Issue 21 - Article 11

Developmental programming in the midst of war: a case study from southern Sudan

November 5, 2002
Mark Adams

This article outlines the British NGO ACORD’s use of participatory programming techniques and capacity-building in the context of the war in southern Sudan. ACORD has worked in Sudan since the mid-1970s, and currently has programmes in areas controlled by the government and both main rebel groups. In non-government areas, ACORD is part of the UN-coordinated Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). Impartiality (treating people based on need and regardless of political, religious or ethnic status) and neutrality (refusing to support political groups or positions) have been at the core of ACORD’s programming in southern Sudan. In the context of on-going war and contested political authority, this approach is crucial.

In south Sudan, ACORD has faced many difficult issues, such as identifying and reaching the poorest and most vulnerable people, gaining access to them and building space with local elites for such interventions. These issues can be seen as extreme versions of the dilemmas that most development programmes face. Development programmers also need to identify the poor and most vulnerable, gain access to them, and build agreement for pro-poor interventions from local elites, state structures and interest groups. Development work has pioneered a range of techniques aimed at tackling these issues, including participatory rural appraisal (PRA) and its offshoots, community dialogue and capacity-building.

While some development methodologies can offer a way to address the dilemmas that face relief agencies, even in conflict situations, there are ethical and practical dilemmas associated with pursuing capacity-building and similar strategies in southern Sudan. Not all agencies agree with such an approach and are uncomfortable with establishing relationships with the humanitarian organisations of the rebel movements. Efforts by these humanitarian ‘wings’ to develop policies in areas such as health have been resisted by some agencies on grounds of autonomy and neutrality. Some organisations have sought to keep matters on a more classical ‘relief’ footing, with interventions designed, implemented and reviewed by the implementing agency and its donors. Most dramatically, a number of NGOs were forced to stop working in areas controlled by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in 2000 after refusing to sign the SPLM’s Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). While there are dangers in legitimising and strengthening the control that unelected military forces exert over civilian populations in some areas, developmental approaches, though challenging, can make important contributions to the quality of humanitarian response.

The benefits of participation

Participatory methodologies offer the opportunity to canvass the opinions, priorities and concerns of different sections of communities in a structured way. They can be useful in finding out who the poor are, where they are, what their problems are, and how they can be best assisted. For example, ACORD’s food security programme at Tali in Juba county was developed following a participatory assessment in 1998. This used PRA tools to ask men and women in all parts of the area about their priority needs and concerns. The assessment was carried out by a multi-disciplinary team of men and women. As a result of the assessment, ACORD began a food security programme focused on agriculture and water. There was an emphasis on training and support for local capacities.

At each stage, the humanitarian counterpart, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA), was consulted on the design and implementation of activities. The local authorities and traditional chiefs were also regularly consulted about proposed activities, and how the programme could work with them. Through the local branch of the Women’s Union, women’s leaders were encouraged to form groups and represent themselves to the programme, and a Sudanese Community Development Officer was employed to encourage this process.

In late 2000, workshops were held with groups in the community to review the work to date, and propose future activities. The groups involved comprised women’s leaders and women’s group members; the traditional chiefs and their headmen; young people; and local authorities and counterparts. Information gained was documented and fed into a joint review and planning workshop that brought together all the programme staff, local SRRA officials, the ACORD field director and regional and national SRRA staff, as well as the district’s overall political administrator.

This process was invaluable – and difficult. The individual workshops provided important feedback on the success and appropriateness of activities. They also gave feedback on failures in the programme, and their causes. Criticism was directed at ACORD and the local authorities, counterparts and traditional leaders; all of us were found to be at fault.

Information about the diversion of relief materials such as seeds and tools came to light through the workshops, and members of the community complained of some villages being excluded from the distributions. Complaints were also made about what was seen as the biased siting of boreholes. Considerable detail about who had been involved in the diversion of goods and what they had done was forthcoming. The programme team already knew or suspected much of this, but the fact that this information came from local people in public meetings attended by ACORD and counterpart staff meant it was harder for the authorities to gloss over them, and they were flagged up as needing addressing. Action was taken by the authorities against some individuals, and working methods were changed. In addition, the information helped to identify marginalised groups and overlooked areas.

It was not possible to immediately address all the issues raised, and the feedback process was not an easy experience. Some of the divisions within the rebel movement became apparent, and ACORD was also challenged as to what it had and had not done. Hopefully, however, this initial step was important as the start of a process which builds greater transparency and accountability on all sides.

While being careful not to overstate the impact an individual NGO can have on issues of democratisation and governance, it was a concern to us that the ‘classical’ relief model, in which agencies delivered vertical, top-down interventions, threatened to leave the intended beneficiary populations disenfranchised, while perhaps, and ironically, allowing those with power in the area more chance to divert goods for their political, military or personal ends. The workshop aimed at starting a process whereby a wider group of local people and interest groups would be aware of and involved in the interventions than had hitherto been the case. In this way, opportunities for the misuse of humanitarian assistance might be reduced. Ideally, the review and planning workshop would have been carried out in the programme area, which would have allowed more community members to take part. However, renewed bombing by government forces meant that the workshop was held across the border in Uganda because of security concerns. An important future step would be to hold review meetings in the project area.


Agencies working in south Sudan are increasingly discussing the pros and cons of capacity-building. Within ACORD, we felt that training and support to increase the capacities of local people to meet their basic needs was a valid way of addressing humanitarian needs. Capacity-building can be more cost-effective, and seems a more sustainable approach than interventions implemented by international NGOs. And it seems particularly appropriate in a context where insecurity often means that NGO staff are unable to visit project locations; where funding is uncertain and short-term; where the creation of physical assets creates targets for bombing and attack; and where people are living in the midst of a chronic, long-term emergency which shows no sign of ending.

One clear example of capacity-building undertaken by ACORD was training of local water pump mechanics, and providing them with tools and equipment. Prior to the intervention in Tali, only two out of 11 existing hand pumps were functioning, serving a population of around 55,000 people. Most people relied on swamps and water holes, and water-borne diseases and guinea worm were endemic. Repairs were carried out by mechanics from other areas, which could take months because of the lack of transport and poor roads and communications.

ACORD set about training and equipping local mechanics to maintain existing boreholes, as well as developing new sources of water. After 18 months the change was dramatic: the 11 boreholes functioned almost constantly, and an additional seven had been drilled. The number of households to each borehole fell from nearly 4,578 to 504. Most of this improvement was due to building local capacity. Drilling new holes is difficult and expensive in southern Sudan – bombing meant that two of the new boreholes had to be drilled at night, for instance – and without local maintenance capacity they are likely to break down and not be repaired.

A similar approach has been used by the livestock programme in southern Sudan, which ACORD joined in 2000. The programme, implemented by a number of international and Sudanese NGOs, trains community-based animal health workers (CAHWs) to provide basic veterinary care. They are supervised by more highly trained animal health workers and by a local committee. The aim is that, eventually, the committee will manage a revolving drug fund, and fees charged for the drugs will provide wages for the workers involved. While financial sustainability is some way away, the methodology has already proved its ability to sustain the provision of veterinary care to livestock in an insecure environment, which often forces agencies to evacuate their staff. As livestock are central to the livelihoods of many of the tribes of southern Sudan, this plays an important role in helping people living in the midst of a chronic emergency to preserve their livelihoods and thus prevent famine. Capacity-building is not just about strengthening skills, but also about directly helping to meet basic humanitarian needs.

The importance of dialogue

Dialogue, presence, persistently seeking out those in the community who may have been excluded: these can be valuable tools in helping to address humanitarian needs in a ‘chronic emergency’ such as in southern Sudan. Participatory techniques, which emerged in the development sector in order to deal with issues not dissimilar to those faced by humanitarian agencies in conflict areas, have proved valuable in the design and implementation of appropriate interventions, and for identifying the poor and marginalised. They have also been useful in exposing the diversion and misappropriation of relief items. Capacity-building has helped to meet emergency needs, and has perhaps challenged the mindsets and interests that help to keep chronic emergencies going. While the debate continues as to whether humanitarianism is and should be distinct from development work, and it is clear that decisions on the type of interventions to be pursued must be made alongside a political analysis, it seems clear that some of the techniques of development are applicable in humanitarian programmes, and can be effective in addressing humanitarian needs.

Mark Adams was Field Director for ACORD in southern Sudan from July 1998 to February 2001. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACORD.

References and further reading

John Mande, ‘Balancing Principles and Needs: Capacity-Building in Southern Sudan’, Humanitarian Exchange 19, September 2001.

The Capacity-Building Working Group, ‘Capacity-building in Southern Sudan’, Humanitarian Exchange 18, March 2001.


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