As South Sudan falters, aid industry called out for its failures

Workers offload sacks of cereals distributed by the UN’s World Food Programme from a truck in Minkaman, South Sudan. --AP Photo/Matthew Abbott

The marking of three years of independence in South Sudan will be cause for little celebration. A political crisis that devolved into fighting last December has displaced 1.4 million people and left an estimated 10,000 people dead. Activists working in and around the young nation are concerned about its future.

Chief among the concerns is humanitarian problems caused by protracted instability. Assistance is only reaching 2 million of the 4.5 million in need, said Noah Gottschalk, Senior Policy Advisor for Oxfam America , in a press briefing yesterday. That is not even what is most worrying.

“South Sudan is at very serious risk of experiencing a famine this year,” said Gottschalk. “We have the opportunity now to prevent a famine.”

“Even though the rains have started, people were unable to plant crops. Meaning that the food that they are running out of now will not be replaced by new stocks.”

Fighting has been isolated to three of South Sudan’s ten states, but there is evidence that it may soon spread. The fighting contributes to the problem of humanitarian access. The rainy season has arrived, making it much harder to get to parts of South Sudan due to the country’s poor infrastructure. Aid agencies worry that their shipments could be looted.

The fact that attacks have been carried out at a UN compound and on humanitarian organizations adds to the problems, explained Sarah Margon, Washington Director for Human Rights Watch. The organization has interviewed people who say they are afraid to return home because of the potential of attacks.

“What we saw repeatedly is that while this may not have started as an ethnic conflict, that it devolved quickly and we saw attacks that were ethnically motivated,” said Margon.

One of the main perpetrators of such attacks are members of the South Sudanese security forces. The fact that the US, who has provided significant assistance to South Sudan, pulled funding to two units who were found to be committing atrocities is a good sign for Margon. Human Rights watch is recommending that all security assistance should be put on hold in order to first address the issues of abuse and accountability. It is also necessary to do so before a lasting agreement can be made between the fighting groups.

“Without addressing the underlying root causes the agreement will not be worth the paper it is written on,” she said.

Another obstacle is funding. Gottschalk pointed to the fact that the UN appeal is only about 40% funded, leaving some $1 billion dollars needed by the UN and NGOs to respond to the ongoing problems in South Sudan.

This all comes on the heels of a scathing report from Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which called out the humanitarian industry for shirking the burden of working in conflict zones. Where is Everyone? focuses specifically on Jordan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. The most stinging criticism is aimed at the UN.

The UN is characterized as “at the heard of the dysfunction” in each of the three cases. Much has to do with the historical make-up of the giant body and its many agencies. The set up where agencies can act as donor, coordinator and implementer create a ‘cumbersome’ response.

“[T]he current UN system inhibits good decision-making, in particular in displacement crises where a number of UN agencies have a responsibility to respond,” says Dr Joanne Liu, International President for MSF.

The report recognizes the difficulties presented in an emergency response situation. It then goes on to cast aside the usual arguments that external constraints and a lack of funding are sufficient excuses for a lack of action.

Fellow NGOs were not off the hook. MSF criticized the lack of ability for NGOs to adapt to an emergency response from long-term work. Journalist Ian Birrell attributes the problem to the way that NGO’s seek out money, writing in The Guardian:

The problem is a competitive sector swollen with money – especially in Britain, where campaigners and politicians have focused on hitting an outdated aid target, instead of on results. They want easy wins with minimum effort. So highly paid charity chiefs cuddle up to governments to promote the illusion they can spur democracy and development, despite evidence that torrents of foreign cash prop up repressive regimes, fuel corruption and foster conflict.

MSF admits some faults in its own work, but holds itself up as an example of how to do it right. Though comparing itself, an organization designed to deal with emergencies, to the large NGOs that do ongoing development work is not quit fitting. What it does is raise the question as to the role of international players in a humanitarian emergency. The three case studies illustrate that some of the largest organizations are ill-equipped to deal with fast-changing circumstances.

Note: Tomorrow we report more closely on the report and what other humanitarian and aid workers have to say.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.