NGO Secretariat Policy Focal Point in a panel discussion with university students in Juba NGO Secretariat Policy Focal Point in a panel discussion with university students in Juba Photo credit: Nick Helton / South Sudan NGO Forum
Maintaining NGO space in South Sudan: the importance of independent NGO coordination in complex operating environments
by Nick Helton and Ivor Morgan May 2013

The South Sudan NGO Forum is widely recognised as playing a key role in humanitarian coordination in South Sudan. This article identifies key precedents, principles and modalities which may be useful in strengthening NGO coordination in other situations, while recognising that the unique context in South Sudan has shaped the evolution of the Forum.

The South Sudan NGO Forum and Secretariat

Although the history of the NGO Forum can be traced back to the early 1990s, when it was established to improve NGO representation within Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), the mechanism in place today has changed considerably with the addition of a formal membership application process, membership fees and a full-time Secretariat, including specialised positions in policy, access, information management and national NGOs, funded with money from government donors and through membership fees. Operating under a clear set of statutes and a Scope of Services document setting out the services the Secretariat provides to its members, the Secretariat facilitates information sharing and representation for the majority of international NGOs in South Sudan and an estimated one-third of national NGOs. The Forum is guided by a 12-member Steering Committee of elected NGOs, including two representatives from the national NGO community, which also has its own Steering Committee.

The need for independent NGO coordination

The context in South Sudan has changed dramatically in the last five years. While there has long been a need to ensure the coherent representation of NGO interests in South Sudan, the nature of that representation has evolved significantly since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. The number of international NGOs in the country has increased considerably, and there is a growing community of national NGOs and civil society organisations involved in the provision of assistance and active in areas such as advocacy and governance accountability.

Greater attention to development issues has resulted in a proliferation of UN, donor and government-led coordination frameworks and funding mechanisms, including Budget Sector Working Groups, the South Sudan Recovery Fund and the former Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF), with which NGOs have had to learn to engage. The government of South Sudan at both central and state level has taken greater interest in regulating the work of NGOs in the country, especially since independence in July 2011. However, inconsistencies between state and federal regulatory frameworks and responsibilities, and differences in the way they are interpreted and implemented, have at times disrupted NGO programmes and contributed to an increasingly restrictive operating environment for NGOs. Ensuring the safety and security of NGO personnel and their access to populations in need has also become more challenging. Addressing these problems has required robust and unified advocacy from NGOs, both directly with the government and with donors, diplomats and the UN. The South Sudan NGO Forum provides NGOs with a credible, strong, consistent and objective voice when engaging with governments, donors and UN agencies. The Secretariat is able to rapidly develop positions and briefs on critical time-sensitive issues related to humanitarian space and humanitarian funding.

Principles, precedents and practices

From its beginnings in the mid-1990s, the Forum has played a key role in representing NGOs in coordination meetings with the UN, donors and Southern Sudanese counterparts. This significantly contributed to enshrining formal NGO involvement in national humanitarian coordination frameworks, including the new Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) and the cluster system. Although the majority of the Secretariat’s funding comes from one institutional donor, it has maintained its independence and neutrality, and the long-term and flexible nature of current funding arrangements helps to ensure greater continuity of Secretariat staff and sustained engagement on important issues. NGO membership fees provide additional financial resources, and the flexibility to respond to new or emerging issues. National NGOs pay a flat annual fee and international NGOs are on a sliding scale, amounting to approximately 0.01% of their budget. The Secretariat can waive fees for organisations not able to pay, and no NGO has ever been turned away because it could not afford the fees.

Membership of the Forum has increased from approximately 65 international NGOs in 2007 to 136 at the start of 2013, and 92 national NGOs, both as a result of an increased influx of international NGOs and the emergence of national organisations after independence. The broad range of actors in the Forum – international and national NGOs involved in both humanitarian and development work – adds significant credibility to Forum messaging.

The Forum’s services to its members and its activities are guided by five ‘main aims’: communication/information sharing, engagement, policy development, national NGO capacity development and security information management. The Secretariat represents Forum members on a wide range of issues, including funding, humanitarian space, development policy, safety and security and the regulatory environment. Secretariat staff maintain a comprehensive overview of the situation in South Sudan, and provide relevant analysis and advice to NGOs on a wide range of topics. Forum members participate in thematic working groups which inform the Secretariat and provide a consultation mechanism for policy development. Critical to the success of the Secretariat is ensuring systematised and safe information sharing to NGOs and relevant and regular information sharing to external stakeholders. For example, the Forum website (www.SouthSudanNGOForum.org) contains publicly accessible information about South Sudan, as well as a wealth of material that is only available to Forum members.

helton-box-1The Secretariat also ensures NGO representation at key meetings and forums in South Sudan, including the HCT, the Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) Advisory Board and the South Sudan Recovery Fund (SSRF) Steering Committee, as well as at external events such as the ICVA annual conference and the NGO Coordination Dialogue, an external annual meeting of NGO coordination platforms facilitated by InterAction. It also provides technical input in working groups, including the Civil–Military Advisory Group (CMAG), the Humanitarian Access Working Group and the Security Cell, which reports to the Security Management Team (SMT), on which the Secretariat is also represented. Wherever possible, the NGO Forum seeks to have at least two representatives at all meetings, one from the Secretariat and one elected from NGOs.

Although NGO membership on some committees is well established, in other cases it can be a struggle to ensure that NGO representatives are included as integral members of committees, or are invited to relevant meetings. It is also important to ensure that NGO representatives are well-informed, understand NGO perspectives on the topics under discussion and are able to contribute constructively to the meeting. This can be a challenge if meetings are called at short notice or without clear agendas, making it difficult to consult the NGO community in advance. Sustaining the means to hire and retain experienced staff, able to effectively dialogue with national-level government officials and participate in national-level coordination meetings, is critical. As the Secretariat staff are full-time representatives and often external interlocutors’ first point of contact with the NGO community, the calibre of staff has a huge impact on the quality of engagement and the credibility and reputation of the Forum. The staffing structure of the Secretariat reflects its five main aims and focal points are assigned to and asked to monitor and engage in areas where they have specific expertise (such as security or policy development). In most cases, Secretariat staff have significant field experience with NGOs in South Sudan or similar contexts, which ensures contextual understanding and provides credibility both when dealing with NGO members, and when representing the interests of NGOs to other actors.

Conclusion

While there are a unique set of reasons why the Forum and Secretariat have grown influential and credible, the driving principles behind the Forum and precedents set through progressive coordination models (for example, the recent agreement with UNHCR regarding an NGO co-coordinator position for the refugee response) are allowing for broader dialogue on NGO coordination, and resourcing for younger coordination platforms in other countries. The Secretariat increasingly participates in global discussions on NGO coordination (e.g. the NGOs and Humanitarian Reform Project) and engages with the Humanitarian Reform/ Transformative Agenda by providing advice and pushing principles to maintain consistent NGO representation on national and sub-national coordination fora.

The South Sudan NGO Secretariat may serve as a useful model for NGO coordination and representation in other contexts. The Forum and Secretariat have grown out of a long history and firm establishment, gaining the approval of the government and a strong reputation amongst the UN and donor communities. This has allowed for a progressive and innovative approach giving the NGO community a strong foothold in humanitarian and development coordination decision-making.

Value comes from the way the structure has developed, which has been responsive, proactive and relevant to issues that NGOs collectively find important, through working within and influencing existing mechanisms. Staffing the Secretariat with credible individuals respected by members and external actors ensures inclusiveness and active participation from members and credibility in the eyes of external actors. The premise is to encourage cooperation and information-sharing from a consolidated position, and build on acceptance and credibility in forums and groups.

Nick Helton and Ivor Morgan work with the South Sudan NGO Forum Secretariat. The views expressed in this article should not necessarily be ascribed to any individual member of the Forum.

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