Loading a United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) helicopter to deliver assistance in Pibor county, Jonglei Loading a United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) helicopter to deliver assistance in Pibor county, Jonglei Photo credit: WFP/Ahnna Gudmunds
Humanitarian access in South Sudan
by Nicki Bennett May 2013

South Sudan is host to one of the world’s largest humanitarian responses, bringing together national and international humanitarian actors in an operation worth more than $1.2 billion in 2013. While the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 brought an end to the civil war and led to the creation of an independent country, the security situation in the new nation remains volatile. Out of a population of 12 million, more than 4.6m are food insecure, many of them recent returnees. Ongoing tensions between Sudan and South Sudan, as well as communal violence within the country, displace hundreds of thousands of people each year. South Sudan also plays host to several hundred thousand refugees, mainly from neighbouring Sudan.

Few experienced humanitarian actors would describe South Sudan as one of the most dangerous places for aid workers,+Many humanitarian workers in South Sudan were surprised when the Aid Worker Security Database announced that the country ranked third among the world’s most dangerous places for aid workers in 2012, ahead of Somalia and Syria (https://aidworkersecurity.org/incidents/report/contexts/2012/2012). It should be noted that the ranking is based on the total number of incidents (not just the most violent, such as killings or abductions). or the most bureaucratically restrictive. The level of active hostilities has decreased since 2005, and humanitarian workers have become more adept at overcoming logistical obstacles and negotiating access. Yet the overall impression of humanitarian workers – supported by nearly four years’ worth of data on access incidents – is that humanitarian access in South Sudan is shrinking.+According to OCHA’s access database, humanitarian access in South Sudan deteriorated over the course of 2012. In total, there were 197 reported access incidents, which represents a 48% increase on the previous year. All statistics on access incidents in this article are from the OCHA access database. Humanitarian activities are hampered by the extremely challenging physical environment, growing violence against aid workers and assets and a rapidly mounting set of bureaucratic impediments. While the first constraint has not changed substantially over recent years, the remaining two have increased significantly. Bureaucratic impediments in particular have become more prominent as well as more complex since South Sudan’s independence, and the relationship between humanitarian actors and the authorities has undergone some fundamental changes.

Physical environment

Few places are more physically challenging for aid workers than South Sudan. Up to 60% of the country is cut off during the rainy season, meaning that road access in key locations of humanitarian response is minimal or impossible from July until December (and in some cases longer). This includes all areas currently hosting Sudanese refugees, as well as conflict-prone areas in Jonglei and Warrap states.

The context demands effective planning and prepositioning, which in turn depends on timely and predictable funding. While some improvements have been made on this front, most humanitarian actors are still struggling to get it right, and attribute their shortcomings to lengthy procurement and transport processes, difficulties in accurately predicting caseloads per location and the persistent risk of looting and diversion of prepositioned goods by armed actors and the authorities.

Humanitarian actors have established common support services that take the country’s logistical challenges into account, including more than a dozen fixed-wing aircraft, which operate all year round, and at least four helicopters during the rainy season. Over the course of 2012, the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) transported nearly 90,000 passengers, while the logistics cluster moved more than 5,000 metric tonnes of humanitarian goods for 93 different humanitarian agencies with its fleet of aircraft, trucks and boats. Such assets do not come cheap, and the humanitarian response in South Sudan is frequently criticised for its high operational costs. Yet the needs of humanitarian actors continue to outstrip supply – and many humanitarian actors candidly admit to an inappropriate reliance on the even more impressive assets of the UN peacekeeping mission UNMISS, especially for engineering equipment and helicopters.

While UNMISS’ generous sharing of resources with humanitarian actors has increased access in some areas, it has also led some humanitarian actors to develop far too cozy a relationship with the peacekeeping mission. Major UN humanitarian agencies co-locate their offices or accommodation with UN peacekeepers and inappropriately or unnecessarily share assets. This high level of cooperation between the mission and humanitarian actors has not gone unnoticed by communities and armed groups, who routinely lump humanitarian actors into the same category as UNMISS and question the real intentions of humanitarian actors+A recent example of this is the language used by the Greater Akobo Youth Assocation Board in a petition handed to UNMISS in February 2013 to protest against the mission’s perceived inaction over a cattle raiding incident reported to have killed more than 100 civilians. Among other things, the Association ‘urges [UNMISS] impartiality in all ethnic conflicts because we observe UNMISS/other Humanitarian Actors as Partial Organizations’. leading, in some cases, to the outright denial of humanitarian access.

Active hostilities and attacks against humanitarian activities

While parts of the country have stabilised, the overall security situation in South Sudan remains volatile. Particularly in Jonglei, Unity, Upper Nile and Lakes states, humanitarian actors report regular suspensions of humanitarian activities or the temporary withdrawal of staff due to fighting between armed groups. Mines and unexploded ordnance continue to give cause for concern, with a total of 684 known or suspected hazardous areas at the end of 2012.

Humanitarian actors are not just indirectly affected by hostilities: more than 60% of access incidents recorded in South Sudan in 2012 were attributed to direct violence (or threats thereof ) against humanitarian workers, assets or premises. While the number of killings or abductions of aid workers in South Sudan remains very low, physical violence – especially against national staff – is common: over the course of the year, at least 61 humanitarian workers were assaulted by state security forces. Health and education facilities have been occupied, looted and destroyed, prompting agencies involved in the education sector to strengthen their engagement and advocacy with the security forces, including through the secondment of a child protection expert to the headquarters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The SPLA in turn has established child protection units and regularly issues command orders on the vacating of schools. The number of occupied schools has dropped significantly over the past year as a result – from 18 in January 2012 to three in December 2012.

Bureaucratic impediments

The regulatory environment for humanitarian activities in South Sudan is a key concern, with aid workers reporting a significant increase in bureaucratic impediments since the country’s independence. It should not come as a surprise that a newly independent nation needs to establish governance structures and policy frameworks, and it is difficult to work in an environment where NGO registration laws, labour laws and immigration laws are still being drafted. Yet there is a sense among humanitarian workers that the authorities are deliberately undermining the operational independence of humanitarian activities. Bureaucratic impediments can be attributed to both inadequate governance structures and capacity and deliberate attempts to control or divert humanitarian assistance.

An example of the first challenge is the standing order issued by the South Sudan Customs Service in October 2012, which announced an end to tax exemptions in South Sudan. Despite the fact that senior government officials appeared unaware of the order, the document was circulated to all customs offices in the country and immediately led to massive disruption of imports of humanitarian goods. While subsequent orders issued by other ministries eventually helped to resolve these customs problems, this situation highlights the challenges that come with a weak regulatory environment.

With regard to deliberate interference, humanitarian actors report increased difficulties in obtaining work permits and visas. The visa on arrival facility was removed in mid-2012 for all but a handful of nationalities, while surveys by the South Sudan NGO Forum indicate that 40% of NGO work permit applications made in 2012 took more than three months to process (in early 2011 almost half of all applications were completed in under a month). The authorities are increasingly demanding that certain posts be nationalised, but there is no clear and transparent nationalisation policy based on an assessment of actual national capacity.

Extortion and arbitrary taxation have increased since the collapse of the South Sudanese economy following the shutdown of oil production in January 2012. In Maban County humanitarian agencies report significant constraints and delays in delivering assistance to more than 113,000 Sudanese refugees. As in many other counties, the authorities have gradually – and usually informally – introduced a wide range of arbitrary fees and taxes, for instance for vehicle rental and road use, as well as price controls for items required for humanitarian purposes, such as wooden poles. These measures have sometimes been coupled with tight restrictions on UN and NGO hiring and procurement procedures, including insistence on hiring or contracting within the county or state, and participation by the authorities in recruitment. Other questionable or unethical demands by the authorities include access to humanitarian assets for personal or professional use. Over the course of 2012 79 humanitarian vehicles were commandeered by the authorities for nonhumanitarian purposes.

Attempts to question or resist these demands have been met with violence or expulsion (or threats thereof ). At least 78 national and international humanitarian workers reported being arbitrarily arrested or detained over the course of the last year, while at least five aid workers were ‘expelled’ from areas where they were working. In addition, the number of forced entries into humanitarian compounds by the authorities increased by 150% during the past 12 months, with most cases involving searches for staff (especially staff suspected to be falsely claiming South Sudanese citizenship) or demands for human resource and finance files.


Humanitarian actors in South Sudan are grappling with a complex set of constraints on humanitarian access. While it would be naive to believe that access constraints in a complex emergency environment like South Sudan could be totally eliminated, there are a number of steps that humanitarian actors should take to mitigate current challenges and steer the humanitarian response onto a more effective and principled course.

First, humanitarian actors must redouble their efforts to build constructive relations with the authorities, above all the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, the Relief & Rehabilitation Commission, the SPLA and the police. This engagement must take place at all levels of the organisation, in the capital, states and counties. The relationship between humanitarian actors and the authorities is at a turning point, and it will be crucial over the coming months to strengthen (and in some cases rebuild) trust and understanding among individuals and institutions. If humanitarian actors fail to engage effectively now, relationships are likely to deteriorate and bureaucratic impediments are likely to increase.

Second, humanitarian actors should more closely examine their actual and perceived neutrality, and explore opportunities for strengthening operational independence. Coordination with government officials and other political and military entities (including UNMISS) should take place in line with agreed policies and principles, and humanitarian agencies must work to reduce their current over-reliance on UNMISS assets and guard more vigilantly against the politicisation or militarisation of their work. They should also strengthen their capacity to engage with non-state armed groups and explain their humanitarian mandate to communities that have questioned their neutrality.

Finally, humanitarian actors must demonstrate a greater degree of transparency in discussing the constraints they face. While some international NGOs regularly report access constraints, the majority of humanitarian actors (including several UN humanitarian agencies) seem unconvinced of the value of sharing information on access challenges. This undermines the humanitarian community’s ability to develop a shared analysis of access constraints and common advocacy positions and strategies.

Humanitarian actors may not have the power to influence most of the external factors – such as border tensions and financial crises – that threaten lives and livelihoods in South Sudan. They can, however, determine how they respond to the resulting constraints. Unless this is done in a much more proactive, principled and transparent manner, the humanitarian community may have to face the reality that access in South Sudan is likely to get worse rather than better.

Nicki Bennett works for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in South Sudan. She writes here in a personal capacity, and the views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.