The hardest call: why Save the Children withdrew from Darfur
by Toby Porter, Emergencies Director, Save the Children UK June 2005

On 21 December 2004, Save the Children UK announced that it was suspending all of its operations in Darfur. Nine days earlier, two Save staff members, clearly identifiable as humanitarian workers, had been taken from their vehicle and shot dead as they made their way back to Nyala from the clinic they were supporting in South Darfur. This was the second fatal incident the agency had suffered in Darfur in two months. On 10 October, two other staff members had been killed when their vehicle struck an anti-tank mine in North Darfur, despite their having sought and received numerous assurances from numerous government and rebel commanders in the region that the routes they were proposing to use were safe and clear of mines. In the space of 60 days, Save the Children had lost four staff members in Darfur – more than in all the countries of the world over the previous 30 years.

Announcing the withdrawal, Mike Aaronson, Save the Children’s director-general, called it the hardest decision he had ever had to take in his time with the agency. At the time of the withdrawal, Save programmes were serving an estimated 250,000 children and adults in a wide range of sectors, from healthcare to education. The great majority of these were internally displaced. It is the nightmare scenario for all humanitarian agencies and all humanitarian workers – being forced to suspend urgent activities for populations in need and in danger. By way of illustration, a week before his murder on 12 December, Abhakar el Tayeb had spent his day at the health post where he worked treating dozens of people, several of them children, for gunshot wounds.

Why did Save withdraw?

After the October mine incident, Save the Children had given serious thought to leaving Darfur altogether, but after careful consideration and consultation, including with the families of both dead colleagues, the agency had chosen to stay and continue its humanitarian operations. A hugely significant factor in this decision was the findings of a joint UN/Save the Children investigation, which concluded that the mine the vehicle struck had been laid for military use, and not to target humanitarian agencies in general, or Save the Children in particular. This was clearly not the case in the December incident, which involved the murder at point-blank range of two clearly identified humanitarian workers. In these circumstances, the agency felt that it could not in conscience continue to expose staff to the risks of operating in Darfur.

For an agency that has over many years successfully balanced a mandate to work with many of the world’s most vulnerable children with high standards of staff security, the loss of four colleagues in two months was and remains a crushing blow, and one which has affected staff and volunteers all over the world. With the number of security incidents increasing in most areas, particularly on roads between the camps and major towns, the only way to guarantee that a further incident would not occur in Darfur was to remove all staff from harm’s way. As for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) after the killing of five of its staff in Afghanistan in June 2004, a threshold, for Save at least, had been crossed. Other agencies have stayed in Darfur. Before Save the Children closed its offices on 31 January 2005, it was able to hand over many of its projects, and a good deal of its funding, to other humanitarian agencies to continue its work with children and their families.

The lessons of Darfur

There are many lessons to be learned from Darfur, for each individual agency and for the humanitarian community as a whole. Many studies, such as the Darfur Real Time Evaluation being coordinated by OCHA, are asking relevant and important questions, but these focus mainly on the operational capacity of the UN and other humanitarian agencies. It may also be worthwhile to reflect on what the Darfur experience can tell us about what we usually refer to as humanitarian space – how agencies might have acted differently to create it and expand it, and protect it as it came under threat.

From the early days of the crisis in 2003 until April or May 2004, the few humanitarian agencies then operating in Darfur faced a number of direct and indirect operational constraints, apparently designed to restrict the access of affected populations to humanitarian agencies and assistance. The great majority of these constraints were bureaucratic: restrictions on visas, travel permits and customs clearance, for example. Diplomatic pressure from the international community succeeded in removing the majority of these obstacles. As this author stated in evidence to the UK House of Commons Development Committee enquiry on Darfur in December 2004, this was the first and only time in my career that I have seen a British Secretary of State take up with host authorities the specific operational concerns of humanitarian agencies. However, while this approach essentially succeeded in achieving its valuable short-term objectives, it was largely government-to-government: negotiations were conducted mostly between the Sudanese authorities and foreign politicians and diplomats, almost all of whom were from Western countries. This effort may therefore have had unintended consequences.

The first question to ask is what impact this may have had on the perceived independence and impartiality of the aid community as a whole. As one very experienced humanitarian commentator put in June 2004, in the longer term the aid community might regret appearing to delegate responsibility for solving operational problems in Sudan to figures such as Jack Straw and Colin Powell, particularly so soon after the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. This apparent dependence seemed inconsistent with equally concerted attempts by the same agencies to distance themselves from British and American policies and politicians in those two other arenas. These are not easy issues for a humanitarian agency to confront, particularly as there is no question that intervention at that level and at that time saved a great many lives. Nonetheless, the point made by this commentator is important, and deserves careful reflection.

The second unintended consequence of the way in which discussions were conducted during this period may have been that insufficient time was devoted to negotiating with the non-state actors involved, essentially the rebel groups the Justice for Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), and the Janjaweed. It is not that no effort was made to take up humanitarian concerns with these groups, particularly the two rebel movements; however, this was again done mainly as part of wider political negotiations and, again, mainly through politicians. By way of illustration, both major protocols governing humanitarian access in Darfur were negotiated and signed in 2004 as part of a wider political process. Representatives from the humanitarian community were involved, but one could not say that the humanitarian protocols were actually negotiated between the rebels and the humanitarian community per se. Nor, understandably enough, were the Janjaweed formally involved, so no binding commitment has ever been made by its leaders to facilitate the safe passage of humanitarian agencies or workers through territory where it is active. The relevance of this absence of proper agreements with non-state actors in Darfur has long been apparent. The perpetrators of almost all of the many security incidents since April 2004 have been, not the formal Sudanese military, but the rebel movements or the Janjaweed.

An OLS for Darfur?

What difference might it have made had the humanitarian community, on its own and independently of any wider political negotiations, made a concerted effort early in 2004 to negotiate and maintain some kind of consensual access agreement with the leaders of all the parties to the conflict in Darfur, irrespective of their political status? No one could say it would have been easy, but if it could be done in Southern Sudan, as it was with the Operation Lifeline Sudan agreement, why could it not have been done in Darfur in 2004? It is doubtful whether the late James Grant, UNICEF’s Executive Director and the architect of OLS, found much reason to be optimistic when surveying the suffering and insecurity in Southern Sudan in 1989, nor could he have been confident that he would be able to negotiate a tripartite agreement at all, let alone one whose fundamental principles would remain unchallenged and unchanged until the effective end of the conflict more than 16 years later.

Over the last year it has become clear that, in Jan Egeland, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, the humanitarian community finally has a leader with real standing and charisma, and with years of experience of negotiating with parties to armed conflict. Could he have emulated Grant and persuaded all the major warring parties in Darfur to sign up to an OLS-style agreement, binding all signatories to facilitate the provision of assistance, irrespective of the status of the ceasefire or wider peace negotiations? Could he still?

The benefits of some kind of Ground Rules agreement as part of such a framework would be immediate and far-reaching. It would clarify mutual expectations, communication channels and modus operandi between participating humanitarian agencies and all parties to the conflict in Darfur. It would also act as a vital channel through which to increase the scope and effectiveness of protection activities. As it did in Southern Sudan, such an agreement could also be an effective tool in the hands of those such as OCHA charged with making the coordination and performance of the aid operation as a whole more effective.

The lessons from Darfur should not be restricted to the operational sphere. For the humanitarian community, Darfur should provoke reflection on what more could have been done, and could still be done, to increase humanitarian space, and, with it, security for humanitarian workers. For the UN in particular, it should provoke reflection around what leadership of the humanitarian community means in places like Darfur. It may be that what victims of conflict most need from the UN is not service delivery that has consistently been shown to be both slower and more expensive than what NGOs can provide. What we need are leaders, able to use their skills and unique status to go out and negotiate the space in which humanitarian agencies can operate, with consent, transparency and safety.

Toby Porteris Emergencies Director of Save the Children UK. This article is dedicated to Noureldine Issa El Tayeb, Rafe Bullick, Abhakar el Tayeb and Yacoub Abdel Nabi Ahmed.