Issue 19 - Article 10

Balancing principles and needs: capacity-building in southern Sudan

June 3, 2003
John Mande
10 min read

This article applies the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief to MEDAIR’s practical experience of capacity-building in south Sudan. What should agencies do when the principle of working through local institutions and building local capacities comes up against the principle of neutrality, and the undertaking that aid will not be used to support a political position, or exploited as a tool of government foreign policy? In conflict zones like south Sudan, is capacity-building compatible with the commitment to give aid based on need alone, and without discrimination on the basis of politics, religion or ideology?

Capacity-building and tackling long-term vulnerability

Emergency assistance can provide short-term relief, but long-term solutions to the problems facing southern Sudan require the development of local individuals and institutions. This is based on Principle 8 of the Code of Conduct: ‘Relief aid must strive to reduce future vulnerabilities to disaster as well as meeting basic needs.’ According to this Principle:

‘We will strive to implement relief programmes which actively reduce the beneficiaries’ vulnerability to future disasters and help create sustainable lifestyles … We will also endeavour to minimise the negative impact of humanitarian assistance, seeking to avoid long term beneficiary dependence upon external aid.’

Capacity-building aims to do precisely this: improving the effectiveness, skills and knowledge of organisations and institutions in an attempt to achieve self-reliance and sustainable livelihoods.

Aspects of capacity-building

Building institutional capacity

MEDAIR’s approach to increasing the capacity of local institutions is based on Principle 6 of the Code of Conduct: ‘We shall attempt to build disaster response on local capacities.’ According to this Principle:

‘we will strengthen these capacities by employing local staff, purchasing local materials and trading with local companies. Where possible, we will work through local NGHAs [Non-Governmental Humanitarian Agencies] as partners in planning and implementation, and cooperate with local government structures where appropriate.’

MEDAIR, which joined the Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) consortium five years ago, is deeply involved in precisely those activities identified in this principle. It has worked through existing humanitarian counterparts, and local institutions such as the traditional authorities (chiefs) where these exist, and has invested in education and literacy programmes and in training community health workers. The agency has also tried to involve Sudanese doctors in the management of its health, water and sanitation programmes and, in collaboration with the local authorities, has established and trained village development committees. Although a number of challenges still face these local groups, they have assisted in constructing and maintaining infrastructure. MEDAIR has also been a key member of the Capacity-Building Working Group for Southern Sudan. The objective of strengthening local capacities is also part of the wider mandate of OLS: ‘Strengthening local capacities to prevent future crises and emergencies and to promote greater involvement of Sudanese institutions and individuals in all humanitarian actions is an integral part of OLS’s humanitarian mandate’.

Community participation and local capacities

Community participation is a key element of MEDAIR’s capacity-building approach. It is based primarily on Principle 7 of the Code of Conduct: ‘Ways shall be found to involve programme beneficiaries in the management of relief aid.’ According to this Principle:

‘Disaster response assistance should never be imposed upon the beneficiaries. Effective relief and lasting rehabilitation can best be achieved where the intended beneficiaries are involved in the design, management and implementation of the assistance programme. We will strive to achieve full community participation in our relief and rehabilitation programmes.’

Despite the degree of vulnerability that exists in south Sudan, it is necessary to avoid creating relief dependency among community members. For MEDAIR, this means that Sudanese individuals and families need to take responsibility for their own health and welfare, identifying the problems and needs of the community, and developing the capacity to contribute to their own and the community’s development.

Community participation in the context of humanitarian assistance poses significantly greater challenges than in the context of development aid. In south Sudan, agencies are working in devastated areas, where resources are limited and contested, and people displaced. The priorities, interests and strategies of local counterparts may not match those of the agency; management and administrative skills may be in short supply, and adequate infrastructure may not exist.

In southern Sudan, for instance, many medical supplies have to be delivered by air. Installing hand pumps as part of a water and sanitation programme often requires technical expertise that is simply unavailable locally, while spare parts may be in short supply. Socioeconomic activity may be at a standstill, making it difficult to reduce people’s relief dependency.

Nonetheless, MEDAIR has worked in collaboration with its local partners including humanitarian counterparts, to ensure that there is local participation in the delivery of primary health care. MEDAIR believes that people have the right to participate, both individually and as a community, in the planning and implementation of health care. The basic approach to primary health care is that the centre of gravity should shift from urban locations to local, rural communities. Community inputs are crucial; according to their capacities, communities need to mobilise human, financial and material resources to supplement the resources provided by the national government and other outside sources. In the preventive and promotive aspects of primary health care, local people are the main actors, with the health services and outside agencies playing only a supportive role.

Local capacities could be developed through technical training in the field, and at the regional level. The effective implementation of programmes requires well-trained local workers. A more advanced approach would include training Sudanese trainers. Training programmes need to follow approved curricula and manuals, preferably conducted by qualified trainers or at a reputable training institution. Specific project objectives should indicate the number of local professional staff that would be trained, and how this objective will be implemented. The training and development of Sudanese staff is an important priority in ensuring access and continuity of basic services in southern Sudan. Areas where MEDAIR has invested in human-resource development include training community health workers and traditional birth attendants, as well as training in water and sanitation at NETWAS, a regional capacity-building and training institution.

Principle 7 also refers to local involvement in the management of relief, as well as its delivery. Employing qualified Sudanese staff in positions of responsibility would provide a suitable learning environment in developing management and organisational capacities. Capacity-building initiatives need to include basic management functions:

  • planning programme objectives based on org-anisational goals/portfolio/project objectives;
  • organising the work;
  • assigning responsibility and accountability;
  • allocating resources and setting targets for the implementation of objectives;
  • motivating key players; and
  • monitoring and evaluating activities and estab-lishing correction mechanisms.

MEDAIR’s current programme-management approach involves the field-level management of project sites with Sudanese doctors. Although largely composed of international staff, MEDAIR’s emergency team has an experienced Sudanese liaison officer. Developing supervisory and delegation capabilities for Sudanese to implement humanitarian services in a more efficient and effective way cuts across all sectors, and is a way of working rather than another programme. The role of international agencies needs to include the facilitation of project leadership by Sudanese, and assisting Sudanese institutions in developing operational strategies for community projects, whether designed for emergency situations, or for long-term development.

In principle, international agencies should not attempt to take all responsibility for programmes; this should largely be discharged by local communities, humanitarian counterparts, the civil ad-ministration and traditional authorities. Community meetings at the early stages of project design could be useful in clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the various actors. At this stage, it should be possible to establish the capacities and expectations of the stakeholders in a particular project, and define and agree on the nature of the relationship between the various institutions in question.

Traditional structures and practices

MEDAIR’s capacity-building approaches aim to strengthen traditional authority structures rather than create new ones, and to respect local cultural norms. This is in line with Principle 5, which states that:

We will endeavour to respect the culture, structures and customs of the communities and countries we are working in.

MEDAIR seeks to work through existing authorities including the humanitarian wings of south Sudan’s rebel groups, chiefs and community representatives via village and area development committees. Similarly, new technology and equipment should be culturally and socially compatible with local communities, as far as is practically possible. The exception, of course, is where lives are at risk. Modern approaches should be pursued when indigenous knowledge has not been thoroughly researched and documented. While the primary health care programme recommends the adoption of socially acceptable methods and technology, this should reflect and evolve from local economic conditions and socio-cultural and political characteristics. This applies equally to other sectors, like water, sanitation and nutrition.

medair principles

The politics and policy of capacity-building in southern Sudan

In their capacity-building approaches, international agencies are supported by key principles of the Code of Conduct to do with community involvement and participation in all aspects of service delivery. Yet there is also a risk that engaging with local structures in the context of conflict brings the agency perilously close to entanglement in the politics of the war in the south.

This runs counter to several of the principles of the code of conduct. Principle 3, for instance, asserts that ‘Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint’, but will be given ‘according to the need of individuals, families and communities’. Principle 4 states that ‘We shall endeavour not to act as instruments of government policy’:

We will never knowingly – or through negligence – allow ourselves, or our employees, to be used to gather information of a political, military or economically sensitive nature for governments or other bodies that may serve purposes other than those which are strictly humanitarian, nor will we act as instruments of foreign policy of donor governments.

There can be a conflict between humanitarianism and development policy and practice in the field. This is especially the case where agencies are directly engaging with rebel movements. Humanitarian principles provide a broad guide to designing humanitarian aid, but they do not tell agencies how to deal with basic challenges to do with key principles like neutrality. In a complex political emergency like that in south Sudan, these difficulties can become acute. If an agency is building the capacity of administrative structures in government-controlled areas, or in areas controlled by the rebel movements, for instance, is it effectively taking sides in the conflict? Yet without such collaboration, it is impossible for agencies to ensure that capacity-building programmes are effective and properly managed.

These issues form some of the realities that international NGOs and donors contend with while providing relief assistance to countries caught up in civil war. They also further challenge the effective integration of capacity-building approaches in humanitarian aid to communities affected by such conflict. Where there are no clear distinctions between the military, local authorities and civilians, how do agencies ensure that their aid is going to non-combatants, and not sustaining people engaged in the conflict? Clear programme mandates and regular coordination and consul-tation meetings with the relevant local authorities are vital. But there is no clear-cut solution here; instead, international agencies are guided by how well they develop and maintain effective working relationships with the various actors.


John Mande is Lecturer in Veterinary Surgery at the University of Nairobi. He also coordinates the capacity-building aspects of MEDAIR’s programmes in southern Sudan, and is the chair of the Capacity-Building Working Group. Readers were introduced to the Capacity-Building Working Group in Humanitarian Exchange 18, March 2001.

See also:

Ian Levine, Humanitarian Principles: The Southern Sudan Experience, Network Paper 21 (London: Relief and Rehabilitation Network, 1997)

Geoff Loane and Céline Moyroud (eds), Tracing Unintended Consequences of Humanitarian Assistance: The Case of Sudan. Field Study and Recommendations for ECHO (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 2001),


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