May 15, 2024

Towards a conflict-sensitive role for grassroot organisations in social protection in Sudan

This blog is the sixth 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. These blog posts do not necessarily reflect the Conflict Sensitivity Facility’s (CSF) views nor those of all actors engaged in the response. However, we are hoping that this series will contribute to the ongoing discussions around the aid response and will encourage the sector to assess the wider implications of its actions on fostering peace in Sudan.  

By Hassan-Alattar Satti

A year of conflict has deepened the dire humanitarian crisis in Sudan. This crisis is deeply rooted in the poor governance of Sudan characterised by concentration of power and resources amongst a network of military, private and political elites. It is a political crisis with roots in a long history of impunity and human rights violations; the deployment of militias by successive governments as a means to counter insurgency; as well as violence underpinning transitions of power.

In a recent study by the Institute of Development Studies, a team of researchers explored the conflict sensitivity of the ongoing humanitarian response to the crisis with a focus on how to enhance locally-led modalities of response. These grassroots organisations and other forms of local support represent a salient feature of social protection in Sudan. Different forms of self-organising voluntary groups are actively providing relief services to their communities, particularly in areas that are not accessible to formal aid actors.

The role of the community-led response

These localised forms of social assistance are highly important as government departments are barely functioning, and the humanitarian response plan is still substantially underfunded. The role of local networks and groups in responding to this emergency is remarkable because it is led by the survivors of the crisis themselves.

With the ongoing economic deterioration in the country, the capacities of this local response are extremely weakened. The longer the crisis continues, the more exhausted local structures will be because they are reliant on local resources that are continuously depleted as a result of conflict. Supporting the social protection activities of these groups such as community kitchens and IDPS sheltering will enhance the humanitarian response to Sudan’s complex emergency; it will also strengthen these evolving models of social assistance. This blog sheds light on community-based social protection activities, particularly food and cash-based transfers, exploring the conflict sensitivity challenges of their work and how external aid actors can better support them.

The conflict sensitivity of local actors’ social assistance

Conflict sensitivity is a concept occupying a continuum from a narrow sense that focuses on ‘do no harm’ to a broader sense through which humanitarians are actively engaged in promoting peace when they find an enabling environment to do so. Conflict sensitivity implies developing a thorough understanding of the way social protection interventions may interact with the context where they are delivered; using that knowledge to prevent feeding into conflict, and where possible promote peace and social justice.

Although grassroot organisations do not use the term ‘conflict sensitivity’, that should not indicate that they are conflict or peace blind.  Like most other humanitarian actors in Sudan, they use and apply conflict sensitivity in the narrow sense of ‘do no harm’,  abide by humanitarian principles and recognise their capacity gaps and actively attempt to fill them.

A major conflict sensitivity limitation for grassroots organisations is the participation of women and girls, particularly in areas where social norms against women’s participation are very strong. Aid actors’ attempts to address the issue are often met with superficial engagement of women with the aim of sustaining social assistance programmes. National NGOs’ success in some contexts is attributed to the tactical approach they adopt whereby they recognise the role of community-based structures and gradually open conversations about women participation. Excluding women comes with the risk of undermining the quality of women protection in conflict, while at the same time grassroots organisations would not be drawing on the many strengths women may have to offer in conflict prevention and mediation.

Another conflict sensitivity limitation is that grassroot organisations are often reliant on social relationships which implies that beneficiaries are members of specific clan, livelihood group or neighbourhood. That focus on relationships risks discriminating against the most vulnerable because they are often the least connected to these groups. Such an exclusion can fuel social tensions.

In practice, promoting a greater role for local networks could either enhance or undermine the conflict sensitivity of a response. Careful partner assessment and selection, as part of a wider context and conflict analysis, are essential. It is very important to recognise the variation in capacities and operational arrangements amongst grassroots organisations, and not to assume that every grassroot organisation enjoys the same level of trust and community participation within the communities they serve.

External aid actors and community-led conflict-sensitive social assistance

The increased recognition of the role of local networks has materialised in cooperation between them and national and international agencies. That cooperation has partially filled funding and knowledge gaps and also promoted effective and locally-led aid in Sudan.

Supporting the social protection activities of local actors has the potential to enhance conflict sensitivity. However, the aggravation of Sudan’s political crisis into full-scale warfare has further raised humanitarian actors’ concerns about the impact of conflict and fragility on the design and delivery of social protection interventions.

Aid actors face many contextual challenges in operationalising conflict sensitivity. This includes the focus of aid policies on short-term stabilisation instead of long-term reforms; the fact that the government of Sudan is a party to the conflict but at the same time responsible for facilitating aid to the country  ; and the extent of violence and displacement that hinders humanitarian operations and limits access to affected people.

Also, local networks face specific conflict sensitivity challenges and risks. Local governments play a disruptive role by imposing bureaucratic hurdles on local initiatives that undermine conflict sensitivity by limiting locally-led responses altogether. While many donors are increasingly willing to partner with grassroots organisations, some remain reluctant to do so because those organisations do not meet due diligence requirements. The reluctance of some donors to support grassroot initiatives limits donors’ capacity to benefit from local actors’ understanding of the conflict dynamics of their contexts.

As a means to enhance conflict sensitivity, humanitarian actors in Sudan highlight the need to pay more attention to targeting criteria, to ensure the most marginalised groups in the community are reached and provided with support. However, the funds that international aid actors allocate to grassroots organisations are small and the international agencies’ disbursement criteria are not always clear, which risks fuelling tensions at the local level. Indeed, there are examples from Khartoum and other conflict-affected settings of group cash transfers where cash is used on a more system-wide basis such as community kitchens. The advantage of such a model is that it uses available funds to cover the needs of the wider community. At a time when humanitarian funds are limited, this can prevent social tensions around the criteria used for beneficiary selection.

How can official aid enhance the conflict sensitivity of local response?

In a complex emergency like Sudan’s, often donors’ natural reflexes include tightening and controlling their systems. However, the courage of the frontline grassroots organisations offers a great opportunity to do exactly the opposite. Aid agencies should build on the role of trusted national NGOs as intermediaries between the international aid system and grassroots structures. The real challenge is not the lack of good local actors but the capacity of international actors to find good local actors and identifying the best ways to support them.

Donors have made some positive progress in terms of enhancing conflict sensitivity through fund management systems. With regards to community-led initiatives, this was achieved through easing the funding conditions for emergency response rooms. The Sudan Humanitarian Fund (SHF) accepted the re-programming of costs implemented by the fund’s grantees during the first week of the war and allowed transferring funds through modalities other than the formal banking system. The Peace Building Fund (PBF) is exploring ways to allocate funds to for community-led mechanisms active in peace building. These initiatives provide good opportunities for co-learning for social protection programming led by people and their organizations in a conflict-sensitive way.


About the Author:

Hassan-Alattar Satti is an independent researcher and consultant. He has been a visiting fellow with the Feinstein International Centre since 2018. Hassan has led and participated in different humanitarian research projects in Sudan. His research interests revolve around natural resources management, livelihood resilience, social protection and local conflicts. Previously, Hassan worked with many international NGOs in different regions in Sudan for more than eight years.

© Photo by Aamar Yassir Mohammad

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