Issue 68 - Article 12

Survival Kits: finding the balance between risk and reward

January 26, 2017
Laura Jones
Survival Kits are offloaded from a UN Humanitarian Air Service helicopter in Nyakni Highland.

The environment in South Sudan in the spring of 2015 created new protection challenges for both beneficiaries and humanitarians, in turn leading to problems of coordination and information-sharing. The urgent need to launch a response led to the creation of ‘Survival Kits’, a collection of essential items to help people survive for a week or two until they could move to a safer location where their needs could be met with more robust assistance. While the operation was innovative, the kits were probably most useful in highlighting one of the greatest challenges faced in conflict operations, namely balancing protection risks, and the related confidentiality of information, against the need for intervention. The approach also high-lighted key lessons that could be applied in similar contexts, including the need to find a way to share information without compromising confidentiality, and the need to learn both from each other and from the past.


Since the current crisis began in December 2013, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that over two million people have been displaced (1.6 million internally). Many more have faced food insecurity, a lack of basic services and a growing economic crisis. It is indisputable that the people of South Sudan have suffered tremendous abuse at the hands of both the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA-In Opposition (SPLA-IO).

Between April and June 2015, the SPLA launched a campaign against the SPLA-IO in central Unity State. Attacks on civilians in central and southern Unity caused widespread displacement in Guit, Rubkhona, Koch, Leer, Panyijar and Mayendit counties, often to remote and isolated island locations. Many of the humanitarian challenges resulting from these events were typical of operations in a conflict setting, including access and how organisations were receiving and sharing critical information. Concerns over protection risks, both for civilians and local humanitarian workers, led many organisations to withdraw from established coordination structures in favour of smaller, more discreet side consultations amongst themselves. Information on what was happening at the field level was vigorously guarded by those with a field presence, for the understandable reason that sharing information could put people on the ground in jeopardy; at the same time, the resulting lack of credible information from these key locations prevented broad-based discussions around risk versus impact and prohibited inclusive operational decision-making.

In practical terms, this meant that the Inter-Cluster Working Group (ICWG), which had been established and mandated to debate overarching issues related to the response as well as provide guidance to the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT), did not have the information that would allow it to weigh the protection risks of delivering assistance against the risks to civilians associated with not doing so, or to offer alternatives to traditional response models that might reduce the risks to humanitarian staff. Instead, decision-making was outsourced to a smaller group of agencies. This group was not officially established or sanctioned and thus did not have to account for the decisions the agencies in it made. Some members of this group felt that the protection risks (as assessed by this same group) associated with intervening were too high and that any humanitarian response should be delayed, while others were frustrated by the lack of action and felt that the situation should be reviewed and discussed more broadly within the ICWG (or within the HCT at the very least), given the dire needs on the ground.

Changing approaches to assistance

The concept of Survival Kits was in many ways seen as a compromise between these two groups. The kits are designed to provide a modicum of assistance to affected people in locations that cannot or should not be reached through existing response models (i.e. rapid, mobile and static responses) due to protection concerns and severe access constraints. The kits contain a combination of loose items, primarily food security and livelihoods assistance, health and non-food items and shelter, nutrition, and water, sanitation and hygiene products. Survival Kits generally consist of a seven-day ration of BP5, 18 high-energy biscuits, one fishing kit, two packs of seeds, oral rehydration salts, Aquatabs, two collapsible jerry cans, two mosquito nets, half a regular kitchen set and a large bag. In special circumstances additional items can be added provided they don’t make the kits too bulky or heavy to transport and carry. It is a ‘drop and go’ approach that aims to reach people in volatile areas where security risks are high and there are severe protection concerns for beneficiaries and humanitarian staff.

As the kits were being developed, all the parties concerned agreed that protection had to remain the key determining factor. It was also agreed that some of the risks could be mitigated by keeping assistance packages extremely light – a maximum of 9kg – as larger, heavier kits would mean more delivery helicopters over a longer period of time and thus greater risk for both beneficiaries and humanitarians. The Shelter-NFI Cluster and the Logistics Cluster did make an attempt to airdrop the kits, and in one instance, some months after the launch of the effort, were able to pilot the drops. Ultimately, the weight of the items and the need for specialised aircraft made continuing air drops impossible. Their weight was also kept down so that beneficiaries could carry them easily while on the move to a safer location. Additionally, it was agreed that humanitarians needed to figure out ways to make the most of limited ‘windows of opportunity’ where access was possible. Given the air assets available, pushing for full packages of assistance would not only increase the risks to beneficiaries but also lead to missed opportunities if, for example, only one sector was able to fly its stock in the limited time period available. Thus, it was agreed that providing a light, integrated package of assistance would be essential to both reducing the potential harm caused to beneficiaries and humanitarians through intervention, and to ensuring that beneficiaries were receiving the most critical items in one go.

Another critical decision was that the kits were not meant to be an exhaustive package of assistance; rather, they were intended to ensure that people had enough to tide themselves over until they could access assistance elsewhere. Concerns were also justifiably raised about distributing assistance with-out assessment or with very limited community consultation, particularly given the degree of aid saturation in other parts of the country. Ultimately, however, it was agreed that assumptions of need would have to be made given the extreme circumstances. Thus, the kits would be exceptionally ‘exempted’ from the standard processes of the response cycle, including needs assessments.

Creation and implementation was a highly consultative process, bringing in all the cluster leads, who in turn consulted with their partners on the criteria for using the modality and the contents of the kit. The relevant pipeline agencies, namely the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), were asked to dedicate stock for 30,000 kits, which would be collected and packaged by IOM and delivered to the field by the Logistics Cluster. It was agreed that the kits should only be used as a last resort, and that any request to use them would have to be approved by the ICWG.

It is important to note that similar approaches to assistance (community survival kits) were widely used during Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) beginning in the mid-1990s. Camilla Madsen, Study of SCF-UK’s Community Survival Kits and Their Impact on Displaced Children’s Lives in the War-affected South Sudan, 1997. Humanitarians on the ground during the 2015 operation were unaware of this, however, highlighting a serious gap in learning and knowledge transfer. While efforts have been made to capture the lessons from OLS, for instance by the Sudan Open Archive and the South Sudan Humanitarian Project, humanitarian staff currently in the field lack knowledge of these resources and access to (or awareness of how to access) practical operational guidance more broadly.


In January 2016, the Shelter Cluster in coordination with OCHA launched a review of the Survival Kits to see if they had met their intended objective. The nature of the intervention understandably made it difficult to track many of the results (though it is worth noting that camp managers in Bentiu consistently observed a large number of arrivals carrying the kits in the aftermath of the events in Unity). Nevertheless, IOM and OCHA were able to analyse the degree to which the operation was able to take advantage of windows of opportunity and, in one case, were able to consult with beneficiaries.

The results were extremely positive. In 69% of the locations served with Survival Kits the window of opportunity to provide assistance closed immediately following the distribution, meaning that if the kits had not been used, these people would not have received basic items necessary for day-to-day survival. In a survey of beneficiaries, 50% said that they would not have had access to essential household and livelihood items had they not received the kits. All of the 67 households interviewed said that the kits had helped them to cope with living in displacement. IOM, Review of Survival Kits – South Sudan 2015, While there is no data on whether these operations led directly to civilians being targeted on account of receiving the kits, regular protection monitoring did not produce any concerns in this regard.


Although providing packages of assistance is certainly not new to humanitarian operations, elements of the Survival Kits operation (not least the weight of the kits and the way the modality was reviewed and agreed) were innovative, and highlighted some critical process issues related to coordination, information and data sharing and knowledge transfer that are particularly relevant in light of the current conflict environments in which many humanitarians are now responding.

Coordination remains critical. Although humanitarians know this in principle, situations such as that which led to the launch of the Survival Kits operation demonstrate that coordination remains a challenging endeavour, particularly in cases where protection concerns are at the forefront of the response. The core challenge is around the need to protect sensitive information, such as individual identities and the locations of vulnerable groups. Yet at the same time it is essential that, even within sensitive environments, the right organisations have access to the right kind of information to avoid delays in critical responses. The humanitarian community should think carefully about some sort of classification system that applies a level of sensitivity to information and indicates which actors can have access to different levels, in a similar way to government national security classifications. This idea is not new – a friend was telling me the other day about IDP Vulnerability Assessment and Profiling in Pakistan which, while aimed at providing more impartial and targeted assistance, also includes an information ranking system whereby only predetermined individuals had access to certain levels of confidential information. It may be worth examining this case to see whether it is replicable in other contexts.

Sharing information, in whatever limited way, can enhance debate around critical response issues and present more innovative options. In the South Sudan example, the small group of actors that had access to information about what was happening on the ground did not necessarily have expertise in other sectors and thus were not aware of all possible intervention options, some of which could significantly reduce the degree of risk involved. As is so often the case, bringing in multiple perspectives and different areas of expertise across a variety of sectors facilitated the adoption of an innovative yet realistic approach that took into consideration the concerns of all parties involved. While the solution still involved risk, through a more consultative process the group was able to alter the risk/reward calculation to the extent that all felt comfortable moving forward with an intervention.

Lessons should be shared and communicated. Again, humanitarians know that it is good practice to conduct operational reviews, and South Sudan in many ways has done better than most at archiving information, but how can we ensure that future aid workers are aware of its existence and are making proper use of the resources available? How can we improve information exchange across countries and contexts, particularly when it comes to operations?

First, there needs to be more cross-pollination between the humanitarian and academic/policy communities; facilitating presentations by experts at the Rift Valley Institute (RVI) or the South Sudan Humanitarian Project to the ICWG, for example, might be a useful first step in raising awareness about existing resources. South Sudan Humanitarian Project: It is worth noting that OCHA in South Sudan is currently working on developing briefing packages for incoming humanitarian staff, which in addition to an overview of the current operation could also be used to promote available resources, not only for South Sudan but also for other countries; one example is the Humanitarian Practice Network, which can provide guidance from other contexts. Another idea might be to create registers of people for key protracted crises (e.g. South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia) who have worked in these countries and can mentor incoming staff, or at least make themselves available to answer questions about the response and/or sources of information from other countries that might be of use. Some of the global clusters have begun to do this, but the practice does not appear to be consistent. Finally, and this is likely to be most important, more engagement is almost always needed with local staff, many of whom have been involved in humanitarian operations for decades and can share critical information on successes and failures. The critical point is that the mechanisms for information exchange may exist, but we as a community need to take a closer look at how we are utilising them.

Laura Jones is former Shelter Cluster Coordinator (IOM), South Sudan.


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