In Sudan, a scramble for scarce resources is fueling disunity within the aid community, further complicating humanitarian work in an environment that already ranks as one of the most hostile in the world.
Many of Sudan’s more headline-grabbing challenges are well-known: droughts and food shortages, crimes against humanity in Darfur, the secession of the south and, most recently, violence in the South Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces.
But the problems run much deeper, several NGO workers tell Devex. These sources spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the high sensitivity of the subject matter.
The situation for international relief and development organizations in Sudan is worsening, those aid workers agreed. The main reason, as so often, is funding: Aid groups that have long worked in partnership are now vigorously competing for money, which has been increasingly tight as donors shift their attention toward the young country of South Sudan and elsewhere. (The United Nations’ 2013 appeal for Sudan is $984 million, and for the much-smaller South Sudan, it is $1.16 billion.)
Meanwhile, the government in Khartoum has been clamping down on foreign groups and is weighing new policies that would make it even harder for them to operate in Sudan.
As a result, many NGOs are considering leaving the country; some have already done so, according to our sources.
Sudan, said one aid official, aims to fashion its NGO laws after those of Ethiopia, which requires international groups to partner with local ones, and restricts them from participating in the “advancement of human and democratic rights.” Those who do so are restricted from receiving foreign aid that is more than 10 percent of their overall income.
The official reason for such rules tends to be that they help build local capacity and ensure that a country is put in the driver’s seat of its own development. But there may be more to the story here.
“The government wants money,” the aid official said about Sudan. “They want clear deliverables. They don’t want anything that is around building understanding and capacity of people. They want food, construction. But things that are around building people’s understanding of rights, building people’s capacity as organizations to address social issues in the country, they don’t like it.”
In December, four Sudanese civil society organizations were shut down by the government. The reason behind the closures was not immediately clear, but many believe it was due to their promotion of democracy and human rights.
The government thwarted a coup attempt in May and is feeling insecure, sources tell Devex. Local NGOs that have a history of working with international groups are often unpopular with Khartoum, and those that aren’t tend to have close ties – and often, family bonds – with high-ranking government officials.
These NGO laws, then, could be a way for the government to control who gets money from abroad, a situation that is ripe for corruption and a waste of funds, aid workers fear.
The prospect of an increased clampdown is weighing heavily on international institutions in Sudan. Yet these groups aren’t just in a clinch with Khartoum, but apparently also with one another.
Many of these challenges revolve around the increasingly harsh competition between international NGOs and U.N. agencies for funding. Sudan has long ranked as the world’s top aid recipient, but funding has decreased markedly over the past few years – including for U.N. operations.
Some of the NGO workers Devex spoke with were unusually candid in their criticism of the United Nations for teaming up directly with local groups instead of longstanding international partners.
“Unfortunately, [U.N. agencies] have seen the iNGOs as competitors for funding rather than critical partners and collaborators,” one NGO official told Devex. “In the past, the U.N. would be funding iNGOs and they would know we would be taking the kind of operational responsibility of supporting local NGOs and national NGOs to implement projects and at the same time build capacity. Now, because of their own understanding that this can mobilize more resources for them, they’re gonna say, we can do it directly, we don’t need the iNGOs.”
To be sure, U.N. officials meet regularly with colleagues from the international NGO community. But seeing eye to eye has become tough, the NGO official said.
“What we generally have is we come together from time to time to discuss views,” he said, “but very seldom is consensus reached.”
The official appeared particularly piqued by what he described as a lack of U.N. support in late 2011 and early 2012 when the Sudanese government temporarily banned certain NGOs from the southern provinces of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
What appears to be a lack of unity among foreign institutions in Sudan may be exploited by Khartoum for its political gain, iNGO sources fear.
“You don’t have consistency in donor policy, you don’t have consistency in NGOs, and you have U.N. agencies competing with each other for resources and priority in terms of funding. So the international community is not unified … and the government has played on this disunity,” the NGO official said. “That kind of understanding that we need to collaborate but at the same time see each other as competitors, it creates obstacles for really effective collaboration.”
These obstacles add to the already strenuous conditions aid workers face in Sudan, and raise serious questions about the future of development cooperation in what continues to be one of the world’s most explosive hot spots.