In 2015, South Sudan overtook Afghanistan as the country with the highest number of violent attacks against aid workers. Amid a brutal three-year conflict, aid workers have been both caught in the crossfire and directly targeted by state, criminal and militant groups. Notwithstanding the devastating impact the conflict has had on civilians in South Sudan, violence against aid workers has the dual effect of harming victims and their families, as well as the wider response effort.
This article reviews trends in violence against aid workers since South Sudan’s independence in 2011 and examines its impact on the humanitarian community’s ability to deliver assistance. The data is drawn from the Aid Worker Security Database, which tracks major incidents of violence against aid workers (national and international staff), defined as killings, kidnappings and armed attacks which result in serious injury.+See https://aidworkersecurity.org
Violence against aid workers in South Sudan
Even before armed conflict broke out at the end of 2013, limited state control and worsening lawlessness had contributed to ambient violence as well as the targeting of aid workers and their assets. Each year since 2012 has seen a steady rise in the number of violent incidents against aid workers. A total of 140 major incidents affecting 192 aid workers have taken place since independence. Levels of violence have been highest in Central Equatoria and the capital, Juba.
A total of 74 aid workers have been killed since independence, and 108 seriously injured. Over three-quarters of victims (78%) were national staff, nearly half of whom were killed. Although international NGOs have suffered the highest number of casualties, in contrast to other highly insecure contexts UN agency staff have also suffered a significant number, reflecting the frontline responder work that the UN is engaged in.
Shootings and assault remain the most prevalent types of major violence. Three incidents of violent sexual assault were reported to the AWSD over the period (involving nine female victims). It is likely that there were more incidents than this, but sexual violence is systemically under-reported. There were also 30 incident reports in which the means of attack was not reported or could not be determined.
Since the AWSD first began tracking violent incidents (the database dates back to 1997), the clearest and most consistent message from the global data is that most violence occurs in the context of an ambush or roadside attack, and that aid workers are most vulnerable to attack when they are travelling on the road. South Sudan is no different in this respect. A large number of attacks take place on convoys of humanitarian supplies, often in Central Equatoria, and in addition, there is a high number of compound robberies.
The effects of insecurity on presence and coverage
Anecdotal evidence suggests that violence against aid workers affects the quality and quantity of assistance. For example, because of a specific targeted attack or due to an increase in generalised insecurity in an area, an aid organisation will halt programming or change the mode of delivery, or may withdraw from the area completely. But until recently there was a lack of empirical evidence to determine whether this effect was measurable. South Sudan was part of a four-country study, the Secure Access in Volatile Environments (SAVE) research programme, which endeavoured to answer that question.+See http://www.saveresearch.net; Abby Stoddard and Shoaib Jillani, The Effects of Insecurity on Humanitarian Coverage, Humanitarian Outcomes, forthcoming 2016; and Katherine Haver and William Carter, What It Takes: Principled Pragmatism to Enable Access and Quality Humanitarian Aid, Humanitarian Outcomes, 2016. This is what we found.
Decline in presence and coverage in critical areas
During the initial months of the conflict, aid programming was severely disrupted. Only a handful of organisations continued to run programmes in the primary conflict-affected areas of Greater Upper Nile, with the majority of the humanitarian community confined to Protection of Civilian (POC) camps and peripheral areas. Although the approximately 75,000 inhabitants of POC sites accounted for less than 10% of the displaced and at-risk population, these sites offered aid agencies easier and consistent secure access.
Overall humanitarian field presence in the Greater Upper Nile region declined considerably over 2014 and 2015, with a 12% decrease in operational organisations working there and a 36% decrease in humanitarian projects. The fall was due in part to the withdrawal of development-oriented agencies that have lower thresholds for risk, as well as a shift from in situ programming in field locations to mobile delivery. Staffing numbers and funding increased, but personnel were concentrated mostly in the capital, and a significant percen-tage of budgets was used to cover the very high costs of airlifts. Only a few organisations with independent funding, robust internal security mechanisms and the ability to deploy mobile response units sustained humanitarian programming in hard-to-reach areas outside the POCs, alongside a small number of national NGOs and church organisations.
The challenges of shifting to remote management
In other high-risk countries such as Somalia, remote management and localisation of programming using national staff and partner organisations is often both a feasible and a widely used alternative in response to insecurity. However, the ethnic nature of the conflict in South Sudan means that South Sudanese staff are at considerably greater risk of being directly targeted than internationals, seemingly precluding the application of a remote management style of operation.
International staff from neighbouring countries in the region have also been limited in where they can work due to their countries’ role in the conflict. Ugandans, for example, were often not sent to field locations, and specifically not opposition-held territory due to the Ugandan government’s military support for the government. In contrast, the perceived insecurity of Western, or at least non-regional, international staff was for a long period dramatically lower, and these staff had safer access to field locations and more freedom of movement. Of course, they were also far fewer in number than nationals, which is another factor driving the rapid response/mobile delivery approach as the primary modality of programming.
Affected people’s perspectives
A majority of the South Sudanese people sampled in a survey conducted during the course of the SAVE research ranked insecurity as the most significant barrier to receiving aid, but they did not perceive aid organisations to be in specific danger of violence, implying that it was generalised insecurity that was the hindrance. Moreover, survey respondents attached risks to the receipt of aid, rather than its provision, as affected people needed to cross lines or expose themselves to opposition groups to access assistance.
In the southern Unity town of Leer, which has been regularly contested during the conflict, the lead researcher for the SAVE study found that many women walked miles to and from humanitarian food distributions.+See http://www.saveresearch.net/the-struggle-for-access-in-south-sudan. Although they acknowledged the physical burden of carrying heavy food long distances, they maintained that they felt safe making the journey as long as they were within their community and away from outside forces. This was echoed by women who had fled Malakal – where they had been receiving aid at the UN base – because of daily conflict amongst different displaced communities inside the base. But they also consistently asked that food and services be brought closer to them (to the payam level). Aid organisations reported that they had considered closer distribution sites, but deemed the areas too insecure. This tension between secure access for recipients and aid actors poses a significant challenge in South Sudan – constant skirmishes, raids and bureaucratic blockages, as well as targeted attacks, have created an environment that is often too unsafe for people to move and too unstable for aid workers to establish a consistent presence.
Recognising insecurity as the new norm
One of the challenges in South Sudan has been analysing and applying risk management models not just for a spike in violence, but for the long term. South Sudan’s extreme poverty and lack of infrastructure mean that humanitarian needs have never been met adequately, and there has been a tendency throughout the conflict for aid actors to point to infrastructure and logistics as the main impediment to the provision of assistance. There’s no denying this remains a major challenge, and during lulls in the conflict, when aid agencies felt relatively safe at their programme sites, it is the extreme logistical challenges of unforgiving terrain and remote locations that keep aid from reaching further. As our lead researcher found, ‘during these times the focus is on airstrips, road conditions, flooding, the price of airplanes and helicopters, and the prioritisation of locations and supplies’. However, as the AWSD data reveals, violence against aid workers was a growing challenge before the conflict, and is now a constant ‘new normal’ in South Sudan. This requires more strategic policy attention, both to keep aid workers safe and to ensure that the effects of insecurity do not unnecessarily halt programming for those most affected by the conflict. There is a need for agencies to review longer-term patterns of violence against aid operations and staff, rather than either ignoring the latest incident or phase of violence, or reacting with kneejerk responses. Preventing female international aid staff from working in South Sudan in response to brutal assaults at the Terrain compound in July 2016 is both unsustainable and will have implications for programmes, including those that require interaction on protection issues with South Sudanese women.
The starting-point for addressing the now well-established and deeply worrying trend of targeted attacks in South Sudan is to openly acknowledge, consistently report and collectively analyse what is happening. Decisions not to report or speak out about the violence increase the collective risk. There is a critical need to initiate a dialogue on trends in insecurity for aid operations, as well as to collectively invest in preventive and mitigation measures and engage senior leadership of the UN and donor governments, particularly in calling attention to flagrant abuses and aggression perpetrated by the state.
At the programming level, the SAVE research found that aid agencies and donors would benefit from a more rigorous frame-work for assessing the shared risks they are willing to take. These risks are broader than staff security alone, and may also include challenges in ensuring impartial aid or the risk of putting affected people in harm’s way. Managing these risks often involves making decisions with ethical consequences, and weighing up these decisions requires understanding the criticality of the intervention (for example, whether it is lifesaving or not) in relation to the risk, rather than the nature of the risk itself.+See also Katherine Haver, Tug of War: Ethical Decision-making to Enable Humanitarian Access in High-risk Environments, Network Paper 80, HPN and SAVE, which provides an alternative risk management framework to balance risks with criticality. Affected people in South Sudan deserve a more consistent response. To ensure this, a more detailed and structured approach to dealing with the effects of insecurity is required.
Adele Harmer is a Partner at Humanitarian Outcomes. Monica Czwarno is Senior Research Associate/AWSD Database Manager at Humanitarian Outcomes.