Issue 18 - Article 4

Capacity-building in southern Sudan

June 4, 2003
The Capacity-Building Working Group for southern Sudan

For over 30 years, the people of southern Sudan have suffered the effects of political crisis, conflict and disaster. In 1989, an international humanitarian intervention was designed under UNICEF–Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). Since then, efforts have been made to improve the capacities of Sudanese to cope with disaster- and conflict-related vulnerabilities. In early 2000, a review of capacity-building in southern Sudan was commissioned by a working group comprising Sudanese indigenous NGOs, international NGOs and UNICEF–OLS. This Capacity-Building Assessment (CBA) explored stakeholders’ views on the meaning and applicability of capacity-building in southern Sudan. It concludes that there need to be improvements in the way aid agencies intervene, and suggests ways in which policy and practice can be changed to achieve this.

An important part of the CBA was a three-day workshop held in Nairobi between 30 October and 1 November 2000. The findings and recomm-endations of the CBA were discussed and refined by representatives from five key stakeholders: Sudanese NGOs; the ‘humanitarian wings’ of southern Sudan’s rebel movements, such as the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA), the Relief Association for Southern Sudan (RASS) and Fashoda Relief and Rehabilitation Association (FRRA); some international NGOs, including Oxfam GB, Concern, Care, and Tearfund; the UN; and the governments of Canada, Finland and the US. This article outlines the principal areas of discussion at the workshop, the main areas of consensus and the action points agreed by the participants.

The need for change

The CBA revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of humanitarian assistance in southern Sudan. It also revealed that the current intervention is reducing the actual and potential impact of international and Sudanese efforts to support people in addressing their problems. The CBA highlighted a number of key weaknesses in the humanitarian response in southern Sudan:

  • dissatisfaction with the status quo;
  • lack of clarity vis-à-vis the purpose of humanitarian assistance;
  • conflicting strategies among agencies;
  • a poorly-balanced mix of interventions;
  • inadequate competencies in intervening agencies;
  • inadequate mechanisms for organisational and institutional advocacy and learning;
  • inappropriate aid instruments and funding mechanisms;
  • the preponderance of vested interests and a lack of trust between international humanitarian agencies and Sudanese organisations and communities;
  • inadequate understanding of the political and socio-economic context; and
  • a lack of clarity and honesty in defining relationships between the actors in southern Sudan.

If these weaknesses are to be overcome, changes are necessary at both institutional and operational levels, including:

  • developing a strategic response to the needs of Sudanese communities;
  • setting clear objectives for humanitarian assistance, based on more thorough analysis of needs and the context within which assistance is provided;
  • forming strategic links between the key actors, and effective mechanisms for coordination;
  • improving mechanisms for monitoring humanitarian aid, and for influencing the overall composition of the aid programme in southern Sudan;
  • developing and promoting best practice for effective delivery of humanitarian services;
  • establishing improved mechanisms for advocacy and learning;
  • improving aid instruments through the widening of donors’ understanding of capacity-building;
  • establishing improved mechanisms of dialogue and joint problem-solving among all key stakeholders;
  • developing accurate, timely and relevant analysis of the political and socio-economic context; and
  • ensuring that relationships among the key stakeholders are clearly defined.

What is capacity-building?

Capacity-building aims to enable individuals, groups, organisations and systems to respond better to the constraints and circumstances affecting them. It is political: it is about people, and self-reliance. At the same time, capacity-building can and should be used as a means to improve the delivery of effective humanitarian assistance through developing local capacities. Given the political context of southern Sudan’s crisis, there remains a need for additional mechanisms to safeguard humanitarian principles. Thus, capacity-building may not always be the only means of engagement in southern Sudan, and specific humanitarian concerns will co-exist with and complement capacity-building approaches.

Capacity-building and the process of change

Both the CBA and the consultative workshop revealed that the majority of stakeholders see capacity-building as an essential and effective means of engagement with Sudanese NGOs and humanitarian wings. They also highlighted that further work is necessary to make capacity-building an integral component of the humanitarian response, and that to fulfil its capacity-building potential, the process of change must consider other complementary means by which the overall humanitarian response in southern Sudan can be improved. These include vulnerability assessment, food economy approaches and frameworks for understanding rural livelihoods. The issues have been discussed before, but little progress has been made. This failure stems from the absence of appropriate implementation structures, a lack of commitment, a perceived lack of political support from humanitarian wings of the rebel movements, and operational disruptions caused by the SRRA’s memorandum of understanding of March 2000.

Establishing frameworks

In order to guide policy change and improve practice, we need a framework to make the capacity-building process structured and systematic. The process also needs to be gradual, giving actors sufficient time to adapt to change. The CBA proposed two frameworks: institutional and operational.

As a first step, the institutional framework will aim to develop a shared vision and a common mission statement and strategic objectives among the stakeholders. The intention is to guide the aid response at all levels. Second, it will analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the current humanitarian response, and agree on priorities for change. Third, it will address these weaknesses and establish mechanisms for implementing and realising the strategic objectives.

The operational framework is a practical tool that southern Sudanese and international organisations can use to improve the design of humanitarian interventions. The operational framework aims to generate practical recommendations relevant to all stakeholders, allowing the effective application of capacity-building approaches. It sets out a series of steps to guide intervention strategies, and principles to define, for example, working relationships and objectives.

These objectives and frameworks are not meant to compete with other organisational goals in southern Sudan. They are seen as a way to bring stakeholders to a common understanding, to enable evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the humanitarian response; and to institute a process for change. The consultative workshop recommended practical piloting of the framework.

The debate on political engagement

Attempts to engage armed groups in southern Sudan are regarded by some to contradict the humanitarian principle of neutrality, and as an inexcusable involvement in politics. However, the CBA believed that this view disregards the need to address the problems of the wider population. It may not be prudent for humanitarian agencies to be involved in policy development and other issues related to local governance. But any significant attempts at capacity-building may only be effectively pursued by engaging the humanitarian wings of the rebel groups, as well as other Sudanese actors, such as the civil society and religious groups, community-based organisations and emerging structures of civil authority.


While other initiatives remain useful, capacity-building offers more opportunities for Sudanese individuals, communities, organisations and institutions to participate in the identification and management of disaster- and conflict-related vulnerabilities. The Capacity-Building Working Group (CBWG) was asked to continue the CBA over the following six months, developing terms of reference and membership policy. The level of interest needs to be assessed, and the management of the process must be agreed upon.


The CBWG acknowledges the help of consultants Paul Murphy and Dr. Peter Aduok in coordinating the assessment, and UNICEF–OLS, Oxfam GB, the IRC, MEDAIR and ACORD for funding and managing it.


‘Humanitarianism: Imperatives and Principles in Southern Sudan’, RRN Newsletter 16, March 2000

Mark Bradbury, Nicholas Leader and Kate Mackintosh, The ‘Agreement on Ground Rules’ in South Sudan, HPG Report 4 (London: Humanitarian Policy Group, 2000)

Ian Levine, Promoting Humanitarian Principles: The Southern Sudan Experience, RRN Network Paper 21 (London: RRN, 1997)

A. Karim et al., Operation Lifeline Sudan: A Review (Birmingham: Birmingham University and Department of Humanitarian Affairs, Geneva, 1996)

Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 1997)

David Keen, The Benefits of Famine: A Political Economy of Famine and Relief in Southwestern Sudan, 1983–89 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994)

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