March 25, 2024 | Audrey Bottjen

What can Sudan’s past teach us? – Part 2: recommendations for aid’s approach to access today

Humanitarian access challenges in Sudan are not new. The control or denial of access by conflict actors to further political, military and economic agendas has persisted for at least 40 years, with serious implications for the human toll, as well as the nature of Sudan’s conflicts. The first blog in this two-part series identified lessons from the history of access in Sudan to help aid actors understand the wide-ranging implications of access challenges and approaches. This blog seeks to translate those lessons into recommendations for policy and aid actors engaging in access issues today.

The aid sector’s principles, policies and practices on access must ensure that aid reaches those most in need and does not become a weapon of war. This is critical as the country heads into a catastrophic hunger season, with the potential for mass starvation and the associated impacts on social, political and economic fragility. The scale of the impending disaster is such that international aid will be unable to avert it, even with total access, but we must do more to try to contain it.

These are daunting challenges, but lessons from the past and analysis of the present can help prevent aid (again) being used as a weapon of war, and instead may help to improve the longer-term prospects for Sudan’s people.

Connecting aid’s principles with realities on the ground

The humanitarian experience with the ‘Ground Rules’ of OLS and ‘Principles of Engagement’ of NMPACT suggest that our approaches to developing and using principles must be robust on two levels. First, they must be informed by the political, military, and economic pressures on access, as described in the first blog.[1] Second, they must be simple, understood by all those in the operating environment – including the breadth of Sudanese society – and subject to debate, testing and learning.

The Joint Operating Principles (JOPs) were agreed soon after the outbreak of conflict in 2023. While work has been done to train and share the JOPs with aid actors, government and military actors, this work has not yet included society at large, and there are few safe spaces for debating what the JOPs mean in practice.[2] Such engagement and debate is important for helping aid actors to be transparent and accountable to Sudanese communities, and also enables Sudanese to participate in applying pressure on power structures to allow aid to reach vulnerable populations.

In practice, aid actors could help to make this area of engagement more robust by:

  • Updating and simplifying the JOPs to fit onto one page, and translating them into Arabic, so that they can be easily shared, understood, and debated by all of aid’s stakeholders, including Sudanese communities.
  • Using the JOPs as an opportunity for the aid community to go further than ‘do no harm.’  As in NMPACT, our principles can also seek to make contributions to building social cohesion and resilience to conflict, thereby mitigating the spread of conflict and associated vulnerability.
  • Establishing a mechanism for sharing data and analysis about how the JOPs are and are not working, creating safe spaces for these discussions, and promoting learning and adaptation to improve the principles and adherence to them.
  • Recognising that aid actors will only be able to reach a minority of those in need due to budget, security, and infrastructure constraints. Therefore, our principles and goals must support local mechanisms and relationships that are the frontline responders for most of the vulnerable people across Sudan.

 Investments in analysis, planning and prioritising

Strong contextual analysis is the first step toward an effective and conflict-sensitive approach to managing access dilemmas. The military, political and economic implications discussed in the first blog need to be understood not only at the national level, but also within each context where aid is moving, stored, and distributed. This requires dedicated capacities and roles for analysis, and the intentional involvement of diverse perspectives. Area-based approaches currently being explored by the aid sector represent a strong foundation for this but require more deliberate and meaningful inclusion of communities.[3] Improved dialogue with Sudanese civilian communities will improve the quality of analysis, prioritisation and planning – tasks which will become more difficult and sensitive as the hunger season progresses. Specific steps in this direction include:

  • Projects should include budget lines for analysis and coordination capacities that prioritise local knowledge over international technical expertise. This analysis should inform coordination, work plans and project deliverables at the national and subnational levels.
  • Donors and headquarters should encourage approaches to monitoring and evaluation that celebrate learning (including from failures), sharing of lessons, and qualitative assessments of impact, rather than relying only on counts of people reached.
  • Recognise that short-term access goals can exacerbate long-term conflict drivers. This includes procurements that resource conflict actors, negotiations that provide legitimacy to armed actors, and ways that projects affect community relationships and land use patterns. The Inter-Cluster Coordination Group (ICCG) and Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) should support frameworks that are able to acknowledge these trade-offs and make deliberate, informed decisions when these dilemmas arise, using the JOPs as a reference point.

 Negotiations and engagement

Negotiations are necessarily political, requiring understanding different positions, needs and interests on multiple levels. Decisions of who we include in negotiations, what we negotiate for, and how we negotiate shape not only the outcomes of negotiations, but also influence relationships between the parties involved. In the current context, this poses conflict sensitivity challenges and opportunities. Specific considerations or recommendations for managing these include the following:

  • Recognise that there are various stakeholders with diverse, sometimes divergent, sets of interests within each group with whom the aid sector interacts (e.g. SAF, HAC, RSF, others).
  • Be aware of how community and political dynamics over the past few decades shape relationships, both competitive and cooperative. Seek out relationships at various levels with multiple sets of actors within communities, including private sector, local authorities, civil society, youth groups and women to better understand the range of interests and needs.
  • Peacebuilders are a particularly under-engaged group of actors with experience in dialogue and mediation, and the ability to meaningfully advise access priorities and negotiation tactics. Traditional authorities sometimes, though not always, play this function. It is also important to consider involving academics, civil society and community-based organisations.
  • Remain vigilant of attempts by armed actors to divert aid leadership and diplomatic attention and resources towards negotiations or requests for evidence that are made in bad faith, including as part of strategies to delay or obstruct aid.

 Communication plans and outreach

Sudan’s history suggests that robust community engagement supports access negotiations by increasing public participation and pressure on armed actors, and improving the quality of the aid response. Moreover, it builds the credibility and acceptance of the aid response as communities are more aware of aid’s intentions and decisions, and also gives them an opportunity to play a critical accountability role. Steps that could be taken in the current context include:

  • Develop a communications strategy to engage with communities. The aid sector should articulate and be held accountable to a principled aid response where access is not constrained for political or military reasons. This is an important opportunity to build public awareness of and pressure on armed actors and de facto authorities to allow access.
  • Find more ways to listen to and act on feedback from Sudanese communities. Crowd-sourcing and social media could support accountability in multiple directions. Advisory groups and civil society leadership from diverse areas around the country can also inform and advise aid actors on how to pursue access planning and approaches.

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Aid access in Sudan has long been politicised and militarised; these dynamics are woven into the many ways that the aid system interacts with bureaucratic requirements, security, and diplomacy. Sudan’s experiences since the 1980s tell us that approaches to access that do not understand these dynamics risk contributing to the conflict. Our principles, systems and approaches must be capable of understanding the complexity, helping us to make difficult decisions and act on them in a meaningful way.

[1] For more detail on these, please see the first blog in this series. Additional resources are cited in that blog. What can Sudan’s past teach us? – humanitarian access lessons from OLS and NMPACT – CSFSudan (csf-sudan.org)

[2] This should include actors such as commercial transporters moving aid or local responders.

[3] For more on the CSF’s analysis of area-based approaches and the applicability for Sudan, see this blog from October 2023. https://csf-sudan.org/benefits-and-challenges-of-an-area-based-approach-to-programming/

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