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Beneficiaries of Mercy Corps' Food for Peace program in Mawza District, Yemen Beneficiaries of Mercy Corps' Food for Peace program in Mawza District, Yemen Photo credit: Cassandra Nelson 2012

Sudan and Yemen: why strengthening collaboration, fostering trust and sharing risk is key

by Simon O'Connell
23 September 2019

Sana’a, Darfur and New York: you may wonder what connects these three places?  Next week, Yemen and Sudan will be two countries – amongst others – on the agenda for the UN General Assembly (UNGA), New York’s annual arena for global dialogue. I and many others from the humanitarian community will be there to talk about what more can be done to address both immediate, almost unprecedented levels of humanitarian need, and the root causes fuelling so many of the protracted crises in today’s world.

Both Yemen and Sudan, in very different ways, are at a crossroads. In 2004, when I first began working with Mercy Corps in Darfur, more than two million people were displaced by violence there. I returned this month, 15 years on, and the needs remain extensive, with more than 1.7million still displaced.  However, with a New Transitional Government having been formed this is also a time of enormous hope and possibility in the country, opening up a host of opportunities for new partnerships and investment (well beyond aid, especially if State Sponsored Terrorism (SSTL) restrictions are lifted).

Yemen’s crossroads is quite different. The world’s most extensive humanitarian crisis continues to unfold in the country. If Yemen’s various leaders – and the international actors engaged there – do not choose a pathway to peace and a transitional government, the country will unravel further into a spiral of ongoing humanitarian need, suffering and despair.

In both countries, it’s abundantly clear that vital humanitarian work has been, and continues to be done, in the most challenging of circumstances, oftentimes by extraordinarily dedicated and courageous individuals. In Manakhah in Yemen last month, I saw our team deliver vitally needed food aid, despite the conflict and challenges they and their families face. In South Darfur, I saw positive changes when spending time with noticeably more economically empowered women’s savings and lending groups.

Yet, the Yemen humanitarian appeal for 2019 is less than 35% funded and it is already late September. In Sudan, the SSTL and Sudan’s relationship with most international actors have for years now almost entirely prevented anything beyond short term humanitarian assistance. Addressing many of the root causes of the country’s fragility is all but impossible. My time in Yemen and Sudan highlighted just how much more needs to – and can – be done, and done better, at an accelerated pace. Three interrelated areas need particular focus: coordination, the building of trust, and risk.

The constraints to delivering both humanitarian assistance and addressing root causes are substantial and there are many political barriers for humanitarian actors wedded to the principle of impartiality – as we must be. But we NGOs must do better in coordinating and creating greater shared ownership of common objectives and outcomes. We are still all too often overly prioritising our individual agency objectives around funding and influence, diluting our overall impact. We remain too fragmented, which leads to constraints in establishing optimal government and key stakeholder relationships, inconsistency in approaches, and unnecessary competition.

In Sana’a I saw a host of humanitarian actors across the UN and NGO community, all struggling with similar issues: securing access, conducting impartial assessments of needs, and recruiting and retaining the right staff.

Aid professionals have been talking for decades about how to improve ‘the system’. Some of us have argued that this could include consolidating international NGOs to reduce our competitive jostling and improve delivery. In Yemen there are many functions common to humanitarian organisations that we could better coordinate and share – such as establishing a common recruitment roster, pooling recruiting resources, and sharing technical expertise. More integration in countries such as Yemen and Sudan would likely lead to more cohesive positions around assessments, identification of those in need, and monitoring and evaluation frameworks. This could deliver strengthened ability to secure impartial humanitarian access because of unified positioning.

Given the scale of humanitarian needs globally, it is essential that improved coordination extends to donors. In both Yemen and Sudan, the role of Gulf donors is crucial. Their growing aid contributions must leverage the support from other donors – maximising overall impact and effectiveness. Donors have both a moral responsibility to ensure their aid reaches those in need, as well as a tremendous opportunity to tackle the root causes of that need through better coordinated interventions.

Donor funding silos – and at times competing agendas – present significant impediments to maximising impact. But if Gulf and Western donor countries can work together on both political and aid solutions, huge progress could be made. In particular, Sudan’s new government offers an opportunity to build a more effective aid architecture in the country, especially if transparent partnerships can be built across the various ministries, donors, UN and NGO community.

Central to this is trust.  Both Yemen and Sudan are characterised by extreme mistrust between international actors and the various power structures in each country. A myriad of factions have been embroiled for years in conflicts fuelled by weak governance, grievances and inequitable growth, compounded by broader geopolitical agendas.

Without the building of trust, we will never achieve the unfettered humanitarian access and cooperation that is so badly needed. We need to focus far more on collective efforts to establish and build trust by, for example, generating more irrefutable evidence of impact, communicating this impact more transparently and better, through people other than ourselves, being more open about the challenges we face, and being more willing to build relationships and create space for dialogue with those beyond our normal networks.

And if coordination is strengthened and trust built, risks are reduced.

Delivering assistance in countries like Yemen and Sudan is fraught with risk. The operating environment is incredibly complex, fluid and – at times – dangerous. At present, within a climate of declined trust, the risks around this are overwhelmingly borne by NGOs rather than their donor partners. As with sub-optimal coordination, this is an unhelpful barrier when, in contexts like these, innovation, nimbleness and flexibility, along with efforts to reach those most in need, are essential. Yet numerous barriers to aid work – often politically imposed – make it impossible to provide 100% guarantees that all humanitarian actions will be delivered as per standardised, agreed upon in advance, plans. Donors need to absorb more of the risks around this.

And mechanisms are needed to underwrite the risks for private sector investors, too. As Sudan’s new government structures emerge, it would be a travesty if robust efforts are not made to create a more conducive environment for the private sector; both local and international. And it’s essential that these investors are incentivised to push into more marginalised, higher risk parts of the country. Here, NGOs have a crucial role to play in underwriting these risks by brokering trust, relationships and sharing contextual knowledge. A large part of Sudan’s progress to peace and prosperity will be reliant not on the humanitarian community, but on the private sector.

My hope is that at this year’s UNGA in New York, there will be more space than usual for frank and honest discourse around what more we can do to improve coordination, build trust and reduce risks. Millions of lives and livelihoods in Sudan, Yemen and so many other places in our highly fractured and fragile world depend on it.

Simon O’Connell is executive director of Mercy Corps

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