December 19, 2023 | Ayman Elias Ibrahim, Chiara Jancke

‘Share what you have‘: five local responders reflect on delivering aid in Sudan

Photo Source: Sadgat organisation https://www.sadagaat.com/

This blog is the second blog of the series ‘Humanitarian access, local action and conflict sensitivity dilemmas in Sudan since April 2023’ which showcases different perspectives important for a conflict sensitive aid response in Sudan.

By Ayman Elias and Chiara Jancke

Many of these civilian-led organisations have existed for decades and played a crucial role during the 2019 revolution. This enabled their rapid response to the crisis in April 2023, allowing them to utilise the same structures, community relationships and tools they have honed over years. The Conflict Sensitivity Facility (CSF) interviewed five local responders called Sarah, Ali, Mohammad, Omar and Adam* in October to learn more about their experiences of delivering aid to their communities.

The nature of the assistance that these five responders provide to their communities, and the ways in which they have organised themselves varies. Sarah and Ali are both based in Khartoum and have been working as part of Emergency Response Rooms (ERRs) and Resistance Committees [1] to evacuate people, deliver medical services and establishing community kitchens where the community can cook together.

In Omdurman, where Mohammad is from, youth initiatives quickly united under the slogan ‘just share what you have’ when the crisis erupted and established mobile kitchens and maintained water facilities. Other groups in Omdurman educated neighbours on explosive ordinance. In Mohammad’s hometown in North Darfur people came together to support displaced people from Nyala, while in West Darfur where Omar is from, locals formed other initiatives to proactively try and come together to avoid conflict involving all segments of society. Still, they’ve all been facing significant challenges in their work and their ability to assist their communities is often limited by communications and information blackouts, security risks and a lack of access to funding.

We spoke with them to hear more about their work and how they approach access issues and see equitable partnerships.

*Please note that all names in this blog have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees. While the interviews were conducted in Arabic and the responses were translated into English, most of the content of this blog consists of quotes by the interviewees with the aim of amplifing their voices and perspectives. Even though particular attention was paid to ensuring that interviewees are from different areas in Sudan, it must also be noted that their experiences cannot be seen as representative of all Sudanese local responders. 

Negotiating humanitarian access

Humanitarian access has been a key issue for the aid response in Sudan. While many international organisationshave experienced challenges in navigating the difficult operational envioronment characterised by security risks, looting and bureaucratic impediments, local responders were often able to access hard-to-reach places and help communities in need of assistance.  Reflecting on their approaches to negotiating access, the five respondents shared the approaches used within their networks and communities.

In Khartoum access is negotiated on an individual basis to reduce risk. Sarah says, “for example, when we are conducting an evacuation, we communicate with the actors at the nearest check points. The same happens when we need to bring in materials – we contact the relevant forces in the area and this reduces the risk. If we plan something more organised, that might make the other side more suspicious.” 

Ali also communicates with all conflict parties to enquire about the security requirements:

“We have a safety and security unit through which we communicate with all armed parties; we tell them that we are planning movements within their controlled areas and ask them to share their protocols.”

In North Darfur, Adam explains, coordination is often conducted with the Darfur Joint Forces which was formed after April 15 by armed groups in Darfur that are signatories to the Juba Peace Agreement.

Mohammad emphasises the role that tribal elders can play in negotiations with armed actors, especially where pre-existing tribal connections between communities and conflict actors exist. In El Obeid, North Kordofan state, the Bedaria and Jumuiyea tribes negotiated with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to allow engineers to access water facilities for maintenance. Similarly, the native administration leaders from Dalang went to Dibaibat and Taiba to speak to the RSF regarding looting cases”. This demonstrates local community entities’ increased role in ensuring community safety in some locations.

Omar also highlights that its crucial to involve local actors in access negotiations and aid delivery because “you might be prevented access just because of your skin colour, language, or tribal affiliations and therefore, you need to involve local actors from the area who know the communities”.

Mohammad also explains thatthe safety of both international and local aid actors is at risk during clashes, and there is a risk of targeting based on ethnic and tribal based associations. That is why it’s crucial that there is a community representative engaged in the process to avoid any risk or negative impact on both the national and international aid actors, as they might be targeted or affiliated with another [conflict] party.”

Speaking about the principles guiding their negotiations, Sarah stresses that “the general and basic principle is to get our work done regardless of which party to the conflict we are communicating with; at the end of the day, they are forces controlling the area in which we need to work.”

Sarah, Ali, and Adam confirm that their organisations abide by the neutrality principle and deal with all conflict parties equally. However, Adam shares that the topic of neutrality is widely discussed within these civilian-led organisations at the moment – “there is a debate that hasn’t been resolved yet on whether groups working on the ground should be neutral or if they should have an opinion about the parties, and reject dealing with them altogether.”

Sarah further explains that international actors need to work with local partners in communities to prevent aid from being obstructed and looted. She stresses that partners “are the ones who have the relevant information, they can tell if there is a possibility of looting or confiscation, or if there is doubt regarding the nature of the assistance you provide. Partners give us valuable feedback on whether the roads are safe or not, who will meet us out there, and that allows us to prepare.”  

Working with the international aid sector

Asked about their engagement with the international actors, all respondents shared the difficulties local responders and Emergency Rooms are facing in working as part of the international aid response.

”’International organisations often have very complicated processes and procedures, such as requesting proposals and invoices. This system doesn’t work in the current situation and poses the biggest challenge to cooperation between local actors and international organisations.” says Sarah.

She continues explaining that she feels like there is a lack of appreciation of local responders’ work: “’International organisations often don’t understand that those who are working on the ground are doing things that they could never do by themselves like providing access and information because they’re in areas that international organisations can’t reach. But it feels like the aid sector doesn’t value this, even though they could never deliver aid without the assistance of local responders.”

“'(…) The approach to aid delivery is top down, including having predesigned projects and programmes. International organisations prepare everything and don’t engage local responders or coordinate with existing initiatives that are based on communities’ actual needs and demands. In contrast, local initiatives start with actual needs of their communities.”, she adds.

Ali explains that in contrast to international aid actors, local responders are part of the communities they serve. But they need to receive more support and “those working on the ground should not have to put themselves at risk.” He emphasises that especially access to information is a huge problem for responders in the absence of reliable internet.

Ali thinks part of the problem is the aid sector’s inability to think outside of the box. He explains,  “We can work through alternative systems to find solutions but the aid sector can’t understand these processes, they only stick to their own system of working through big companies and local banks”.

Enabling more equitable NGO partnerships

Reflecting on how partnerships between international and local NGOs could be improved, Sarah emphasises the need to foster more genuine partnerships.

“If partnerships were genuine, international organisations wouldn’t be criticised, but international organisations want their local partners to work the way they want them to”, says Sarah, pointing out that the true partnership must empower local partner,“(….) that would be true localisation, however, what they are actually doing is outsourcing.”

Omar believes that aid actors need to work more closely with local responders in general:

“in Darfur, the Bankak [2] is operating. Through that system, international organisations and donors can transfer money to local partners who can make the procurement locally, instead of sending big aid convoys that are often looted. There are existing initiatives in El Fashir, Nyala and El Deain, and while their capacities are limited, international organisations can help them by easing procedures because these become impossible to accommodate in crises.”

Mohammad asserts that aid actors could provide more practical support to local responders and need to better understand the local context. He notes that “donors and international organisations can help through monitoring and follow-up and focusing on ‘friendly aid’[3]. If a community is used to eating sorghum and you deliver white corn, that won’t be effective. An international aid actor might also select local partners who are unacceptable for the community, which can result in a rejection of the aid.”

Adam, on the other hand, disagrees with the notion that risks are transferred onto local partners, believing that local NGOs have a better understanding of the context and can actively participate in serving their communities while building their capacities. He proposed engaging local partners equally to international colleagues and involving them in decision-making processes through risk assessments and for international organisations and donors to provide more small grants to local responders and assist them with technical support.

Supporting local action in Sudan

While this blog just provides a brief look into the experiences of local responders, speaking with Sarah, Adam, Mohammad, Omar and Ali demonstrates the ways in which local responders have been supporting their communities since April, as well as their continuously growing knowledge and capacities to continue delivering aid in spite of operational challenges. Still, they face communications obstacles, limited funding, security risks and extensive bureaucratic processes to access funding, underlining that international support is needed to facilitate genuine partnerships that facilitates information sharing, don’t transfer risk and reduce the administrative/bureaucratic cost for local responders.

The CSF is continuing its work to highlight the experiences of local responders to support a locally-led and conflict sensitive aid response in Sudan. If you would like to learn more about our work with local responders or would like to talk to us further, please contact us at info@csf-sudan.org.

 

[1] Resistance committees – grassroots neighbourhood groups that play a pivotal role at the community level in service provision and political representation. Connected nationally via a horizontal structure, they play a pivotal role in leading the democratic change movement and representative politics.

Emergency Response Rooms (ERRs) – voluntary bodies leading on the crisis response at the community level, providing basic services and coordinating provision of resources to people in need.

[2] The Bankak is an application for transferring money

[3] Aid that is sensitive to cultural and contextual needs and priorities.

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Photo Source: Sadgat organisation https://www.sadagaat.com/

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