended due to safety risks to staff”. 


A spokesperson would not say what proportion of the organisation’s team in Sudan were losing their jobs, stating only that “a minority of staff” were affected by the cuts.


Save the Children said they “remain optimistic” that operations could be resumed after the conflict is resolved, but did not state whether terminated workers would be rehired.


Several organisations noted that donors refused to continue funding salaries when programmes were suspended. Aid workers also noted that the funding cuts and layoffs reflect common practices in the sector, where conflicts and climate shocks often push organisations to pause programmes.


Job cuts ‘multiply the suffering’

One Sudanese employee of the Near East Foundation, a New York-based NGO with programmes in the country, said two dozen of their colleagues will lose their jobs at the end of this month.


The Near East Foundation did not respond to questions from reporters sent via email.


The employee, who asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak on the matter, said the organisation lost donor funding for development-related projects and has not yet received money to do emergency relief work. The decision would “multiply the suffering” of employees, they said.


Nassiba Jibril, a project manager in South Darfur for Peace Bridge, a national NGO, said her income evaporated after the organisation – which does peacebuilding, education, and programmes for women and youth – suspended its work.


Jibril went on maternity leave earlier in the year and said her contract expired on 30 March. She said she had been promised a new contract when she returned. 


“We received emails from the organisation’s management stating that its activity had been suspended indefinitely, though there was assurance that all employees would be returned in the event of the end of the war,” Jibril said. 


The director of the Peace Bridge office in Nyala, Amna Bara, said her contract had also been terminated.


Abdel Samad Khalil, the executive director of the Almasheesh for Peace and Development Organization, which works on social development, peacebuilding, and transitional justice issues in South Darfur, said his NGO has also suspended its activities due to fighting between local Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and army units, and has been unable to pay staff salaries and office rent.


‘There are some colleagues that we cannot contact’

Sudanese aid workers have stood alongside community-based groups at the forefront of the emergency response to the war that began on 15 April, pitting the RSF paramilitary group against Sudan’s regular army. More than three million people have been displaced, and 24.7 million – over half the population – are in need of assistance.


While large numbers of Sudanese aid workers have been displaced by the fighting – which centres on the capital, Khartoum, and the western Darfur region – others remain trapped, more than a dozen local and international aid workers said in interviews.


“There are some colleagues that we cannot contact and whose whereabouts we don’t know because of problems with the [communications] network in Darfur,” said a local aid worker, who asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak with the media.


International organisations that have suspended programmes have taken various approaches with regard to local staff, said a senior humanitarian official in Sudan who asked not to be named to avoid jeopardising professional relations.


The official said some agencies have put staff on extended leave as they consider the financial and legal implications of terminating contracts. Agencies have also tried to relocate workers from non-operational to operational areas, the official added.


Many international aid agencies have relocated their operations from Khartoum – where fighting has destroyed critical public infrastructure and resulted in hundreds of deaths – to a new hub in the eastern city of Port Sudan.


Sudanese aid workers have been playing a central role in this rebooted relief effort, especially as government authorities restrict visas for international staff and introduce other bureaucratic obstacles.


Yet aid organisations said they are facing “serious challenges in relation to capacity” as a result of the dispersal of national staff, said Clementine Nkweta-Salami, the UN’s top humanitarian official in Sudan, in a recent online panel.


Many local aid workers remain displaced either within Sudan or in neighbouring countries such as Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.


Nkweta-Salami said aid agencies are seeking to strengthen their presence on the ground by compiling lists of Sudanese workers who can be hired for relief operations.


Barakat Faris Badri, operations director for the Sudanese Red Crescent Society, which describes itself as the largest humanitarian responder in the country, said his 100-strong team in Khartoum has been reduced to around half a dozen workers in Port Sudan.


“All of them have fled to different areas, scattered to different areas – that has been one of the main challenges,” Badri said in an interview last month from the eastern city, which lies along the Red Sea.


Six months’ salary

In a 4 June online meeting with staff, Arif Noor, Save the Children’s country director in Sudan, said donors had forced the organisation’s hand.


“Very soon after the outbreak of conflict, at least two donors reached out to us and very clearly told us that we will be unable to pay the salaries of staff who are [located] where our programmes have been suspended,” he said, according to a recording reviewed by The New Humanitarian and Ayin Media.


“We will continue to support them for three months,” he said. “But beyond that, the donors won’t allow us to work there.”


Save the Children’s Sudan country office said via email on 26 July that the organisation would provide staff whose contracts are terminated “with an additional six months of salary after their contract comes to an end and other employment benefits”.


When asked what role donors played in the job cuts, country director Noor said via email: “In some states most affected by the conflict, some of our programmes have been suspended due to safety risks to staff. Where programmes have been suspended, some institutional donors suspended their funding. With staff salaries directly tied to programme funding, for some staff working on these programmes, it has not been possible to retain them on their current contracts.”


The Norwegian Refugee Council also said staff who were suspended in April and laid off would receive the “equivalent of six months’ salary since the onset of the crisis and office suspensions” and would be prioritised in future recruitments in Sudan.


Six months’ salary is part of the compensation an employer must pay a worker who successfully appeals their termination in a Sudanese labour court.


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


Edited by Philip Kleinfeld and Josephine Schmidt.

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