Issue 65 - Article 11

Better not just bigger: reflections on the humanitarian response in South Sudan

October 29, 2015
Viren Falcao and Hosanna Fox
A boy fills wheelbarrows with dirt to build walls in the Protection of Civilians (POC) site near Bentiu, Unity State

At an estimated $1.6 billion, the UN-led response triggered by widespread violence in South Sudan was among the largest of 2014. Prior to this most recent outbreak of violence, South Sudan had both a long history of large-scale humanitarian operations and a significant presence of active, well-established humanitarian actors, mechanisms and structures. Beginning in the capital Juba in December 2013, conflict quickly spread to other parts of the country. Long-standing political divisions and grievances within the ruling party underpinned the conflict, which divided communities largely along ethnic lines. Over a year and a half into the conflict, many people have been repeatedly displaced, moving from one location to another to escape ongoing hostilities. According to NGOs on the ground, some IDPs have reported being displaced up to ten times.

Another 200,000 people at least have sought refuge in ‘Protection of Civilian’ (POC) areas, distinct safe areas within UN peacekeeping bases. For an overview of issues related to POC sites, see Damian Lilly, ‘Protection of Civilian Sites: A New Type of Displacement Settlement?’, Humanitarian Exchange, 62, September 2014.  Although these areas were intended to provide short-term refuge, ongoing protection threats outside the bases mean that many of the displaced have been sheltering in them since the current conflict began. Both the peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) regard these POC areas as unsustainable and unsafe, both for the displaced and for UNMISS staff, and an obstacle to investment in protection activities elsewhere. Based on these concerns, UNMISS has pursued a durable solutions agenda that includes ‘decongesting’ the POC areas – or encouraging ‘voluntary return’ – a goal that potentially undermines humanitarian protection and assistance principles. Several solutions have been proposed, including returning the IDPs to their areas of origin or transferring responsibility for them to a non-military UN agency, but many home areas are still unsafe and passing responsibility to a civilian agency would negate the very reason why IDPs took refuge in POC areas in the first place.

Another challenge unique to South Sudan is the unprecedented degree of civil–military coordination required between humanitarians and UN peacekeeping forces. The cohabitation environment – where humanitarians are providing large-scale operations within UN bases – has resulted in a breakdown of distinction, the effects of which are exacerbated by operating within an integrated mission environment. In addition to the dilemmas that this poses for principled humanitarian action, the ethnic dimension of the conflict has created challenges in relation to securing negotiated humanitarian access and in deploying staff (particularly national staff) and assets.

The physical challenges of geography and poor infrastructure add to the complexity of managing humanitarian responses in South Sudan. For large parts of the year up to 60% of the country is accessible only by air, making it one of the most globally expensive and logistically complicated humanitarian operations to sustain. Even so, humanitarian agencies have been able to provide basic services and improve conditions both within and outside POC areas – in 2014, humanitarians were present in nearly 90 sites, up to ten of which also had an UNMISS presence. The timely provision of humanitarian assistance also helped to avert a large-scale deterioration in food security and malnutrition in 2014, and successfully contained cholera outbreaks in several parts of the country. UN News Centre, ‘UN Warns of Hunger Catastrophe for South Sudanese Children’, 25 July 2014.

The aid operation continues to face considerable logistical challenges within an increasingly complex political and security environment. Despite a peace agreement in August, displacement continues and needs are growing. The conflict has grown more fragmented and more complex, with regional interests increasingly a factor, and in some areas violence has become more brutal. Relations between the larger international humanitarian community and the South Sudan government and other parties to the conflict have deteriorated considerably, becoming much more confrontational and less collaborative. NGOs now have to cope with a regulatory environment that increasingly hinders rather than facilitates operations, and face mounting bureaucratic impediments that often have a significant impact on the delivery of aid. More alarmingly, both UN and NGO agencies have faced a significant increase in intimidation, harassment and violence against humanitarian staff. Recent attacks against humanitarian aid workers – including abduction, rape and murder – have largely gone unaddressed, and a culture of appeasement risks turning into one of impunity.

The increasingly restrictive operating environment is hindering access and increasing costs for an aid sector confronted with an unprecedented scale and number of global crises. Within this context, it is important that humanitarians take a critical look, not only at the scale of need, but also the effectiveness and appropriateness of the response mechanisms and approaches used. Has the declaration of a system-wide/Level 3 crisis added value? How appropriate and sustainable are the approaches used so far, in terms of human and financial resources and assets deployed? How effectively were actors able to build on the significant and long-standing presence of humanitarian agencies in South Sudan, and draw lessons from the history of humanitarian responses in the country and region? What do ‘durable solutions’ mean in the current context of ongoing hostilities? What are the viable long-term solutions for people living in POC areas? What role does coordination play in an increasingly complex and fractured context? To what extent has coordination become an activity rather than a modality?

Lessons from the response so far

Several key lessons can be drawn from past emergency responses in the country, and from the response thus far.

First, humanitarian activities need to better reflect the complexity of the situation, taking into account that the current conflict could last many years and that there are both chronic and acute needs that overlap and intersect, and which increasingly are not limited to areas directly impacted by the ongoing armed conflict and displacement. One response to displacement has been to increase mobile or rapid response teams focused on areas considered hard to reach. In principle, these sector-specific teams can be deployed at short notice across the country. They typically exit an area within a short period – at most a few months – after either addressing acute emergency needs or handing over to local actors or agencies able and willing to maintain a sustained presence. Funding mechanisms like the Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) have also been adapted to support the scaling up of existing mobile response teams and the establishment of new ones, and coordination structures under the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have been adapted to support their operations.

While these teams have played a part in responding to acute needs in areas of displacement, the scale of need in many parts of South Sudan is immense, and the very modest pre-existing public services were already struggling from a severe lack of infrastructure, material and human resources even before the current conflict. This is equally true for areas into which displaced people have fled, where there are existing host communities with chronic needs, as well as across other parts of the country. The significant reduction in oil production – the principal source of government revenue – and the diversion of resources to military operations have undermined whatever limited services were available.

In this light the criteria for the prioritisation of needs and the effectiveness and sustainability of such responses in a situation of protracted conflict deserve re-examination. Humanitarian needs overviews, prepared in other countries facing protracted crises, should be adapted to the South Sudan context and used to guide the selection and prioritisation of locations for assistance. One good example is the Humanitarian Needs Overview in Afghanistan, which uses a range of indicators to guide analysis of the severity of needs across sectors and provinces. OCHA, ‘Afghanistan Humanitarian Needs Overview 2015’, November 2014.

Second, cluster strategies need to account for the complexity of the situation in South Sudan. An enhanced analysis of needs and indicators of needs across the country – not just areas experiencing displacement and armed conflict – will allow a comparison across counties and states, resulting in more informed decisions on prioritisation. This will enable more efficient use of limited resources, and help ensure better-targeted responses.

Third, a complex operational environment doesn’t necessarily need a complex coordination system. The efficacy of aid delivery is sometimes blunted by the coordination machine itself and the centralised, state-based coordination system has sometimes struggled to adapt itself to changing needs. The effectiveness and appropriateness of the response needs to be the main measure of success, rather than the number of locations reached or individuals who have received aid. The declaration of a Level 3 emergency is meant to mobilise resources, empower UN leadership and generally raise the profile of the crisis internationally. While these aims potentially increase the scale of the response to match the scale of the crisis, the L3 declaration in South Sudan has also had implications for the direction of the response. The outcome – and an inherent risk in such declarations – is a greater emphasis on attending to the scale of needs (for instance the number of people reached with services), and reduced attention to other key aims of the Transformative Agenda, such as improving quality, accountability and appropriateness. An Operational Peer Review was carried out in 2014, and the report of an Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluation mission is forthcoming. While both measures were taken as part of the Transformative Agenda, and both have promoted collective accountability, much more needs to be done to improve programmatic accountability, particularly to affected people. Developing tools, indicators and mechanisms to monitor distributions and responses needs to be prioritised as a critical element of delivering appropriate and effective aid. Rather than measuring delivery, we should develop ways to measure impact and presence.

Despite its participation in the UN coordination system, as a self-regulating sector the NGO community also has an independent obligation to monitor, review and improve its practice. While NGOs monitor and evaluate their own activities internally, it would be worth considering an evaluation of the collective impact NGOs have had in the course of the ongoing response, and systems for periodic review of the direction, appropriateness and sustainability of their collective efforts as a distinct sector. This would provide a coherent overview of NGO practice in the aggregate, identifying where the NGO community as a whole can improve.

An additional area of improvement relates to the considerable challenge of collective knowledge management. Frequent staff turnover and staffing gaps have an acknowledged impact on institutional memory within individual agencies, and this is reflected within the community a s a whole. While in a context as operationally challenging as South Sudan perfect information will never be available, inefficient information management means that operational decisions are often based on incomplete or incorrect information. Information is used by the UN for both internal humanitarian needs analyses and for public funding appeals, two purposes that are often at odds. This potentially politicises data in a way that hinders the objective identification of needs. Additionally, competition over funding can lead to decreased information sharing between NGOs.


Whether or not the war ends soon, humanitarians must prepare for the worst-case scenario. This should include preparing for the likelihood of a protracted, increasingly fragmented conflict that makes security management more challenging, a fragile economy that results in even higher operating costs and increased insecurity in Juba and beyond and a global funding environment where South Sudan is deprioritised and humanitarian needs continue to grow, both within and – increasingly – outside conflict-affected areas. Even if the peace deal holds – or at the very least reduces physical violence – humanitarian needs will remain and the cumulative impact of the conflict will take years to address. The violence of the last 18 months has exacerbated societal divisions, and many IDPs may decide that it is unsafe to return to their pre-conflict areas of residence after the conflict ends.

Responding to the complex crisis in South Sudan will require adaptability, making gains in innovation and efficiency and continued evaluation of our own collective actions. It will likely also require a more streamlined response by actors with low risk-aversion and the ability to negotiate complex operational environments in order to reach affected communities. Adapting and expanding ‘good enough’ approaches that are cheaper and better suited to local conditions and logistical challenges should be considered as part of cluster and cross-cluster response strategies. A good example is the Integrated Community Case Management approach, already in use in parts of the country, where in the absence of qualified medical personnel community health workers are trained and provided with medical supplies to respond to the most common ailments. Better needs analysis and indicators will enable prioritisation based on clear criteria between locations, and also ensure better links between mobile response teams and actors with a more stable presence in an area. A more thorough analysis of needs and vulnerabilities across the country is a prerequisite for better prioritisation, more appropriate responses and the judicious use of limited resources in the face of such large-scale needs. Given the history and the wealth of experience that humanitarian actors in South Sudan possess, we need to be asking ourselves how we can make our responses better – not just bigger.

Viren Falcao is an independent humanitarian consultant. He was the emergency coordinator with an international NGO in South Sudan between August 2013 and January 2015. Hosanna Fox is a humanitarian consultant. Hosanna worked in Africa for five years, including two years in South Sudan, with Médecins Sans Frontières and most recently as Senior Advocacy and Policy Advisor at the South Sudan NGO Forum. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, and do not in any way reflect those of the agencies they were formerly, or are currently, associated with.


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