Developing ‘connectors’ during humanitarian intervention: is it possible in western Sudan?
by Rob Kevlihan, American University, Washington DC July 2005

Once again in Sudan, an upsurge in violence has caused a humanitarian crisis. This has led to a massive increase in the numbers of international NGOs and international staff in western Sudan, many with little previous experience of the region. In such circumstances, providing some insights into local cultural practices and how they might assist in meeting immediate and longer-term needs seems to be a sensible idea. This article provides one such insight by highlighting communal labour practices common to many parts of northern and western Sudan, and considering how NGOs might take account of such practices in seeking to deliver assistance. It argues that these practices – known as naffir – might provide NGOs with a useful tool for community mobilisation, and may provide opportunities for them to support ‘connectors’ within and between different communities, improving the delivery of assistance to needy populations.

What is naffir?

Naffir is a Sudanese Arabic word used to refer to particular types of communal work practices common in western and northern Sudan. Naffir has been described as including a group recruited through family networks, in-laws and village neighbours for some particular purpose, which then disbands when that purpose is fulfilled. Another definition describes naffir as ‘to bring someone together from the neighbourhood or community to carry out a certain project, such as building a house or providing help during the harvest season’.

This illustrates two related ways in which naffir can be characterised. The first refers to group tasks that largely benefit one person, such as weeding or harvesting fields. Such activities are typically based on accessing a naffir for your own benefit, and as a result taking on a return obligation to participate in naffir of those that come to assist you. The second type of naffir relates to activities for the benefit of the community as a whole. These can often entail wider community and inter-ethnic involvement. In either case, it is usual for some refreshment (food and something to drink) to be provided for work groups, normally when the work is done. The amount and type of food vary from place to place and depending on the time of year (as different foods are available at different times), though norms for what is expected are generally well established.

I first came across the concept of naffir while working in Khartoum in 1998 for GOAL. During the implementation of a sanitation project, some families proved unable to complete the required pit digging because they did not have sufficient labour available within the household, or sufficient funds to pay other labourers to do it. The project had made provision for a limited number of vulnerable households, but additional families required assistance. In this instance, GOAL’s project manager, working with affected families, was able to muster labour from others living locally or from other families registered on the project, through naffir. Community work groups completed the digging and were provided with some tea and a small meal by the household when the work was done. How these work groups were mobilised tended to vary from case to case, with some seeming to work under the normal process of family ties. In other instances (where the family had no immediate relatives near them), GOAL’s project managers enlisted neighbours directly, asking for additional labour in return for the benefits accruing to these family groups from receipt of latrines from the project (in addition to some refreshment from the host household). In one instance, members of the northern Shai’giyya tribe assisted a woman from western Sudan to complete her pit – a small example of inter-ethnic cooperation at the local level.

A second example, closer to the second type of naffir, comes from a small GOAL project implemented in Kutum in North Darfur in 2001–02. Six different tribes assisted in an integrated development project, with the concept of naffir facilitating the process of joint work among different ethnic groups, in this case to construct a health clinic building. Another more recent example from Darfur was of four tribes being organised by their sheikhs in a village in northern Darfur during the summer of 2004 to each build a wall for a building that would benefit them all.

Why should NGOs consider using naffir?

The use of naffir structures by NGOs operational in Darfur would support local capacities and institutions, thereby avoiding the more harmful effects associated with dependency that come with other methods of distributing relief assistance. Naffir may also provide NGOs with a culturally appropriate device for mobilising populations after they have been displaced. While naffir groups are typically based on local connections, the concept itself is familiar throughout western Sudan. As such, it provides a culturally appropriate means for people that have not previously worked together to begin to recreate the kinds of social ties that help people to endure difficult conditions, even in the context of displacement or refugee camps. Indeed, academic literature on this subject highlights naffir as a means for some households to maintain social status and networks of cooperation and support, even when they are under severe economic pressure. Naffir may also provide a means for inter-ethnic cooperation – between different ethnic groups living in displaced camps, between IDPs and local host populations and, perhaps most effectively (if and when circumstances allow), in reconstruction efforts in areas of return.

Naffir as a ‘connector’

In terms of actual NGO activities that might be suited to naffir, it may be that naffir works best as a connector, particularly between different ethnic groups, when it involves an institution that will clearly benefit all groups – such as the construction of a school or health clinic building. It is worth noting that possibly the most important aspect of naffir is not simply the construction of physical infrastructure. Rather, the use of naffir by NGOs may assist in rebuilding inter-communal trust and encourage the resumption of life as it used to be, particularly if circumstances change to allow people to return and resettle in their home areas.

As with many communal labour practices throughout Africa, it would be easy to idealise naffir as a form of generic collective action readily available for use by humanitarian NGOs in the implementation of project activities; the reality is, as always, somewhat more complex. Traditional communal labour should not be seen as an ideal tool for mobilising cheap or even free labour for any form of rural development project. Research indicates that returns from most communal labour activities are typically insufficient to justify communal work solely on economic grounds. With the increased penetration of the market economy, communal labour can also become a means for the wealthier to secure labour, benefiting them disproportionately. NGOs should be cautious in how they try to muster people around naffir and the nature of the tasks to be carried out; exploitative arrangements similar to those used by large farmers will probably not serve the interests of affected communities. In addition, enlistment by village sheikhs does not automatically mean community participation and support if it is not of a voluntary nature.

In other words, NGOs should be careful, and to some extent pragmatic, in how they treat the naffir concept. It is not a generic tool to be used in the same way in all circumstances. Thinking through, by discussion with local communities, ways in which naffir should be structured at the local level, particularly if the NGO is directly involved, is crucial. Issues that might arise include whether NGOs should be the ones to provide food and drink as part of the naffir process; or whether and how food for work fits in. Payment of labour through food for work or cash is not the same as naffir; if not carefully managed, such activities might see the de facto monetisation of communal work relations. This has become increasingly common in many parts of Sudan with the increasing penetration of large mechanised farms and the market economy into rural areas – even where traditional smallholder agriculture is still practiced. This is not to deny the usefulness of such activities – in the current situation in Darfur, many families and communities will no doubt welcome the opportunity of paid labour or food for work – it is merely to highlight that these two things are different. NGOs should be aware of the possible negative effects of large-scale cash-paid or food for work programmes, including distortions to local labour markets and distribution networks. These effects might be avoided through the use of naffir. While such interventions may be most appropriate in the initial stages of the humanitarian response, where things need to be done quickly, as the situation stabilises more community-based practices such as naffir may be more effective.

Gender also needs to be factored in. Naffir is practiced by both men and women, frequently with particular tasks allocated by gender. Where the segregation of tasks by gender is not applied, the work of women or non-adults is discounted, reflecting the supposed lower labour contribution they make. While this article emphasises the relevance of traditional practices, it is also important to be aware of their possibly negative gender effects.


Naffir will not provide a panacea for the problems of conflict in Darfur. It assumes some possibility of stable relationships between different groups that would allow for the establishment of meaningful cooperation. The current levels of violence and displacement, and the continued disruption of people’s lives, all mean that it is incredibly difficult to provide people with the kind of stability required for naffir to really work. However, NGO personnel involved in programme design and working on the ground should be aware of this form of communal work practice, and should be sensitive to possible local variations of naffir, depending on context. Such awareness may allow humanitarian organisations to recognise additional opportunities for cross-community ‘connector’ activities that can be integrated into existing and planned operations. This should improve the quality and impact of NGO operations and assist in building or supporting existing connections in what has become an increasingly fractured environment. In addition, naffir may provide a tool for reducing the risk of long-term community dependency on external aid, allowing communities to restore or protect social ties that have assisted them in surviving previous crises, even in situations where such communities have lost almost everything through war and displacement.

Rob Kevlihanis a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service, American University, Washington DC. His email address is

References and further reading

Leif O. Manger (ed.), Communal Labour in the Sudan (Bergen: University of Bergen, 1987).
World Wide Volunteer, ‘Conceptual Analysis of “Volunteer” Around the World’, available at [accessed online on 28 November 2004].
Howard White and Jennifer Leavy, Labour Markets in Rural Africa: What Do Models Need To Explain? (Brighton: Institute of Development Studies), [accessed online on 28 November 2004].