A member of the local Red Cross helping distribute much-needed food to vulnerable people, South Sudan A member of the local Red Cross helping distribute much-needed food to vulnerable people, South Sudan Photo credit: EU/ECHO/Malini Morzaria.
National actors in South Sudan
by Lydia Tanner, Leben Moro, Hafeez Wani and Zvidzai Maburutse January 2017

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) marked a watershed moment as 15 major donors committed to channel 25% of humanitarian funding to national and local organisations. This ‘Grand Bargain’ acknowledged that the humanitarian deficit, combined with an increase in the number and severity of crises, requires a new approach to humanitarian response. Yet in protracted conflicts national organisations are often excluded from the humanitarian system. In South Sudan, for example, there is a poor understanding of the capacity of national NGOs. In 2015, we interviewed 17 international and 24 national NGOs in five locations across South Sudan for a research report entitled Missed Out: The Role of Local Actors in the Humanitarian Response in the South Sudan Conflict.+Missed Out: The Role of Local Actors in the Humanitarian Response in the South Sudan Conflict, commissioned report by a consortium of international NGOs, April 2016. The research found that the majority of national organisations struggle to access funding, form long-term partnerships or participate in coordination mechanisms. The response in South Sudan therefore offers valuable lessons on the need to create a more collaborative humanitarian culture.

Crisis response in South Sudan

The fighting that broke out in Juba on 15 December 2013 marked the beginning of a violent civil war. At the time, South Sudan already had some of the worst development indicators globally, and NGOs were playing an important role in the delivery of basic services. The conflict took resident international NGOs – many of which were focused on development activities – by surprise. Expatriate staff were out of the country for the holiday, and within hours most of the others had evacuated. National NGOs were badly affected; offices were looted, South Sudanese aid workers were executed, vehicles were taken and borehole machines broken. National NGO staff, feeling abandoned by their international counterparts, describe how they ‘woke up one day and everything had changed’.

In Juba, where the crisis first hit, South Sudanese NGOs and individual aid workers responded when and where they could. Interventions were informal and ad hoc. Theso and Healthlink, for example, put volunteer doctors into the hospitals in Juba, took water tankers to affected communities, collected the wounded and removed dead bodies from the street. In Bor in Jonglei State, one national organisation ran cash distributions for fleeing communities. Across the country, local Red Cross groups began to register missing children and identify bodies. Church leaders sheltered tens of thousands of people in their compounds, sleeping across gateways to prevent the entry of armed soldiers and negotiated food supplies from local business owners and NGOs.

Within days cluster meetings resumed and national NGOs attended to help coordinate the formalised response. The humanitarian priorities were to address food insecurity and malnutrition, prevent the spread of cholera and other communicable diseases, and provide protection. Yet humanitarians struggled to scale up the response, unable to reach many of the worst-affected areas and hampered by a lack of preparedness.

Capacity for what?

In interviews, national organisations felt they were unfairly regarded as having low capacity. They had been contracted to conduct activities for UN organisations and international NGOs, but often felt excluded from funding, coordination and decision-making. Interviewees from international NGOs often believed that capacity was uniform across national organisations, despite the fact that they represent a diverse group of 168 national organisations within the NGO Forum, alongside a plethora of other community-based and faith-based organisations and civil society groups. These groups play different roles within the humanitarian response.

Group 1: National NGOs with funding over $1 million. Seven-teen South Sudanese organisations receive funding through the Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF). These are large, ‘professional’ organisations, such as Nile Hope and Healthlink, which are able to work across multiple states and sectors. They model their operations on those of international NGOs and often employ skilled technical staff from other countries.

Group 2: National NGOs active in the Cluster System. This small group of 20 organisations have projects registered with the clusters, implement projects for international agencies and are striving to professionalise in order to attract funding.

Group 3: Implementing partner national NGOs. A significant cohort of approximately 80–100 organisations do not receive any direct funding, but partner with, or are contracted by, UN agencies and some international NGOs. World Food Programme (WFP) food distributions in particular rely on a broad swathe of national partners able to access remote and inhospitable locations. Prior to 2013 most of the organisations in this group had experience of development programming, but only limited exposure to humanitarian work. Funding challenges particularly frustrate this group: most aspire to receive CHF funding in order to achieve greater financial security.

Group 4: Community Based Organisations and churches. An estimated 150 organisations operate at the state level. Most are not part of the international humanitarian architecture, and receive limited formal funding, often via small partnerships with international NGOs. They include women’s groups, small faith-based groups and civil society organisations addressing human rights issues. In opposition areas, many of these organisations have closed because they are unable to access government registration offices. For example, the number of organisations in Leer fell from 29 in 2013 to four in 2015.

In 2015, the NGOs in Group 1 received 1% of the total funding allocated through the Humanitarian Response Plan.+UN OCHA, South Sudan Humanitarian Response Plan 2015, 2014.The majority of organisations in Groups 2 and 3 were funded via short-term, activity-based contracts that do not support organisational costs. Without access to predictable funding, these groups struggle to build their own organisational capacity: to recruit good teams, provide staff training, strengthen processes or invest time in coordination activities.

National NGOs have argued for a fixed quota of pooled funds to be channelled directly to national organisations. In two focus groups, they described the major barriers to their participation in the humanitarian system:

  1. Inadequate funding opportunities, complex funding proposal formats and the challenge of meeting the conditions attached to funding (such as audits).
  2. Funding opportunities too closely linked to attendance at cluster meetings.
  3. Competition between national and international organisations and prioritisation of international NGOs in funding proposals.
  4. Losing staff to international NGOs that pay higher salaries.
  5. Lack of funding for organisational development.

However, as national NGOs professionalise they risk losing their grassroots structures and particular approaches to accountability and access. The national NGO focal point of the South Sudan NGO Forum (one of the authors) is working to build the organisational resilience of the forum’s member organisations and reduce dependence on international funding. During 2015–16, the forum created a self-assessment tool to enable organisations to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, including their level of community engagement. So far, 23 national organisations have signed up for the self-assessment. The NGO Forum will use the data to create better information on organisational capacity. The forum has also convened a peer-support working group to encourage shadowing and mentoring.

Networks and surge capacity

Local networks trained by the Red Cross and Caritas were mobilised for some distributions, but in general local surge capacity was weak. For example, on the second day of the conflict an SMS message was sent (by a local staff member) to all national organisations and national staff, prompting 160 staff to present themselves as volunteers. UN agencies were struggling to manage their response to the crisis and, when given a list of volunteers’ contact details, did not have the capacity to engage with or manage them. Local staff interpreted this as a snub, saying ‘we felt we were not good enough to help’.

More generally, many international agencies had not prepared for the crisis by investing in strong local partnerships. There were three challenges. First, building partnerships takes time. The research for Missed Out found that strong humanitarian partnerships had all benefited from significant investment, including:

  • Joint capacity assessments.
  • Training targeted at specific staff development needs.
  • Development of shared action plans.
  • Shared facilities or workplaces.
  • Secondment of key staff from the international to the national NGO during the first three months of response.
  • Progress tracking against capacity indicators.
  • Support for financial and logistical management tasks.

Second, concerns were frequently raised about the implications for humanitarian principles of partnering with local organisations during conflict. Local partners can provide significant benefits in terms of access to otherwise inaccessible communities, as well as understanding of local power structures and risks. The challenges associated with neutrality and independence – perceived or otherwise – arise as a direct consequence of this access. Nevertheless, national NGOs should consider how they can provide assurances of impartial delivery of aid and adherence to the principles, for instance by employing staff from several ethnic groups, as some of the larger national organisations in South Sudan have done. For their part, international NGOs should take greater responsibility for understanding the nuances of the context and the ethnic and sectarian landscape, whilst also building relationships with national partners from a range of interest groups. This takes time and commitment.

Third, although 40 national organisations attended cluster meetings during 2014–15, the majority of those we interviewed felt excluded or unwelcome. In particular, they struggled with the plethora of terminology, abbreviations and acronyms used in meetings. They observed that decisions were made quickly and in a cultural environment that was most comfortable for international staff. Box 1 describes how the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the NGO Forum worked to help national organisations overcome barriers to participation. However, the experience of South Sudanese organisations points to a need to make coordination forums culturally and linguistically inclusive.

Box 1 NGOs Tanner

Contributions to the humanitarian response

Despite these challenges, national NGOs made significant contributions to the humanitarian response, most notably in terms of:

  • Relevance: Local and national organisations benefited from close proximity to disaster-affected communities, their understanding of culture and language and their sensitivity to political and social dynamics. This is especially important in a complex and polarised environment like South Sudan, where the depth of local understanding is limited by high staff turnover.
  • Access: There are frequent incidents of harassment and interference, as well as violence towards aid workers, interference with assets, restrictions on movement, looting and theft. During the rainy season, huge parts of the country become impossible to reach by road. For example, when conflict broke out in Leer in Unity State in February 2014, people fled to the bush. Staff from a national organisation, UNIDO, left with them, taking a generator and other valuable equipment. UNIDO was able to update international aid workers on humanitarian needs and arrange a drop-off point for emergency medicine.
  • Trust: Protection of Civilian (POC) sites across the country house over 100,000 people. National NGOs like Nile Hope had immediate access to these sites and, within days, had established trust with at-risk civilians and set up community structures, latrines and rubbish collection.


The World Humanitarian Summit has promoted the localisation of humanitarian funding. However, South Sudan high-lights the importance of stronger relationships between national and international actors, developed over a longer timeframe. In South Sudan, the most effective humanitarian partnerships are based on complementarity relationships, where the comparative advantages of national organisations are recognised and supported. Localisation of delivery requires that changes in funding be accompanied by greater support for national actors, a commitment to partnership and more inclusive coordination mechanisms.

Lydia Tanner is a research consultant at Jigsaw Consult. Leben Moro is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Juba. Hafeez Wani is National NGO Focal Point at the South Sudan NGO Forum. Zvidzai Maburutse was formerly with OCHA in South Sudan.