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As aid efforts ramp up in Sudan, local groups must take centre stage

‘We are facing this crisis on our own.’

In this photo, we see two young women. Their faces are covered and they're both wearing caps. One of them holds the flag of Sudan in one hand. In the background we see smoke and dispersed people also protesting. Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
Grassroots networks have been leading relief efforts in Sudan over the past month. Many of these groups were also involved in pro-democracy protests (pictured above) in recent years.

A month in, Sudan’s conflict is showing no signs of slowing down, and the situation for civilians is increasingly dire. Yet while local initiatives have sprung up across the country, very little has been visible in terms of an international humanitarian response.

With the situation changing fast, relief efforts should be localised and decentralised. There are many emerging and established Sudanese groups that are already responding with limited or no resources. Their efforts must be supported.

There is also a large and active Sudanese diaspora that wants to help the humanitarian response in different ways. These individuals and organisations need to be engaged, yet the avenues available to them are currently limited.

It is true that international aid actors in Sudan are facing major challenges and dilemmas, but they need to be more decisive. Their absence so far has led to a feeling among affected people that they are missing in action.


‘Betrayed by the international community’

The conflict in Sudan erupted because of a power struggle between the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. It began on 15 April in Khartoum, but soon spread to other parts of the country including the long-suffering Darfur region.

Negotiations between the two sides haven’t led to a proper truce, and the humanitarian toll is getting heavier: Hundreds have died, and hundreds of thousands are leaving for neighbouring countries, including Chad, Egypt, and South Sudan.

Still, most Sudanese remain in the country. Some hope things will return to normal, while others can’t leave because they don’t have the money for transport, or the physical ability to move. Aid workers need to ensure these people aren’t forgotten. 

Yet so far, the international community hasn’t provided adequate assistance across the board. “I feel the people of Sudan are betrayed by the international community,” a Sudanese diaspora medic told me recently. “We are facing this crisis on our own.” 

Fighting and looting has undermined the ability of aid groups to work over the past month. Agencies have focused on evacuating their international staff, and relocating some national staff too.

Yet response efforts have also been hampered because of a lack of coordination and engagement with the grassroots organisations that are closest to the affected communities.

These organisations include national NGOs, civil society groups, and the neighbourhood-based resistance committees that have been providing food, facilitating evacuations, and cleaning up damaged hospitals so that medics can work. 


Localising the response

International organisations are now starting to distribute some of the stocks they had in the country, and are also transporting supplies in from abroad. An EU humanitarian air bridge has been set up and flew in its first relief items last week. 

With Khartoum still under siege, UN agencies and international organisations are setting up new bases of operation in Port Sudan, an eastern city alongside the Red Sea.

Logistically, this makes sense, but the city is far away from many areas that need relief. The distance from Port Sudan to El Geneina – a conflict-affected town in Darfur – is around 1,700 kilometres. That’s similar to the distance from London to Warsaw. 

A more agile approach is needed for a fast-changing situation. And one way to achieve this is to decentralise the humanitarian response and empower local actors to deliver assistance and continue the vital work many are already doing. 

This kind of response would enhance the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of relief efforts. It would also ensure a sense of ownership and improve the sustainability of interventions.

The Sudanese diaspora – some of whom work at the headquarters of international organisations and UN agencies – should be involved too, and there are various resources and frameworks to help facilitate this. 


Unanswered questions

Localisation is not a new concept, and lessons can be learned from previous crises, such as Syria and Ukraine. In both cases, local actors have been vital in delivering aid and protection to people in need.

Yet simply preaching localisation will not stop donors and international organisations from repeating the same mistakes. For example, less than 1% of the $3.9 billion of humanitarian funding last year in Ukraine went directly to local actors.

Many questions still linger in the localisation discussion: Who is the boss? Who decides how much funding and authority local actors should have? How can international and local actors work together in a respectful and supportive way? 

These are some of the questions that need to be addressed to make localisation a reality in Sudan and beyond. Thankfully, organisations like the NEAR Network have developed a framework that can help facilitate what is needed.


Other issues to think about: Urban needs and fragile neighbours

As aid groups scale up in Sudan, they will face many challenges and will need to learn to operate without a rule book. The warring parties are likely to constantly challenge and violate humanitarian principles, standards, and norms.

The theatre of conflict – and therefore the site of humanitarian intervention – have also shifted. For decades, wars in Sudan were fought in the peripheries, but now combat is happening in major urban areas.

One of those cities is Khartoum, which until last month was regarded as a safe family duty station for diplomats, aid workers, and other migrant communities. It was the home for around a sixth of Sudan’s 46 million population.

Internally displaced Sudanese are now heading to locations like Port Sudan, Dongola, Atbara, and Wad Madani. These places are more commonly associated with Sudan’s elites rather than with humanitarian intervention maps.

A regional lens will also be required of relief agencies in the coming months as the humanitarian crisis has a cascading impact on several of Sudan’s already fragile neighbours.

Egypt is suffering economic turmoil, Ethiopia is still reeling from the impact of war, and humanitarian needs in Chad and South Sudan remain extremely high. Yet these countries have all been impacted over the past month.

Aid groups need to understand that Sudan’s conflict is not a typical or temporary crisis, but a new and unprecedented challenge. That challenge requires a coordinated, flexible, and innovative response. Business as usual is not an option.

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