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A bolder stance needed on aid access in Sudan?*

LONDON, 21 October 2013 (IRIN) - Gaining humanitarian access to places like South Kordofan and Blue Nile states or Darfur in Sudan has long been a tricky business, but things may well be getting even tougher for many of today’s larger and more risk-averse international NGOs, say aid experts.

As the UN issues urgent appeals for access to mount a large-scale polio immunization campaign in southern parts of Sudan, two new publications from the UK’s Overseas Development Institute set out the story of how people in parts of Sudan have ended up cut off from virtually all humanitarian help.

It has not always been like that. During Darfur’s long-running conflict, there have been times when it was possible to work on both sides of the lines. The paper on Darfur describes what author Jonathan Loeb calls “a golden age”, between 2004 and 2006, when the government of Sudan was for a time prepared to allow access, and when there were channels to negotiate safe passage with Darfuri rebel groups.

Loeb sets out in detail how this was done. Peace talks outside the country allowed donors and UN agencies to meet the rebel leadership, which then appointed a humanitarian coordinator to act as a contact point with international agencies. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) took the lead in negotiating access, working closely with the UN’s own security department, whose officers built up a strong network of contacts among rebel commanders.

The paper details the way agencies picked their way through a minefield of moral dilemmas. Should a UN agency like OCHA sign an access agreement with armed non-state actors? (They did.) Should they allow those groups to issue access permits - effectively visas - for their territory? (This was a step too far, and the rebels backed down.) And, trickiest of all, should the rebels, fearing some staff were spying for the government, be allowed to pick and choose, on an individual or tribal basis, which staff worked in their areas.

This is a vexed question in Sudan to the present day, and although it might be against normal humanitarian practice, NGOs were not totally unsympathetic. “This sympathy and understanding,” says Loeb in his paper, “largely stemmed from international NGOs’ observation of the HAC (Sudan’s official Humanitarian Aid Commission) and its attempts to control which Sudanese nationals were hired by UN agencies and NGOs; many aid agency staff had been personally pressured by HAC officials to hire particular staff who had close ties to the government.” Agencies negotiated their way round the demands as best they could.

But all these careful arrangements deteriorated after 2006 as the rebel groups fragmented, and collapsed altogether after 2009, when President Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court, and retaliated by expelling NGOs, targeting those organizations which had worked across the lines in rebel areas. Those which remained became unwilling to risk their work with the much larger populations in government zones. The UN retreated. By the end of last year only two NGOs, the Danish Refugee Council and Médecins Sans Frontières Spain were even trying to provide help in the rebel stronghold of the Jebel Marra (Darfur) - and that only on a very limited scale.

Too risk-averse?

The problems further south in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan provinces spring from more recent conflicts, which flared after the Southern vote for independence. By then, agencies had already become what Irina Mosel and Ashley Jackson in their paper on these areas call “very risk averse and anxious about their relationship with the government”. In addition, opposition movements are now suspicious and hostile towards the UN because of the failure of their peacekeeping forces to prioritize the protection of civilians. In these conflicts there has never been a “golden age” for access.

Nicola Bennett, OCHA’s humanitarian policy adviser in South Sudan, says she is hearing calls for a stronger push to get OCHA and other UN actors involved. “In part”, she says, “it’s perhaps to pave the way, or shield NGOs from some of these difficult positions they feel they are in, if they are sticking out their neck above the rest. It does mean working more closely with the security part of the UN… whether that’s through having humanitarian actors as part of risk assessments [and even that’s a challenge] or having, where possible, security officers who are dedicated to this, and really have a focus on supporting humanitarian actors. The majority tend to work for the peacekeeping mission and so their view of what security management looks like and who their major client is, is going to be completely different.”

“Swashbuckling” aid workers

Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan could be reached across the border from South Sudan or - in the case of Blue Nile - from Ethiopia, with or without Sudanese government consent. Twenty years ago, during the Sudanese civil war, a small number of aid agencies and churches were able to reach these states. Peter Moszynski, a journalist and activist who was there during that period, says attitudes have since changed.

“It got a lot worse,” he told IRIN, “in the context of Darfur, because of the expulsions. Some organizations used to do things which they might not admit to and certainly wouldn’t do now. It was quite a swashbuckling generation of aid workers. Now they have the mindset, ‘We won’t do anything to compromise our other operations.’ You have now got this whole `professionalism’ thing; people are doing it as a career path. The aid agency world has changed.”

Such help as these areas do get is from tiny, more or less freelance operations, and is certainly not enough to mount a full vaccination campaign. But, says Moszynski, “You really have to argue the merits of getting small amounts of aid in, versus getting things sorted out properly.”

Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile are also victims of the geographical position and their relatively small populations. For aid agencies they are a lower priority than Darfur; for diplomats a lower priority than ensuring war does not break out along the Sudan/South Sudan border.

Irina Mosel says this cannot go on for ever. “We have to continue engaging, but one of the key issues is, until when? Many actors felt that there has to be some timeline set, and if we continue to say there’s an agreement and then it isn’t implemented, when do we have to look at other alternatives? And that of course is very much determined by the level of need… There is more and more information that the humanitarian situation is severe, and that should be an indication to us that there has to be a certain end to this timeline.”

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*This report was amended on 22 October. Very little humanitarian aid reached the SPLM-controlled parts of southern Blue Nile and southern Kordofan during the civil war.

Theme (s): Conflict, Governance, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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