A declaration of famine in South Sudan has prompted a swirl of appeals for new funding to stem the catastrophe. There are millions of people in desperate need, and there are aid groups well-positioned to do more, if only they had more money to expand their programming.
But there is also an uncritical aspect to such appeals: the idea that the relief effort is somehow apolitical.
Humanitarians are portrayed as impartial technocrats, keeping above the fray of conflict and politics, dispensing aid fairly to anyone in need. In turn, the “beneficiaries” of the aid effort are cast as apolitical themselves, usually hapless and victimized, incapable of any agency of their own.
This is far from the truth, and it is long past time to come to grips with a fundamental reality: Humanitarian assistance is political action. For Western countries providing the vast majority of funding for relief aid, humanitarian intervention is a stand-in for other forms of political action.
They have consciously privileged humanitarianism over alternative action – to the detriment of peace, security and justice efforts that might actually address the causes of the aid crisis.
A critical look at the ongoing aid efforts brings us to some uncomfortable conclusions.
First to be examined needs to be the relationship between relief organisations and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which has taken approximately 200,000 ethnic minorities under its protection at sprawling guarded camps known as “Protection of Civilians” sites, or PoCs for short.
Since day one of the civil war, relief groups have uncritically accepted the UN policy of housing at-risk civilians in these ethnic ghettos.
PoC sites require huge amounts of aid money to be sustained – more so than traditional refugee camps because they are mostly located in remote areas, with poor roads and bad security.
They need to be surrounded by razor wire, defensive berms, watch towers and 24/7 guards. The UN insists that the PoCs are merely temporary because eventually the government will create the necessary conditions for citizens to be able to return safely to their places of origin.
But the camps serve distinct political purposes that make it unlikely that they will be dismantled any time soon. For example, the PoC in the northern town of Bentiu is the result of a military campaign to depopulate oil-producing areas and the heartland of the ethnic Nuer group. Closing the camp and allowing the safe return of its residents would reverse the intended outcome of this campaign.
Likewise, ethnic Shilluk residents of the PoC in Malakal who once inhabited a thriving and diverse capital of northeastern Upper Nile State face new ethnic rules preventing them from returning to homes and jobs in the city.
This is a consequence of a presidential decree that divided Upper Nile State into smaller ethnic enclaves, giving the capital to the Dinka and relegating the Shilluk to the less developed western bank of the Nile. The government has little interest in relaxing conditions to allow Shilluk to return to homes and villages that once existed outside of the enclave now designated to them.
The solution is not more funding for the PoC sites or for resettlement programmes that are unlikely to succeed. Instead, the PoCs should be dismantled and the vulnerable populations moved en masse into neighboring countries where it is safer and logistics lines are better.
Naysayers will say that this is impossible. But they would be overlooking relevant precedents, including the resizing of the PoC in Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, which went from more than 5,000 residents in early 2014 to a more manageable size of about 2,000 today, mostly because residents left of their own accord.
There was also the massive returnee movement of about 250,000 people from Sudan, which took place before and after the 2011 referendum that split the country by ushering in independence for South Sudan. It was largely facilitated by the International Organization for Migration, which moved people by road, barge and air.
The biggest obstacles to closing the PoCs are not practical; they are political and conceptual. Above all, UN bureaucrats are reluctant to admit the obvious – that there is already a massive demographic change project underway in South Sudan.
Aid groups, donors and the UN are making a political choice by continuing to indefinitely shelter and care for vulnerable populations at PoCs rather than escorting them to places of real safety. This policy is not neutral, and its political objectives are failing. It is time to re-think the strategy.
False sense of security
Aid organizations that provide services within UNMISS protection sites are abetting the peacekeepers in providing a false sense of security to inhabitants, similar to the false assurances that UN peacekeepers implicitly gave to the Tutsi minority prior to the genocide of 1994. This is because the camps themselves are not safe.
On several occasions, including Bor in April 2014 and Malakal in February 2016, government troops or militia attacked these supposedly safe zones, overrunning poorly manned UN defenses and massacring civilians inside.
Soldiers also regularly rape women in and around the camps, fire randomly on the camps, restrict resupply, and otherwise make life there extremely difficult and dangerous. The PoC strategy is failing the people it is meant to help. It’s also the crippling the peacekeeping mission itself by tying up its troops and resources.
Hand-in-hand with ghettoisation is a practice of denying people in camps basic human freedoms such as freedom of speech. UNMISS' Public Information Office has restricted access to journalists seeking to enter the protection sites*.
United States-funded “humanitarian” media projects operating in the camps allow people to talk about cholera prevention or birth control, but they discourage citizens from speaking about the atrocities that they experienced. Likewise, the UN radio in South Sudan has done little to report on rights abuses. The main purpose of this is self-preservation: If the UN were to allow freedom of speech in the PoC sites then it would anger authorities and threaten humanitarian access.
Beyond the PoCs, donors have funded radio projects on an ethnic basis, offering money to FM community radio stations in Dinka areas while closing those in Nuer areas – the ethnic group most identified with the ongoing rebellion against the Dinka-dominated government.
Although this is ostensibly about security at the broadcast sites – the Nuer areas were subjected to attacks – it also reflects an implicit political choice: the choice to continue funding Dinka stations in the absence of balance. More fundamentally, a policy of supporting “community radio” during ethnic conflict is conceptually problematic: community radio stations are by definition parochial, serving ethnic interests.
What is needed are media projects that consistently represent victim and survivor narratives, serving as catalysts for change and healing within the society. Instead, most donor-funded media have become little more than extensions of the state media, ignoring abuses and thereby promoting impunity.
Forex and the war economy
Aid programmes in South Sudan have played a major role in bolstering a dual exchange rate system that enables war profiteering. It works like this: Generals and high-ranking officials own many of the foreign exchange bureaus and commercial banks. They obtain US dollars at the official rate and then turn around and sell them for a far higher price on the black market.
In the meantime, aid groups and the UN trade local currency at an overvalued official rate that is ignored by virtually everyone else.
Humanitarians have lost millions this way, particularly in 2015, when the street rate soared to five times higher than the official rate. “The official rate absorbs two-thirds of the value ... Anything we do fuels the corruption,” said one aid official cited in a 2016 investigative report.
Even though the gap between the official and black market rates has narrowed over the last year or so, it remains significant, and the UN and aid groups continue to bolster demand for a currency that otherwise has lost credibility.
Diversion of aid resources
Humanitarians have bolstered government war efforts in other ways as well. By offering social services in government-controlled areas they allow the government to spend most of its revenues on the military without facing any backlash from the population.
They have also unintentionally provided huge amounts of food aid to government soldiers, who have repeatedly looted World Food Program warehouses and convoys, and taken food from civilian beneficiaries.
A recent article by Lindsay Hamsik, published by the Overseas Development Institute, points out that South Sudanese authorities engage in “predatory rent-seeking behaviors” that divert humanitarian resources. These include demanding vehicles, fuel, cash, tyres and phone credit.
“Donor countries’ taxpayers have a right to know how much of their money is not reaching beneficiaries but is being diverted to a government that is fueling the humanitarian crisis,” recommends the article.
Aid programmes also pay salaries or bonuses on behalf of the government to thousands of civil servants, usually because donors fear that health or education services would collapse if they stopped doing so. From a political economy perspective, the aid industry in South Sudan is in many ways just an extension of the country's patronage-based civil service that has President Salva Kiir at its apex.
Selective geographic programming
During Sudan’s last civil war of 1983-2005, aid groups ran the cross-border Operation Lifeline into rebel-controlled territory, basing themselves in Lokichogio, Kenya, rather than the capital, Khartoum.
But this time donors and humanitarians have made the political choice not to engage in such operations. Limited services are offered in rebel-held areas, but these are all cleared through Juba, which means that the government can restrict access at will. For example, the government army has repeatedly prevented food barges from reaching parts of Upper Nile, and erected checkpoints on roads approaching famine-stricken areas.
“Essentially, aid is being used to punish opposition and reward loyalty,” says Hamsik's ODI article.
Needless to say, many aid groups working out of Juba are doing important work and could not relocate their base of operations to somewhere outside the country like Lokichogio. But if even a small handful of aid groups were willing to take on such a role then it could significantly alter the humanitarian situation and possibly save many lives.
Ethnic segregation in schools
The civil war has led to a flourishing “education in emergencies” sector through which aid groups like Save the Children have taken in millions of dollars in funding. They provide services for out-of-school children at UN protection camps across the country, including learning spaces, playgrounds and incentive pay to caregivers and educators.
While this may look non-political at first blush, what it really amounts to is support for ethnic segregation of previously integrated urban school systems, a process now three years in the making.
In Malakal, for example, Shilluk and Nuer children no longer learn alongside Dinka children. During the last civil war, South Sudanese refugees attended integrated schools in Uganda and elsewhere, where they learned side-by-side with children of other communities. This time it's very different.
NGOs will protest that they are only providing interim solutions for children in need: the PoC schools are not formal learning institutions, but are “temporary learning spaces”; the teachers are not formally teachers, they are “volunteers.” But they are de facto helping to create a segregated system, which does not look like it is going to be temporary. In doing so, they are reinforcing momentum toward permanent ghettoisation and lasting social divisions.
Where does this leave us?
It needs to be said that humanitarians have done brave work over the last three years, keeping South Sudanese alive in some of the harshest places on earth. To be fully appreciated, humanitarianism in South Sudan must not be judged on a purely political basis.
A public health perspective could be weighed alongside a political economy perspective. For example: Yes, a given public health intervention may come with a political cost, but what would be the epidemiological consequence if that cost were not paid? Is it worth it? How do we decide?
Humanitarian action is a deeply human, deeply political activity. More needs to be done to provide humanitarians and donors with resources and safe spaces for engaging in reflection on the complex ethical and political dilemmas they face - both at the policy level and in the field.
TOP PHOTO: SPLA soldiers in Malakal. CREDIT: Albert González Farran
* A UN spokesperson rejected the claim that journalists are prevented from visiting PoCs, although in the immediate aftermath of Juba clashes in July, visits to the Juba PoC were temporarily restricted for 10 days as a safety precaution following the fierce fighting, which impacted the PoC site and in order for the mission to focus on its primary task of protecting civilians.