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Why humanitarians should stop hiding behind impartiality

Understanding the politics behind the crises can help aid workers avoid unintended consequences.

A man watches a UN helicopter land at an airstrip in South Sudan on 26 June 2012. The instrumentalisation of aid by political elites in the country is prompting a rethink of traditional humanitarian principles. Adriane Ohanesian/REUTERS
A man watches a UN helicopter land at an airstrip in South Sudan on 26 June 2012. The instrumentalisation of aid by political elites in the country is prompting a rethink of traditional humanitarian principles.

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The humanitarian principle of impartiality is in crisis. South Sudan – where aid is frequently manipulated by political elites – offers both a clear warning, but also a possible path forward.

Traditionally, the international humanitarian sector holds four principles as sacrosanct: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence.

In theory, impartiality means that humanitarian aid should not discriminate, but be guided solely by needs. In practice, however, a blind focus on needs can intensify the very suffering that aid agencies are trying to address. 

Humanitarians rely predominantly on needs assessments to evaluate which populations require assistance. These assessments analytically separate physical needs from the political contexts in which response operations take place.

In South Sudan, where we have spent more than a decade doing research, this has sometimes left humanitarian action at the mercy of political elites. These parties instrumentalise the distribution of vital resources by pushing desperate populations into contested territories and then asking humanitarian agencies to assist, or by attempting to control where and when such assistance can take place. 

Acting solely on the basis of short-term need prevents humanitarians from seeing the longer-term implications of assistance. In South Sudan, aid can exacerbate conflict and the inequalities that drive it. The same risks are present wherever humanitarian action tries to separate itself from political realities on the ground.

But hope is not lost. Rather than taking refuge in purely needs-based interpretations of impartiality, the humanitarian community can commit to a more expansive agenda, in which its existing principles are complemented by a concern for social injustice and redressing structural inequalities – the real motors of conflict in places like South Sudan.

Conflict sensitivity – understanding how aid, politics, and conflict become entangled – will help humanitarians navigate and minimise the unintended consequences of their assistance.

Aid as a tool of politics and war

As South Sudan roils from successive humanitarian and political crises, the inadequacy of needs-based interpretations of impartiality has become glaringly obvious.

In Unity State, in the country’s north, climate change-induced flooding in mid-2021 forced thousands of people to flee water-logged areas for the state capital, Bentiu. There, rival politicians competed to control the flows of internally displaced people (IDPs), funnelling them into new camps. By the end of 2021, there were five new displacement sites around Bentiu.

The climate crisis generated real humanitarian needs, but the ones that aid agencies were asked to respond to in Bentiu did not exist solely on their own: They were channelled by political elites to serve political ends. The governor of Unity State, Nguen Monytuil, created some of the camps to try to peel off the support of one ethnic group, the Leek Nuer, who are traditionally a constituency for the governor’s deputy and rival. By taking responsibility for aid delivery, Monytuil hoped to create a loyal constituency of his own in the run-up to general elections, tentatively scheduled for 2024. 

Time and again, humanitarian aid has become a tool of government politics, used to control displaced people.

Some of these camps were established on contested land, or on territory that has unresolved housing, land, and property issues amassed over a half-decade of civil war. Government-backed population transfers into such areas could constitute landgrabs. Humanitarian support, in this environment, risked playing a role in elite strategies to construct loyal political constituencies. 

This has happened repeatedly elsewhere in South Sudan: Time and again, humanitarian aid has become a tool of government politics, used to control displaced people.

Warring parties have long sought to leverage humanitarian aid in their favour – from before South Sudan’s inception as a country, to its civil war, to the present day.

During Sudan’s 22-year civil war from 1983 to 2005, the government in Khartoum fought against a rebel movement, largely in the south of the country, in what is now South Sudan. Both the government and the southern Sudan rebel group – the SPLA or Sudan People’s Liberation Army – used the denial or disruption of humanitarian aid as a tool of war, designed to starve or punish populations that the belligerent parties viewed as hostile. 

Allowing the distribution of aid is as much of a political tool as blocking it. Throughout the South Sudanese civil war from 2013 to 2018, the government selectively granted access to humanitarian agencies in line with its own political and military aims. 

During a violent military campaign in the south of Unity in 2015, for example, government forces blocked aid access to rebel-held areas – while at the same time allowing humanitarian distributions in select locations. These sites were magnets, pulling people out of rebel-held rural areas into government-controlled territory. 

This gave the SPLA – by then transformed from a guerrilla group to the army of South Sudan’s government – free rein to loot and burn the emptied areas, along with its affiliated militias. And in displacement sites where civilians had fled, the government could divert food aid from a terrified and acquiescent population now under its control. 

Eventually, humanitarians began carrying out simultaneous distributions in government and rebel areas. In order to reduce the threats to civilians, in other words, they had to forgo a singular focus on impartiality

An engine, not a snapshot

Across the country, the inequitable – albeit impartial – distribution of aid has continued to drive conflict. While the humanitarian community sees needs assessments as snapshots of physical needs at a given point in time, they can instead be engines that exacerbate structural inequalities on the ground. The South Sudanese civil war came to an end in 2018, but this situation has continued.

In 2020, thousands of IDPs from the Bor Dinka community fled to Mangala in Central Equatoria State, after flooding devastated their homes in neighbouring Jonglei State. They were accompanied by government-assisted transfers of IDPs from Juba, the country’s capital. These IDPs were clearly in need, and the government called for humanitarian assistance. However, the movement of Dinka IDPs into Mangala exacerbated tensions with the local Bari and Mundari populations, which saw such movement as a state-sanctioned landgrab. Initial humanitarian assistance to the Bor Dinka IDPs increased their resentment: In their eyes, humanitarians were not being neutral, but legitimising the occupation of their territory.

Greater Tonj, a part of Warrap State that is home to many of the country’s most important political elites, has seen some of the worst violence in South Sudan since the peace deal was inked. Some of that violence – often backed by politicians in Juba – has set the Luanyjang of Tonj East against the groups who live around them. These groups blocked humanitarian access to Tonj East for much of 2021, effectively laying siege to the territory. The Luanyjang reacted by attacking humanitarian resources – including a hospital and a World Food Programme warehouse – within their opponent’s territory. 

The Luanyjang areas of Tonj East are relatively underdeveloped compared to the rest of Greater Tonj – a historical legacy consistently cited by Luanyjang youth when asked about clashes with other groups. Humanitarian aid intensified these inequalities. When access to Tonj East was blocked in 2021, services were still provided to some of the Luanyjang’s rivals, further fuelling perceptions of bias. 

A way forward

Impartiality doesn’t prevent humanitarian aid from becoming an engine of conflict, or from being used as a tool of war. On the contrary, purely needs-based interpretations of impartiality, so common in many of today’s crises, are blind to the way that aid can inflame inequalities and fuel conflict.

So what is the remedy? A start would be to acknowledge that humanitarian action cannot be separated from the political realities in which it is taking place. “Humanitarianism is always politicised, somehow,” researcher Hugo Slim argued 20 years ago. “It is a political project in a political world.”

In order for aid to be effective, it needs to be placed in a broader political context. If the ultimate aim of humanitarian action is to reduce suffering and protect life, then aid should be used in ways that address the causes of that suffering – including political tensions and longstanding inequalities.

“Humanitarianism is always politicised, somehow. It is a political project in a political world.”

In Greater Tonj, for instance, humanitarians should insist on balanced service delivery across the territory of the Luanyjang and their rivals, as a condition for providing humanitarian aid. 

By making sure that aid is attuned to local political and conflict dynamics – decentralised and not dictated by political elites, for example – marginalised communities will be more likely to access relief. In an environment where assistance is perceived to benefit one group over another, trying to achieve equality in the distribution of aid can ensure that humanitarianism is not feeding into conflict. 

There are established frameworks that can help humanitarians do just that. These include conflict analysis resources and examples that help humanitarians understand the political context of aid, and give instructions on how to lessen the effects of aid instrumentalisation and the ways it’s used to marginalise certain groups.

Impartiality was intended to remove politics from humanitarianism, but this has proved impossible in South Sudan. By acknowledging political realities instead of ignoring them, and by addressing structural inequalities, the humanitarian community can counter attempts to manipulate assistance – and better reach the communities that are sidelined when aid is instrumentalised.

Alicia Luedke reported from Juba; Joshua Craze from New York. Edited by Irwin Loy.

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