July 13, 2023 | Audrey Bottjen

Time for a decentralised aid response in Sudan?

Aid delivery systems in Sudan have been pushed into disarray because of the scale of the new security and access dynamics stemming from the outbreak of widespread violence in April.[1]  While the aid infrastructure needs to be rebuilt, the need  for aid is greater than ever, with 24.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.  This represents both a short-term and a long-term challenge.  Today, the aid system needs to be able to reach and operate effectively across this large country in a context of poor infrastructure and high levels of insecurity.  However, the decisions made today about the architecture of the aid system in Sudan will likely set in motion trends and patterns that will solidify over time, thus shaping longer term options for how assistance can be delivered in Sudan.

The international aid architecture in Sudan has historically been centralised.  Prior to April 2023, most international aid organisations were headquartered in Khartoum and all donors and most senior staff of INGOs and UN agencies lived there.[2]  This mirrored the centralisation of the Sudanese state and economy as well; a high proportion of the power structures, investments, and economic activity in Sudan were also based in Khartoum.  While this concentration of power and development brought (for many years) security and amenities, it also corresponded with a high level of state control over the aid sector, and contributed to the ongoing marginalisation of Sudan’s peripheries.[3]

At the moment, the international aid sector is grappling with how to reconstruct itself after violence engulfed Khartoum earlier this year, causing most organisations to relocate their headquarters and reconfigure their strategies.  Many international aid organisations have relocated to Port Sudan, a seemingly logical choice for a new base of operations for aid actors in some ways, given its location on the Red Sea and existing infrastructure.  Many others are working from neighbouring countries, or from their

headquarters elsewhere in the world.  There are also initiatives to open up cross-border operations, notably from Chad into Darfur.  In this framing of the context, the old patterns of centralisation within the aid sector have been thrown into the air, and are now in the process of landing into some new patterns: potentially a slow return to a very centralised system based in Port Sudan (for now), or a shift to a more decentralised approach that operates with area-based management principles in multiple parts of the country.

Costs and Benefits of Decentralising Aid

A decentralised approach to aid may be more expensive, both in terms of the new physical infrastructure needed at subnational locations as well as in terms of the designing and instituting new levels of analysis, coordination and decision-making. There are also risks around the potential for an aid response to become fragmented and incoherent, lacking in an over-arching strategy.  Ensuring high level principles, coherence, and learning in a decentralised aid response requires well-considered strategic leadership, coordination and learning systems, all of which also require resources.  But there are also potential benefits if the right policies and systems are put into place:

  • Managing attempts to control and manipulate aid delivery. Attempts to manipulate and control aid are to be expected when providing assistance in times of conflict.[4] When aid is very centralised, this can enable control over aid by a small number of actors.  A decentralised aid response will not reduce the incentives for conflict actors to seek to benefit from aid, but it may help by increasing the agency and voice of local actors, diversifying participation in the aid delivery process, contributing to a culture of accountability at all levels, and potentially reducing the power of actors far away to tax, control, or manipulate aid.
  • Improving contextual analysis and relationships with local communities, civil society and authorities. Increasing aid’s presence in subnational locations should increase aid’s understanding, and therefore ability to work effectively, in a wider range of contexts.  Sudan is fabulously diverse, but the Khartoum-based aid apparatus seldom appreciated the implications of this diversity.  A decentralised approach enables greater levels of local analysis, community and civil society engagement – functions that require time to build trust and relationships, and which cannot effectively be done at a distance.
  • Building flexible and adaptive approaches. Better and more fluid analysis and decentralised decision-making in turn also supports adaptive management approaches. Having decision-makers in subnational locations increases the speed and quality of decisions made and reduces the number of decisions that need to be made at the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT)/national level. It also can support more effective targeting, better inclusion of communities as partners in aid strategies and design, as well as the opportunity for lessons learned in one region to be tested in other areas.
  • Addressing marginalisation. Aid benefits many besides those it is intentionally targeting.  Employees receive salaries, businesses benefit from aid’s procurements, and landlords receive rents.  Decentralising and widening the ‘unofficial benefits’ of aid can help to spread the economic benefits of the aid sector beyond Khartoum or Port Sudan, helping to challenge rather than reinforce older patterns around investment and development.

Lessons from South Sudan

The aid system in South Sudan has recently been experimenting with decentralisation via an area-based management in ways that may offer some initial lessons for aid actors in Sudan.[5]  The experiences there suggest that area-based coordination bodies in specific geographic locations could have the following responsibilities:

  • Coordination and communication with local authorities, civil society, and communities for the purpose of designing, planning, evaluating and learning from aid’s activities in that area. Localising aid should be a key objective here, seeking to support existing effective local structures, rather than replacing or undermining them.
  • Coordination and communication amongst aid actors working in that area to share information and analysis, joint positions and action, and planning. This is likely to include some element of resource mobilisation, strategy development and potentially shared infrastructure.
  • Security information and analysis. Decentralised security protocols allow aid organisations to be more nimble and able to assess risks and mitigating strategies more accurately.
  • Needs assessment and targeting information. A decentralised, collective approach to needs assessments and targeting helps to prevent duplication, and the information-gathering burden on communities.  It improves collective analysis and understanding of needs and should enable more effective coordination between aid actors.

Donors could complement decentralised operations by assigning specific staff or teams to ‘cover’ geographical areas, thereby improving analysis and contextualised decision-making, allowing more scope for engagement across different departments and donor offices.

From a conflict sensitivity perspective, decentralised aid is not just about making aid more efficient and effective; it is also about shifting the focus of accountability from one that is quite organisational or headquarter-oriented to one that is community-oriented. This is a paradigm shift that many in the aid sector believe is needed, though difficult to achieve.  A decentralised approach in Sudan could still easily be dominated by large organisations upwardly accountable to donors, so is not on its own capable of shifting the paradigm – but it could be a step in the right direction.


[1] Many of the access, security, and control issues facing aid workers are decades old, but the scale and the impact of this recent conflagration of violence has led to new challenges.   https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2023/06/29/obstacles-aid-pile-sudans-conflict-rages

[2] There is the notable exception of aid delivered to the Two Areas.  For more on this: Conflict and aid in the Two Areas: a primer – CSF (csf-sudan.org)

[3] While this blog is about the international aid architecture, it is important to note that many national aid actors, and many of the community and civil society organisations now providing aid, have long existed in areas around the country, though some were quite closely aligned with previous regimes.  Please see the CSF’s piece on Localisation for more on this:  https://csf-sudan.org/library/making-sense-of-localisation-in-sudan/

[4] Nashed, Mat. As Sudan War Rages, Rival Sides Accused of Diverting, Looting Aid.  Al Jazeera. 16 June 2023. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/6/16/as-sudan-war-rages-rival-sides-accused-of-looting-diverting-aid

[5] Since 2018, a number of initiatives have sought to mobilise donors, UN, and NGOs through area-based programming in support of resilience, recovery, stabilisation and peacebuilding.  These include the Partnership for Resilience and Recovery (PfRR), Reconciliation, Stabilisation and Resilience Trust Fund (RSRTF) and nascent Partnership for Peacebuilding, Resilience, and Recovery (PfPRR)

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