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Rethinking Humanitarianism | How mutual aid in Sudan is getting international support 

‘There is the possibility for the emergency rooms to actually receive quite a lot of money… but the system is too slow.’

Composite image for the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast. The background is a carrot orange color. On the top right is the title: "Rethinking Humanitarianism Podcast". ON the bottom left is a white box showing the podcast guests: Hajooj Kuka, external communications officer for the Khartoum State Emergency Response Rooms;  Francesco Bonanome, humanitarian affairs officer with the UN OCHA in black and white.

It has been six months since a military conflict in Sudan began claiming thousands of lives and triggered, according to the UN, the world’s fastest growing displacement crisis.

As international NGOs and the UN struggle to access certain areas, decentralised mutual aid networks – known as emergency response rooms (ERRs) – have stepped in to fill the vacuum.

In acknowledgement of this reality, donors, international NGOs and UN agencies are trying to shift their programmes to support these local volunteer-led networks, but deep-seated bureaucracy – standing in stark contrast to mutual aid groups’ nimbleness and agility – has meant that only a fraction of the millions of dollars promised to them have been received by ERR volunteers.

Co-hosts Heba Aly and Melissa Fundira speak to two guests about unprecedented levels of collaboration between ERRs and the international humanitarian system, how they are trying to overcome the challenges, and how mutual aid groups are spurring a broader shift of power within Sudanese society.

Guests: Hajooj Kuka, external communications officer for the Khartoum State Emergency Response Rooms; Francesco Bonanome, humanitarian affairs officer with the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, in Sudan, focal person for the ERRs

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Show notes 

Transcript | How mutual aid in Sudan is getting international support 

A quick warning for listeners: this episode mentions sexual violence. Please take care while listening.

 

Clementine Nkweta-Salami, Deputy SRSG UNITAMS

“[The] past six months has caused untold suffering. In Sudan, some 5.4 million have fled their homes and totally displaced within Sudan or in neighbouring countries. That's an average of about 30,000 a day, many fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Sudan has become the world's fastest growing displacement crisis.

 

Muzan Alneel, PBS NewsHour

People are just trying to survive this. We see Sudanese people restoring to popular and mutual aid, which is the only thing that they have. [...] The concept of mutual aid is what’s sustaining the people, not the international aid diplomats 

 

Melissa Fundira

Since the spring, fighting between two Sudanese military factions has claimed thousands of lives, led to mass displacement, and created a major humanitarian crisis.

 

Heba Aly

As international NGOs and the United Nations evacuated their international staff and struggled to access certain areas, decentralised mutual aid networks - known as Emergency Response Rooms - have stepped in to fill the vacuum. And they continue to power the humanitarian response today.

 

Melissa Fundira

Is this the beginning of mutual aid as a central organising principle in humanitarian relief? And how are major international humanitarian organisations shifting to acknowledge this reality, if at all?

 

Heba Aly

From Geneva, Switzerland, I’m Heba Aly.

 

Melissa Fundira

And from Toronto, Canada, I’m Melissa Fundira. This is Rethinking Humanitarianism, a podcast about the future of aid in a world of rising crisis.

 

___

 

Since war broke out between the Sudanese Armed Forces – the SAF – and the Rapid Support Forces – the RSF – in April, more than half of Sudan’s population is in need of assistance. That’s nearly 25 million Sudanese men, women, and children struggling to find shelter, food, safety, and meet other basic needs. Because of security concerns, the number of international NGOs operating in Sudan has halved. International staff have largely been evacuated out of danger zones, like the capital Khartoum and the western province of Darfur, and cuts in donor funding have put local staff out of a job.

 

Heba Aly

Where international organisations haven’t been able to operate, local Emergency Response Rooms - or ERRs – have stepped in. Often described as nimble, agile, and flexible, these community and volunteer based groups have been providing everything from shelter and rape kits, to food, water, and electricity. The international humanitarian sector doesn’t usually partner with these groups – it is more used to working with national NGOs, at best. But now, the heads of major organisations, like the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, say they want that to change. 

 

Samantha Power, BBC News

“So what we as USAID are doing is we are trying to transition from an assistance model in emergencies that has tended to go mainly through the UN and other large international actors to recognizing that there are these nimble, brave, resilient forces who are community based.”

 

Heba Aly

Six months on from the start of the conflict, how is the formal humanitarian system’s transition to community-based aid in Sudan working in practice ? What is its potential? What’s getting in the way? And what are the problems with this model? 

 

Melissa Fundira

What’s for sure is that there is a cadre of people who have been working behind-the-scenes to make partnership between donors, UN agencies and international NGOs on the one hand, and mutual aid groups, on the other, a reality. We are joined by two of those people today. Hajooj Kuka is the external communications officer for the Khartoum State Emergency Response Rooms. He is also an activist and filmmaker. Hajooj has been based outside of Sudan since the war broke out. Today, he joins us from Nairobi. Welcome to the podcast. 

 

Hajook Kuka

Thank you.

 

Melissa Fundira

And Francesco Bonanome is the Humanitarian Affairs Officer for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Sudan, and he is the focal point within OCHA for the emergency response rooms. He also joins us from Nairobi, where he was evacuated to. Francesco, welcome.

 

Francesco Bonanome

Thank you. 

 

Heba Aly

So Hajooj, I want to start with you. Take me back to those early days in April when the conflict broke out. How did these emergency response rooms come to be?

 

Hajooj Kuka 

The first thing we tried to do when war broke out was trying to figure out what can we do? How can we help? So one of the first things we started doing is connecting to folks that we knew from the humanitarian [and] NGO world, and whatnot, and they were like, “Oh, we're so busy with evacuation, we can't really do anything”. So then we started these conversations. And basically what we did, I actually got a group of them, put them on a WhatsApp group, and we started meeting with them weekly. And they started giving us terminologies like mutual aid. It’s the first time I hear about mutual aid. I come from the resistance committees, I come from a background of activism, trying to figure out how do we get parliaments and whatnot, so to me, it was very new. So when I heard the word mutual aid, I was going around reading about it. Then I heard the word solidarity economy. And we started brainstorming with my group about the supply chain, trying to figure out how do we get the traders to work with us and whatnot, and slowly, slowly trying to figure out what can we do. In the beginning, there was a lot of money that [was] coming from [the] diaspora. Diaspora was helping out, so the day the war broke out, the second day people were sending money in. The banking system was up and down, so people were figuring out a way to send money back home, people were helping each other. So mutual aid started from day number one. And now that we had a word for it, we understood that we started the operation. And we would hear it in the news that no aid is coming to Khartoum. No aid has arrived yet. And we've been hearing those terms and it kind of feels wrong, because every single Sudanese knows that they've been sending money to their family and whatnot. And the evacuation that happened in the beginning was done by the people themselves. It got to the point where a bus ticket that used to be for $50 became $700. And it was not paid by internationals. It wasn't paid by outside. It was paid by the people themselves, and it was paid by family members putting their money together and sending it back home. So from the beginning, the evacuation that happened was Sudanese-led. Of course, after a while, the middle class left, the people who had people outside to help them, they left. So you were left with the communities that were not getting any salaries. They were not getting any income. Still, slowly, slowly, things were drying up, and then they needed help. And that's when the conversations we've been having were very important: How do we get internationals to help us, and how do we get mutual aid to not just be the side thing that's happening and to be the way that aid goes to Khartoum, because up to now, very little aid got to Khartoum, especially to the areas that are controlled by RSF.

 

Heba Aly

So maybe that's a good moment to pivot to the international partnership. When did you come to hear of this funny acronym OCHA as part of this journey?

 

Hajooj Kuka 

So I never heard of OCHA. I never knew what OCHA was. To us it’s the UN, everything was the UN. And now I know that there’s WFP, UNICEF. Everything had to be explained to me. And these acronyms are crazy. Up to today, to me, the language of humanitarians – how they talk and how they ask questions – I still have to kind of get it translated. And I still have to ask them if you can explain what you just said. So the base ERRs is a huge base of thousands of people. So when we have our meetings and tried to translate, even when we translate things into Arabic, not everything makes sense. So it's been a lot of work to try to come up with what comes from the grassroot, what comes from the way we do things [and] translate that for the internationals to understand. So we have to be like, “Yeah, we're doing a women's coop. And what women's coop is? It's group cash transfer”. So we had to find that and say [it] to them. But for us, we have to actually transfer it the other ways, like, “Okay, they're saying this, they mean this. That's why don't get excited about individual cash transfer”, because it requires all this. So it's like trying to translate these words. And I'm not even sure if our Arabic translations are accurate, because we're just making it ourselves. There's this black box in the middle and trying to understand things. And slowly we're learning more, we're learning from interactions, from reading, from catching up. But what we've noticed is, because of the way the Sudanese revolution was, because we were neighbourhood based, because we were already organised, because we were already connected — we are the perfect example of what mutual aid can be, and we're the perfect partners. And we just need folks who actually believe in it to sit with us and be okay with us not knowing the terminologies, and okay with us working the way we are. And thankfully, we found those. There's a huge difference between organisations and the institutions, and individuals. Because I think, with the humanitarian aid, the individuals have gotten to the point where they really believe that this needs to be decolonised, there's a new way of doing things, and they believe in it, and then there's the system that is way not ready for it.

 

Melissa Fundira 

One of the individuals in question is sitting right here with us, that's Francesco. I'd like to bring you in. You became the focal point for these emergency response rooms within OCHA. Paint from me a picture of how that partnership came to be. What was the response from you as an individual and then from the organisation as well?

 

Francesco Bonanome 

Since the beginning of the conflict, there was an internal discussion across the different actors in the UN, and especially within OCHA, to try to foresee and understand how to try to respond to an emergency that was completely changing the scenario of Sudan. In that sense, almost immediately after the evacuation of the United Nations, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, met actually with some representatives of the civil society, including representatives of the emergency rooms, with the idea to try to explore and understand how these groups were already operating on the ground. Because we felt the urgency of trying to think out of the box and try to provide a new strategy that was not ready before the conflict. As you mentioned before, the UN didn't used to have a strong interaction with the civil society before the conflict. It’s kind of a new environment in which we have been starting exploring. But we started almost immediately after. So before I joined this portfolio, a colleague of mine was the first person that actually started engaging in the relationship with Hajooj and other colleagues from the emergency rooms with the intent to try, first of all, to understand their capacity, how their structure [is], in which areas of the country, because we were really starting from scratch. And from there, when I started being head of this portfolio around July of this year, my role has become more and more [about] trying to bring partners to work and collaborate with emergency rooms, especially in areas where accessibility is extremely challenging, but also with the idea to try to expand this kind of collaboration in the longer term. So it's really trying to shift the approach and starting to see the emergency rooms as a complementary actor in the humanitarian response. So this was, in a nutshell, the beginning of our collaboration.

 

Melissa Fundira

Can you give me an example of what that partnership actually looks like, because you're saying that you're sort of the bridge between bringing in new partners to then support the ERRs. What does that concretely look like on the ground?

 

Francesco Bonanome

So on the ground, we have what we can consider the coordination between OCHA and emergency rooms. So we have weekly meetings with them, generally that are chaired by our head of office. And these meetings initially had the purpose not only to provide them information around the overall situation and provide them an update around the response ongoing and how our organisations are trying to arrange themselves, but also to try to get from their side an understanding on how they're operating, which are the challenges that they're facing. So this is a regular weekly meeting that was happening between the two parties. Based on that, then my role was to expand that kind of engagement. So my engagement with the emergency room turned into a daily engagement in which we literally sit down and discuss, mostly with Hajooj but also with some other members of the emergency rooms. I’ve been discussing the challenges, the operations, which are the priorities for them, and based on the kind of needs that are coming from their side. And this is, I think, is the interesting part of this approach, because it's not the UN that is trying to actually set the agenda for the type of collaboration with them, but it’s vice versa. The approach is very much trying to understand the needs of the emergency rooms, and based on that, link them to the right actors to provide a response. For instance, when it comes to the response around access to water and rehabilitation of water station or rehabilitation of wells and things like that. The ERRs already within their groups, they have engineers that have been dedicating themselves to try to figure it out how to do it. So my job has been to bring those people into the conversation within the WASH cluster, so to try to see if there were, or there are, organisations that are capable [of providing] supplies, or to provide economic and financial support to these groups to implement and guarantee a sustainable response in the medium long term.

 

Heba Aly 

But the rubber hits the road when it comes to the money, I suppose. And I was listening to a panel discussion about mutual aid just this morning that Hajooj participated in, and a lot of the Western government donors that were part of that conversation – for example, Ireland and the UK – said they felt the concept very intriguing, mutual aid sounded very compelling, but that they were very far from actually engaging with it, and that for them, they were very proud of having made progress in the more traditional notion of localisation, but mutual aid groups was like a whole other world. If the goal of all of this is to get more resources to the mutual aid groups, where are the donors on this journey?

 

Francesco Bonanome 

When it comes to donors, we can see progress. There are some major donors that have been starting exploring the possibility, and actually also advocating, for their partners to start engaging with the emergency rooms. So, we have seen for instance USAID becoming more and more active. We have seen ECHO in a way start to pilot some activities. Obviously, when it comes to the donor community, but also to the UN I have to say in some part, accountability [is] still a main concern. So part of my role has been also trying to review and try to also suggest a new modality of engagement with these actors that prevent these actors to be the real accountable for when it comes to providing information around funds. Because this is the risk that we are kind of facing: trying to approach the emergency rooms like any other national NGOs. So to try to prevent this NGO-ization of the emergency rooms, my role has been the one of trying to clearly detach and distinguish what is an NGO and what is an emergency room, and why the local responders, in order to continue to be agile and be responsive, they need to be removed from all those accountable components that are normally part of a regular engagement between donors and a national or international NGO. So I will say that when it comes to donors, there has been progress for sure. We are still far away from having a systematised approach in which all donors are on the same page when it comes to providing funds to partners to work closely with these groups, or even to start having a direct engagement with the ERR itself.

 

Melissa Fundira

I'm curious, for you, Hajooj, on the receiving end of that, what has been your experience with trying to get the emergency rooms recognised by these international donors, UN agencies, INGOs. Are you able to be seen as legitimate within the existing funding systems?

 

Hajooj Kuka

From the beginning, when we had the first discussions with the few internationals we were talking to, the thing that rose is like how do we become a body that they can deal with? Also the other thing is we come from a revolutionary background. So the idea of having good governance – transitional democracy, the idea of separation of power – was really important for us. So when we started thinking about these two things, how do we find the structure, we were like, it makes sense to have a structure that is based on the idea of good governance. So from the beginning, we started with transparency, equality, participation and accountability at the top of our list. And when we talked about accountability, it was always we start with accountability to our community. So for that to happen, we decided from the beginning we're going to go for 100% transparency. What that means is that the moment we get money, we post it on our Facebook page so our communities understand it, and we try to tell them as much information that donors are okay with. Most of the time, the donors are not okay with stating their names, so we will just say we received this amount of money and we distributed it this way. And the way we worked was going to the idea of we wanted to have local parliaments. So we set up a structure of local parliaments. Khartoum is divided into seven districts, so we get three representatives from each district. They decide on what we do. And then we have [a] charter, so that's our constitution. So from the beginning, how we deal with each other, there's a problem, if anything happened, we have this constitutional paper that has been super helpful in resolving any issues that we had. And then we have the working groups and the working groups who are divided. There was the committees: programming, reporting, finance, and external comms. All these were made so we will be able to clearly talk to internationals. That really makes a lot of sense. And then we have offices and the offices were created in a way that resembles the clusters. So we have health, we have services, we have the women response room, we have food security, and protection. And then we slowly started noticing that things that we already do… For example, we have this communal kitchen. So the communal kitchen was a very important thing that we started having, because this work is around two things: health and then food. And with food, the first thing that started wasn't lack of food, it was lack of cooking gas, and we needed to cook together. And that's when we went down to a school and people started cooking. The first example was in Ombada, and then people started copying it. Women started cooking, and then people started doing different activities, and there was a women’s break room that started. And then slowly, we started noticing when we started having a protection group, is that the women's break room is a place that is a women's only room, which is the safe room. And when we have children, we started teaching them and doing stuff, then we created a child-safe space. So slowly, we started noticing that what we did naturally actually fell into this idea of what humanitarian aid is. And when we started thinking that way, we were able to apply for funds, and figure out how to do it. One more thing: from the beginning, our idea was never to work alone. So it was always to work with partnerships. So one thing we did within the WhatsApp group I talked to you about in the beginning, we had this idea that internationals need to talk to each other, so they shouldn't compete. But the same way local NGOs need to come sit together, they need not to compete. So we started having money from the Sudan Humanitarian Fund, was to get local NGOs that would work with us to be in a board, and they all sit in a board with our representatives, and they all together decide how should the money be spent, and trying to make sure that everything comes from the base ERRs.

 

Heba Aly 

And I want to come back to the Sudan Humanitarian Fund created by OCHA in a minute. But first, how do you address the concerns that Francesco mentioned about accountability to the donors, because that's always been the blockage, right? So what are you doing that is convincing the donors that you are accountable for the funds?

 

Hajooj Kuka

When we first started, it was one person sending us $1,000 that went through the system, and we had to give them the names of the people we're going to send the money through. So they have to do it through this terrorist list to make sure it works. And then we had to do the reporting: when money got sent, having the receipt of the money, and then also writing a report. So that was $1,000. And then from then we got a first donation of $50,000, and then with that, it was distributed into seven districts, from the seven districts down to the 69 different response rooms. So there's very little money that trickled down. And they had to write reports. And then we got it together [with] our officer of reporting, and they wrote a report. So there's a financial financial report and a narrative report. And the report is this amazing piece of paper, we have it on our website, and it's so diverse, because each room just decides what they want to do. So even when I was looking at it, it's just like, “Wow, this is crazy”. It goes all the way from health, being in a hospital, doing stuff with women, dealing with rapes. It was this whole big genre of different activities that were done with these different random people.

 

Heba Aly 

Francesco, I see you nodding. Are these the kinds of reports that would meet the requirements of bilateral governments?

 

Francesco Bonanome 

I think here, there is a broader discussion to do. I think what the emergency rooms has been providing so far to justify and to guarantee the accountability has been incredibly good and qualitatively extremely high, considering also the challenges that they're facing on a daily basis when it comes to the operation that they're carrying forward in areas that are extremely isolated at the moment, and extremely challenging, and dangerous. I think, going back a little bit towards what Hajooj was mentioning around the system that is not ready, I think that part of the accountability discussion – and this is part of the engagement and the discussion I'm trying to do with donors, but also with international partners – is that accountability needs to be slightly shifted from the emergency rooms back to the international organisations that are working with these groups. In the sense that we are capable to have an open and direct conversation with these groups to make sure that actually not only they are operating, but they can also provide us testimony of the fact that they are doing their job. For instance, providing photos, rather than having direct conversations, providing some data when it’s necessary, and so on. But when it comes to reporting, when it comes to budgeting, when it comes to concept notes, I think that's a responsibility that needs to be taken by the international organisations. Otherwise, we are incurring again, in the same mistakes that I was mentioning before, trying to transform these groups into organisations, which is not their entity, it is not they're willing also to become an organisation. So in order to keep them agile, I think the accountability needs to be shifted back towards the organisations that are engaging with these groups. There are modalities to do it, there are modalities to still collect information, and even writing, reporting, through just simply collecting information through these groups, but avoiding the situation or having these groups involved for weeks in reporting and writing back. Because this is not their main purpose, their main purpose is to respond, to be in the streets, and be agile and directly engaging with the communities on a daily basis. So that's where the discussion needs to start, that's exactly where the approach needs to change. And I think with some organisation we are getting there. I wouldn't say it’s homogeneous at the moment the scenario, but there are more and more organisations that are understanding the need to shift and try to reduce the burden also of the paperwork that normally an organisation is required to actually address before receiving a certain amount of funds. 

 

Melissa Fundira 

At the top of the episode we heard Samantha Power say that she wants USAID to be able to “tap into Sudanese ingenuity”. Presumably she's referencing the ERRs here. And she goes on to add that she wants USAID to provide more community based assistance and move away from traditional channels like the UN. Hajooj, have you seen any changes in your funding since organisations like USAID or the UN have said that they want to work with you more closely?

 

Hajooj Kuka 

So, we've got a lot of promises. We got a lot of promises. We;re expecting a lot of money to come in, a lot compared to what we had from before. Up to now, from the war starting in six months, we got about $200,000 and we have promises for $2 million. I'll just give you an example. We have a partnership with UNICEF, with a local NGO, and also with Sudan Humanitarian Fund. We were told that they needed to do 20 waivers to allow us to get the money. So they had to change the system already. And after doing the 20 waivers, I know with UNICEF, we got to the point where that's it, they get all the OKs, everybody's down, let's do it, and somebody was trying to put it on the computer system, and they weren't able to do it, because this computer system would not go forward. So they had to actually wait for another two weeks or something to change something in the computer system to even allow us to go forward. Thankfully, we heard that finally a contract was signed between the local NGO that's working with us and UNICEF. And we're talking about urgency. This is an emergency response. This is where every day we're losing time, somebody's getting killed, somebody's getting raped, somebody's getting hungry. We have volunteers who just give up thinking that we just keep promising them. So they start leaving. So the urgency is not there. The urgency is not there. People are trying, but we're waiting. Everyday we're trying to give them a call, it’s like “Okay, so did we get the money?” It's like, “Oh, no, not yet. So what's happening, somebody needs to sign, something needs to happen”. So the bureaucracy is so crazy that we've just been sitting there, promising people “Hey, we're gonna get stuffto the point that I stopped trying to ask people “Don't get us more data, don't do this. Let's just get this money, wait for it to get this money and then we can go forward”. The amount of times we collected data is just crazy, and it's really hard to get data at this level, and data keeps changing because people keep moving. So right now, our biggest thing is there's no urgency. The moment we have to do something, we have to actually fall back onto mutual aid, fall back on to our own communities to do anything that's at the level of anything being emergent, urgent, needs to be done today.

 

Heba Aly

And a case in point, I suppose, is the Sudan Humanitarian Fund that you mentioned earlier, where OCHA has allocated $3 million to the Emergency Response Rooms and to local women's groups. Francesco, has that money been delivered?

 

Francesco Bonanome 

So the money has been delivered to the international organisation. It’s in the process of being delivered to the emergency rooms. I'm not personally in charge of following that, so I cannot give you exact information on where this money is. But the money is with the international organisation. Going back a little bit to what Hajooj was saying, the understanding of the urgency is very much understood, at least from the people that are working on a daily basis, even in Sudan, on the emergency. But I fully agree with him that the system is not fit for purpose at the moment. I think the timing that it takes to provide money to these groups is too long. The system has never been ready for this before. So part of the advocacy that OCHA is doing, even internally to it’s own HQ – because we recognise that we are the first one that we need to provide an example if we really want to change a little bit of the system – is to really make them understand that we need to find a way to provide fast money, fast funds to these groups. Even within a certain amount. But the beauty of the emergency rooms is that they are capable of providing incredible service even with relatively small amounts compared to what we are used to seeing at an international NGO project or a national NGO project. So the reality is that there must be a way to provide funds in a fast way to these groups to operate in a certain way. Unfortunately, the system has never been ready for this. So, exactly what Hajooj was saying, trying to change the system in a bureaucratic institution like the UN, it takes a lot of time. And unfortunately we don't have that time. So a lot of the advocacy that is coming through is very much towards this need of changing and trying to facilitate a better engagement and a faster engagement with these groups. Unfortunately, it takes time. At the moment, we are still not ready. I think there has been some progress. I have to say, I agree with Hajooj, there has been a lot of promises. I have to say, I'm quite confident that most of these promises will land. The problem is that they will land in a time in which the situation might be still either the same or get much worse. So maybe what we are requesting them to try to address by the time that the funds will arrive won't be possible, or we will require additional funds simply because the situation escalated and the needs also skyrocketed. So the reality is that, yes, I think things are moving forward. I think there is the possibility for the emergency rooms to actually receive quite a lot amount of money in the next coming future to address challenges, but the system is too slow. We are like almost seven months into the conflict, and the emergency room so far has received $200,000. This is not enough. I acknowledge that as a person that worked closely and on a daily basis with Hajooj and other colleagues. I understand that very much. But the system at the global level is not ready, still, to absorb this kind of shift in a very short term, unfortunately.

 

Melissa Fundira 

I'm curious to know, I guess, why you have so much confidence that the money will land. We spoke to a humanitarian worker who's quite familiar with the situation in Sudan between the ERRs and the UN and the international organisations, and they told us anonymously that… they corroborated the fact that only $200,000 have actually reached the ERRs. And this person is honestly quite terrified that the ERRs are running out of money, that soup kitchens have already had to close, and they're honestly quite furious that the money has yet to arrive. Because it's been months and months and months of being told “It's coming, it's coming, it's coming. Next week, next week” for reasons that I think you agree, basically amount to bureaucracy. So what do you say to that? How can you be so sure that this money will actually land?

 

Francesco Bonanome 

Starting from the SHF, I can tell you that it’s in the project design of the $3 million to provide at least, only for Khartoum, half a million dollars. So the time is the challenge, but the fact that those $500,000 will reach the ERR, there's no question about it. And that’s what I can say for the SHF. When it comes to the other partners, I have a direct and good engagement with some of the international NGOs that have been most engaged with the ERRs in the recent time, and with some of them, I'm confident – partially because I know the people – they have no reason to lie to me because I'm not their donor. So there's no reason for them to tell me something that is opposite to the reality. And based on the information I collect, they feel confident. UNICEF, they have another project and engagement in the pipeline. It took a lot of time, but they signed the agreement with this national NGO. I think the commitment is very much there. When it comes to , for example, UNICEF, UNICEF has been an incredible partner. From day one, since I had a conversation with them, they have been on board. But as I said, the system is slow, and the system is slow for UNICEF, as much as it’s slow for OCHA, as much as it’s slow for WFP, or other partners as well. And I know that I cannot do anything if not agreeing with Hajooj and agreeing with the ERR that it’s a concern. It’s a major concern.

 

Heba Aly 

Hajooj, do you share Francesco's optimism?

 

Hajooj Kuka 

Even more, even more. I know the money's coming. And by the way, the $200,000, part of it came from philanthropists.

 

Heba Aly 

I was just gonna point where that $200,000 came from, because they managed to move quickly.

 

Hajooj Kuka

Yes, they managed to move quickly. There's another international NGO that doesn't want to say their name, [they] actually had money already, because when they left Sudan they already had money so they just put it for us. It was great because that was the money that came really quickly. So we were able to test our systems and work. So if we didn't have that money, it would have been horrendous for us. So, itt was really amazing to have the money and be able to test it and do the reports. And we did share some of the money with Darfur so they can actually do the same thing: set up their systems and learn and use that money as a learning. It was like a no regret. So definitely, I'm pretty sure we're gonna get the money, I'm 100% positive. The money did move from Sudan Humanitarian Fund into this international NGO that we're talking to daily. Once all that bureaucracy is done, we have to deal with the idea that money needs to move from one back end system into another, and then come to the ground, which is another thing that we have to deal with. There's always a waiting game until the money actually gets to the ground. I have to say one more thing – it's not always money, sometimes it's partnership. For example, UNICEF gave us a training for gender based violence to our women's response room. So that was something that was already done. So the partnership is as important as everything else. And the weekly meetings we have with OCHA, it made everybody believe that “Okay, this group is legit. They're talking to OCHA everyday, they're doing this, they're doing that”. So all these things have one, gave us the standing, but also made everybody proud of the work they're doing, believe in what they're doing, and step it up. But then if the money doesn't come in, then everything collapses. So one thing, for example, that was asked of our group, and I heard them answer it, and I still love it to today… when they were asked about risk. What is the risk? And they said, the number one risk is not to have the resources to do the work. Because once we don't have that, then we don't exist. And when it comes to the risk of security risks, we’re in a war zone, at any moment, a bomb can fall on us. But actually, if we cannot do our work, the second risk is social. If the community does not trust us – if we're not transparent, 100% transparent, tell the community everything, and they don't trust us – then that's a social risk, that's even higher than security risk.

 

Heba Aly 

We've been talking about this idea of mutual aid groups partnering with the international system as an unequivocal good. And I'm curious whether you see some risks of engaging, whether it's through funding or through the kinds of partnerships you've been describing, with the international community. Because the more I hear you talk, the more you start to sound to me like a traditional aid organisation that’s saying we need more money, we want the money, rather than this kind of volunteer-based spirit that was at your heart. And we heard Francesco say earlier there is this risk. And I heard it in the discussion this morning, as well of you becoming kind of co-opted by this big bureaucratic system and losing the very thing that makes ERRs what they are. So how do you think about the risks of this kind of engagement?

 

Hajooj Kuka 

Let's be clear, I'm trying to get 5 to 10% of the international aid to actually go directly to the ERRs. So that's the amount that we're thinking about. In the beginning, we had resources, so people had food in their houses, they used to bring it in, people were getting money, people were doing things. So these soup kitchens were working, and people got used to these communal kitchens where they come together and they talk and they laugh. That is their main source of one meal a day that they get. So it became really essential. Six months into it, there's all these millions who left, but there's about 6 million people who stayed in Khartoum, there's millions in Darfur. So we're talking about millions of people, six months into it, not getting paid, the economy just collapsing, and getting to the point where I have to depend on this. It's not like that luxury that we had in the beginning of having diaspora and everything. So I think the shift is, it's still community-based. Nobody's getting paid. All of us are volunteers who are actually paying out of pocket and spending money and leaving our lives behind. It's amazing folks who decide, even if they have the chance to leave Khartoum to stay because of the children's centres, because of the women’s coops, because of all these amazing ideas that come from the grassroot. They decided to stay and work and nobody's getting paid, and everybody's working incredible amounts of hours. And part of it is, getting together, helping each other is really powerful. It's a powerful thing. And it's the one way you can get away and be okay with facing rapes, facing debt, having a meal a day, or a meal a half a day. Let's be frank, we're not providing three meals a day, so we're just going to the minimum. You have to understand that we rose from the point of just feeling that we're getting charity, and we're just doing whatever, and we could do this work or not, to the point we have the right to eat, we have the right to survive, and that's why we're pushing for this money to come in. Because the WFP, the UN cannot bring their trucks in because we have RSF and SAF who do not care about us, and who would not give them permits, and if you're waiting for safe passages and safe routes, you're not going to get it. And they're using food as a weapon and this is a fact. But we're able to do it using our mutual aid, we're able to do it by talking to these traders – traders who right now they're not making money out of it, they're just surviving. So to me, we got to the point where we deserve this money, we’ll fight for it. It is our right and we want to get it. And a lot of people believe in that. A lot of people on the international side, a lot of people on the ground believe in it. And we're just like, “Let's do this together. There is a partnership”. And we do not work with anybody who's not a partner with us. And with our partners, we're 100% transparent and we tell them everything, even our problems. And the minute we realise somebody got raped or something happened, Francisco gets gets a call at 1 am or whatever and he gets the messages, and we expect him and he does actually answer. So there is an urgency on the personal level, and I feel like everybody I've dealt with had that. But still, on the institutional level, we’re still unable to evacuate people on time. We had horrendous cases where we're supposed to evacuate people, we weren't able to, and one person died and two people got raped. So there's all these failures of the system, and so hopefully that will change.

 

Melissa Fundira

You're mentioning some of the challenges that you're facing within the ERRs. And I think it's quite honest to admit to them because I think that ERRs have also been very romanticised as this sort of saviour mutual aid effort that has stepped in at the 11th hour to fill the vacuum. But are there any flaws or limitations to the ERR model? Are there any security risks for example?

 

Hajooj Kuka 

Of course, there's a lot. Without the partnership with local NGOs, without international NGOs and the UN, we would not have been able to do the work. So it's based on this partnership. The moment you try to come and tell us to do something, like get a market assessment – why would I know how to get a market assessment? I need to go to a local NGO and ask them, “Okay, how do you get the market assessment?” The reason we’re able to survive is because we'd never tried to take on all of the work. The moment we want to evacuate people, we know that we cannot evacuate people if UNHCR is not part of the evacuation, and it’s going to fail if they're not part of that. So we realise that we cannot do it alone. And I think from the beginning, we were very frank on what we can do, which is very clear. Sometimes they’ll push us to do something, like the individual cash transfer, and we're like, “Yo, we cannot do that. We cannot provide the amount of data. We cannot, we cannot carry the cash and move it. This is something that's beyond our abilities.”

 

Heba Aly 

But I think where the romanticization can kick in is that, I've seen horizontal governance at play, and it's chaos. And the idea that this perfect governance system that is localised and decentralised can work without breaking down, I find it surprising.

 

Hajooj Kuka 

It's beautiful chaos. You have to be okay with it, you have to be okay with it. The way we operate requires a lot of respect and love. And we do have a charter, and we do have systems, and we do have things in place. So when we get people who are not paid, you are paid by the passion of it, and you're paid by the love, and by us protecting each other and working together. So the moment you have people who try to break that trust, who have personal things into them, it becomes really hard to deal with. And it's something that we're learning, we're slowly learning. People have to step back sometimes to not get into fights. And then, in the end, we realise that most of the people we have – and truthfully I think everybody we have – have their hearts in the right place. And even when we had issues, we go back and we’re like, “Oh, we just need to hug each other”. Which sounds really crazy, but a lot of the time, we're all going through a hard time. Sometimes you'd be talking to somebody who just lost a family member, or just got their home looted, who just had a friend who just got raped, so we have to be human. Within humanitarian aid, we have to be human. And sometimes we set up systems, and we have to know that they need to be broken, because in the end humanity comes first.

 

Heba Aly 

Francesco, did you want to jump in there?

 

Francesco Bonanome

I fully agree with what Hajooj is saying. And I think when it comes to preventing the ERR structure to fail or to actually find the challenges along this process, I think from our side it’s absolutely essential that we respect their structure. That we start collaborating with emergency rooms in a way that is respectful of their way of working, and their modality of operation. Because the moment that we try to move out from that, and the moment that we try to engage with these groups in a different way, that's exactly the moment in which we start undermining their way of being, and undermining their way of operating on the ground. So, it's very much important that the partnership that we have is not just mutual, and is not just transparent, but is also respectful. So, it's absolutely essential that as an international humanitarian community, if we are really committed to work with these groups, we need to understand these groups first. So it's very much important that we sit with them, that we listen more than talk – which is very difficult for international organisations, I will say. But once we understand that, we can use our tools, that are for sure not the best and the most fit for purpose, but we can use our tool to do the best that we can within the current context. But until we don't understand how these groups operate and what they really need from us, more the risk is that what we do is gonna create problems and undermine their credibility and their capacity of operating in delivering on the ground.

 

Heba Aly 

But one of the issues that we haven't really talked much about – you referenced it very briefly earlier – that I can foresee being a challenge for NGOs, or the UN, to simply work with these groups as they are, is this question of neutrality. Hajooj you mentioned at the beginning that the ERRs grew out of the resistance movement, and so are political by nature. How, on the international community's side, do you engage with this question of “Oh, but we can only work with completely neutral parties”?

 

Francesco Bonanome 

Neutrality in Sudan, in general, I will say is a very complicated principle to keep completely alive. In the sense that whoever you're going to engage with, inevitably you're going to have a political connection with a group or something. Just to give an example, for an international organisation to collaborate with HAC [Humanitarian Aid Commission], which is the governmental entity that manages the humanitarian response, inevitably you're recognizing an institution that is represented by one of the two conflict parties. You need to engage with them, because otherwise you cannot operate. But inevitably, your principle of neutrality is undermined by the fact that you're engaging with a party that is not neutral in this discussion. And this is the first point. When it comes to engaging with emergency rooms, first of all, I think that there is a need of distinguish[ing] between resistance committees and the emergency rooms. The emergency rooms are not necessarily made entirely by members of resistance committee. There's a lot of people that are member of the communities that are willing to help and to provide health to the community, but not necessarily they are extremely or in a vast majority engaged from a political perspective. So you have political actors within emergency rooms, yes. Is the emergency room a political entity? No. The emergency rooms provide humanitarian response in the same way that the humanitarian actors are trying to do – following the principle of neutrality. There's no discrimination in the provision of supplies and the provision of health. They try to help wherever they can, according to the areas, engaging with the parties that are controlling the areas because that's the way that you're supposed to do it in order to move in an environment that is strongly militarised. As international organisations, we need to take our precautions, because of course tomorrow there might be the risk that organisations that [have] been openly engaging with the emergency room might be targeted. Yes, it’s a risk, it’s there. But there are ways of communicating and also engaging with the conflict parties. First of all, preventing the ERRs to be exposed. And second of all, at the end of the day, we're still talking about community members, and working with the community in any humanitarian response should be at the basis. And when it comes to localisation, there's nothing more localised than working with the community itself. So if using the word “emergency rooms” can be dangerous, using the word “working with the community” cannot be. And as the UN, I think our role is to back up our national and international organisation when it comes to their engagement with these groups. We need to have a strategy that is clear in which engagement with the community is at the basis of our modality, at the basis of our operational procedures. And based on that, we need to actually made to understand those conflict parties that when it comes to deliver[ing] humanitarian services, we still apply a principle of neutrality, but if we can collaborate with groups that can deliver in areas where we are struggling, it’s in our mandate to actually do it.

 

Heba Aly 

It's really interesting to see the evolution of this because, even on this discussion that I mentioned earlier, I heard a number of Western government donors who seem to acknowledge that neutrality should no longer trump everything else, and that the priority should be the delivery of aid. So, interesting to see a bit of forward movement in that regard.

 

Hajooj Kuka 

To us, we actually care more about neutrality than the UN, than any other body. And we are non-political. But then that depends on your definition of politics, but we're non-political. We came from the ideas of transitional democracy, of separating powers, and whatnot, and having a charter, and having this is the way we want to operate. That is political thought, but we're not a political party. We are neutral to 100%, where we do not want to be seen as we are with either a fraction of the fighting RSF or SAF to the point that if we are seen we could be killed by one of them, and we get arrested or whatnot. Also, the area you're in can shift. You could move from one area to another. If you’re living in an RSF area and you want to leave and you enter into a SAF area, you might get arrested. To the point that anytime they tried to get us anything – like RSF is trying sometimes to get you food or something – we refuse it. There was one time where they went to one of our clinics, and they brought some medicine. Everybody in the clinic ran away. So RSF then had to take it back. And somebody went to RSF and explained to them that “If we take anything from you, then this will be known. There's people in the community who are going to tell on us, and then if SAF comes and takes over the area, they will actually punish us as if we're collaborators with RSF”. So to us neutrality is life or death, it’s more important than what the UN is doing. And when it comes to politics, there is no politics being played. The ERR is playing no politics, whatsoever. We actually separated our members. So some members went to the ERR, and we have members who went to the resistance committees. Sadly to say, not even the resistance committees can do any politics that would stop this war. We actually got to the point where nobody seems to be able to be doing anything, which is really sad. I hope they will be able to stop the war. And the majority amount of members of the ERRs, which is way higher membership that the resistance committees, are community members, professionals, people who live with the community, people who are actually fixing our electricity, the service folks, the engineers, the doctors, but also the people who are cooking and whatnot. So to the community itself.

 

Melissa Fundira

I think it's incredible to see the ERRs and the UN and other INGOs trying to forge a partnership that has never been forged before as quickly as possible. And I think it's fair to say that this is a partnership born out of crisis and necessity. But I'm curious to know whether you think that this is a temporary shift. Is this just a stopgap measure? Or do you think that this new partnership is actually signalling a much more fundamental change in how INGOs and the UN and donors engage with community-based groups?

 

Hajooj Kuka

For me, this is the only thing I've seen. So it's the only thing that makes sense. I have not been engaged with humanitarian aid otherwise. So to me, I'm hoping that humanitarian aid always looks like this. And I'm hoping the lessons we learned, we can pass on to other groups. And I'm hoping this is the way it's done. But I haven't seen another way of being done, so now the hard answer has to come from Francesco.

 

Francesco Bonanome 

I think from the UN side, this is one of the risks. If I personally don't do the job in the way that I'm supposed to do it, and if the system doesn't support me along the process, I think there is a risk that this collaboration will be only linked to a lack of access in certain areas. I can tell you, as part of my job and where I'm really putting the effort, and why I'm also so keen to document all the incredible work that these this group of people are doing, is because the way that I foresee is that we need to detach access issues from the engagement with emergency rooms if we really want to change our way of working. We need to start understanding that the emergency rooms are not the answer to the response, but they can play a complementary role to what we are doing. It’s absolutely needed the role of the UN, it’s absolutely needed the role of the NGOs, but there is room for this group to exist. And in order to allow these groups to be efficient and effective, we need to change our system in a way that allows them to play this role of being the first responders, to be the first one in engaging with the community when a natural hazard or a conflict starts in a specific area. I think from now on, if you asked me, from now on international organisations, UN agencies and national NGO should always include in their picture the engagement with emergency rooms when it comes to the delivery of certain services. Doesn't matter if access tomorrow resume or not. I think, of course, our collaboration can change. Maybe because of resuming access in certain areas, the kind of role that the emergency rooms can play can be different. But overall, I think we need to approach it in a way in which we start really believing that the emergency rooms are complementary, are actors that are really useful in certain scenarios, in certain circumstances, are partners that should be always involved in certain types of conversation, because at the end of the day, they understand the context and they analyse the context in a way that, as [the] international community, we are incapable to do. And that's a collaboration that in my opinion should stand for a long, long time. Of course, the system needs to make an effort and change its way of operating. If we don't do that, yes, there is a major risk that this collaboration will stand until access challenges will be resolved, and organisations will enter again in Khartoum rather than Darfur. But that would be a huge opportunity missed, in my opinion.

 

Melissa Fundira

Hajooj, this last question is for you. You've been involved in all of these community-led efforts all throughout this transitional period, from the resistance committees that were crucial in toppling Omar al-Bashir in 2019, to the attempts to set up a civilian-led government, and now to the creation and operation of these emergency response rooms, which are at the frontlines of humanitarian response. What do you think the next evolution of mutual aid efforts will be in Sudan? Are we witnessing perhaps the foundation of what a future Sudanese state could look like?

 

Hajooj Kuka 

I think we're very clear that this is a practice. The “day after” – which is a big thing that we should all be thinking about, how do we not turn into this stuck situation forever – how we do humanitarian aid will affect how that happens. The idea is that civilians are able to work in an organised way – through structures, through talking together, through having meetings, through all that – is the practice of democracy that we never had in Sudan. Right now, what we're doing in the emergency response rooms is something that I’ve never seen happen. The idea that there's this young 20-something-year-old rep who comes and asks me for accountability and I have to stand in front of them and explain what we did, is amazing. The idea that I have to answer to them is amazing. Us practising this democracy is really important, and that's also realising the limitations of the democracy. So the capacity building is a big thing. And that's another thing we're dealing with, of actually writing everything we're doing, making sure everything's available, sending it down to the grassroots, and almost forcing people to be like, “Yo, you have to be part of this system, you have to understand where it is, you have to understand where the money is coming from. We will tell you where the money is coming from, and you have the right to say no, we're not going to take that money”. And so to us, it's very important the realisation that you set up a system, but in the end, it’s individuals, and the individuals need to uphold it. And this is all we're learning from this. And this is the thing that's given us hope. We have no political hope, we have no clue how this is going to end. These two generals did not give us any hope of how this is going to end. We don't see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we see the light inside of us, and we feel like, yo, once this is over – and this will be over – we will hold it, we will continue. And that's why you see that people who are involved in this have hope, while people who are not involved in the mutual aid, who are not in Sudan, they feel that it's over, there's nobody alive, people are just getting raped and things are being destroyed, and bombs are falling, and it's the end of the world. Amazingly, out of this concrete rose will grow, and we're seeing it. And the only way we're having hope and the only way I'm hopeful is because I'm still resisting, I'm still part of this mutual aid. So I really feel like there is a point where anytime I see a Sudanese person who's there depressed, yo, the way to stop being depressed is to actually be part of mutual aid.

 

Heba Aly

I don't think I've ever heard “yo” and humanitarian aid policy intersect quite so effectively. Thank you, Hajooj. But also, really interesting to think about humanitarian relief as an entry point to a broader shift of power within Sudanese society, and also a model that may well be the way forward in many other places, including right now Gaza that comes to mind where, of course, attacks by Israel are escalating and I could imagine mutual aid being one of the only ways in which that society will be able to help itself. Hajooj, Francesco, thank you so much for taking the time to give us such a window into this model and its potential. 

 

Hajooj Kuka 

Thank you for having us.

 

Francesco Bonanome 

Thank you for having us.

 

Heba Aly 

Hajooj Kuka is the external communications officer for the Khartoum State Emergency Response Rooms. And Francesco Bonanome is the focal person for the emergency response rooms at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Sudan. 

 

Melissa Fundira

As you heard at the top of this episode, USAID – the world’s biggest humanitarian donor and the largest in Sudan –  says it wants to provide more funding to community-based organisations. Today, we’ll leave you with a clip from Andrea Freeman, USAID’s Deputy Director for the Office of Sudan and South Sudan Programs. In it, Freeman lays out the challenges to funding community-led efforts like the emergency response rooms in Sudan. It’s from a panel discussion between mutual aid groups – which included Hajooj – and humanitarian aid donors hosted by ALNAP.

 

Heba Aly

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian. This episode was hosted by me, Heba Aly, and Melissa Fundira. Melissa also produced and edited the episode. Original music by Whitney Patterson, and sound engineering by Mark Nieto.

 

Melissa Fundira

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism. 

 

Andrea Freeman, USAID

“I also just wanted to upfront recognise and acknowledge that I keep hearing a clear message from the various people that I talk to about the frustration and discontent with the formal aid system, particularly in the Sudan response right now. So I want to recognize that off the top. And I know has fueled a lot of cynicism about internationals in general, and I just wanted to acknowledge that at the beginning. And also assure people that we’re trying to work to fix ourselves a little bit in addressing some of these challenges [...] There's obvious practical processes and systemic barriers I think that have been raised in terms of how we manage our money that also inhibit our ability to support local responders. We also have our own internal systemic issues with high turnover in our own teams, all these sorts of things that sort of add up in terms of limiting our understanding on the ground. But I do want to also emphasise that our appetite for risk needs to increase in these settings – and I'm just not talking physically – but also on recognizing that the local responders are the ones bearing most of the risk and we need to shift that risk to ourselves as well [...] But donors are nervous about accountability, and our nerves and fears slow us down in our ability to further respond quickly. But mutual aid is accountability, and is in its purest form of accountability, and it’s a type of bottom-up accountability that we need to learn from.” 

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