Tough choices for agencies expelled from Darfur

May 6, 2009
Michael Kleinman

On 4 March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Bashir, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. On the same day, the Sudanese authorities told ten international NGOs that it had revoked their licences, and that they would immediately have to close their programmes across the country. It expelled three additional international NGOs in the days that followed and three Sudanese organisations were also disbanded.

The expulsions had an immediate impact on aid operations in Darfur. The affected agencies had supplied health services to 1.5 million people, water and sanitation for 1.16 million and food assistance to 1.1 million. In particular, the Sudanese government’s action has created three inter-related challenges: how to cover immediate humanitarian needs in Darfur; how to balance the humanitarian need to alleviate suffering with the need to preserve and maintain humanitarian space; and how to respond to needs in the east and in the Transitional Areas.

Meeting immediate needs

The UN – working with the Sudanese government – recently completed an assessment of the humanitarian situation in Darfur. Although the government insists that it can provide all essential services in conjunction with Sudanese NGOs, the assessment found that critical gaps still remain. According to UN Under-Secretary-General John Holmes, the government’s actions amount to ‘band aid solutions, not long term solutions’. The UN and other aid agencies have been able to ward off a Darfur-wide catastrophe so far, though the situation in some camps has deteriorated dramatically. UN agencies have made it clear that they lack the capacity to continue providing the necessary assistance, unless they can identify new implementing partners.

A closer look at the impact on different sectors

Food and nutrition

The expulsions threatened to leave 1.1 million people without access to food aid. The World Food Programme organised a distribution to provide these people with enough food for March and April, and at the time of writing was working to arrange a further distribution to cover May and June as well. WFP is also able to draw on local Food Relief Committees. Many of these committees were already overseeing distribution in areas where NGOs found it too difficult to operate.

However, WFP relies heavily on NGO partners, including four expelled agencies – CARE, Save the Children-US, Solidarités and Action Contre la Faim. WFP currently lacks both the staff and the infrastructure to replace these implementing partners over the long term, especially when it comes to monitoring and ensuring the accountability of distributions.

Water, sanitation and hygiene

The expelled aid agencies together helped provide clean drinking water to 1.16 million people. According to an OCHA situation report from 16 April: ‘Sanitarian and hygiene services are still lacking in most of the affected locations due to the lack of capacity and funding’. A UN assessment mission, however, warned of major water shortages if supplies of fuel and spare parts run out.

Health services

Lack of clean water means increased risk of meningitis, cholera and other water-borne diseases. Due to the expulsions, health services across Darfur have been crippled – altogether, the 13 expelled agencies provided health care to 1.5 million people. Remaining agencies are doing what they can to cover the shortfall. UNICEF has identified local health staff who used to work for expelled or disbanded agencies, and is paying them incentives for two months to keep clinics running. As of mid-April, however, 460,000 people still lacked access to health care.

According to the World Health Organisation, a number of districts – including Jebel Marra in West Darfur and Shearia in South Darfur – now have no health services at all. In Kass (South Darfur), 83% of health services have disappeared; 63% have gone in Habila (West Darfur), 22% in Kutum (North Darfur) and 20% in El Geneina (West Darfur). The expulsions has also undermined NGO efforts to provide disease surveillance.

Logistics and emergency shelter

Eleven of the 16 NGOs affected by the government’s action were UN Joint Logistic Centre logistics and emergency shelter sector partners. The expulsions – and the subsequent confiscation of NGO assets – have crippled distributions of non-food items across Darfur; as of April, over 690,000 people are without NFI distribution coverage. According to OCHA, ‘all [UNJLC NFIs] in Darfur are housed in premises that are not currently accessible to humanitarians. Despite the needs, and the availability of the items on the ground, the items cannot be distributed’.


A number of gender-based violence and child protection programmes have also been forced to close. Although mandated agencies – ICRC, UNHCR and UNICEF – remain, it is doubtful that they will be able to cover the full range of protection activities offered by those agencies which were expelled or disbanded.

This is easier said than done. First, the Sudanese government confiscated computers, files and other essential supplies when it expelled and disbanded the aid agencies, resulting in the loss of key information. This makes it exceedingly difficult to hand over operations. Furthermore, although 72 international NGOs remain in Darfur, there are a number of challenges facing any agency seeking to scale up its operations, not least bureaucratic impediments imposed by the government. These obstacles affect many aspects of aid work, from visas to national staff recruitment and customs clearances. Sudanese national security personnel have also blocked efforts by remaining NGOs to expand their programmes. Meanwhile, other agencies are reluctant to fill the gaps left by the expulsions out of concern that doing so would make all agencies seem easily replaceable.

There is also a shortage of local organisations with the necessary capacity, especially after the Sudanese government disbanded two of the largest Sudanese NGOs working in Darfur. Although many of the expelled agencies worked with and through IDP or community committees – for instance to oversee day-to-day WatSan activities – few of these committees have the capacity to continue operations, even if sufficient supplies are delivered.

The real concern is what happens over the next few months, as existing supplies dwindle, the rains start and the hungry season begins. What follows is a summary of actions taken so far – as well as existing gaps – broken down by sector.

The humanitarian imperative and humanitarian space

The question is not simply whether remaining agencies have the capacity to replicate the services provided by their expelled and disbanded counterparts, but whether they should seek to do so at all. On the one hand, the humanitarian imperative makes it clear that human suffering must be addressed. On the other hand, simply trying to continue operations as before sets a dangerous precedent in terms of humanitarian space. If the UN and other NGOs rush to replace the expelled and disbanded agencies, the Sudanese government may well conclude that it can act against aid agencies with impunity, confident that others will step forward to fill the resulting gaps. This is of particular concern given the Sudanese government’s longstanding antipathy towards those agencies that address issues around gender-based violence, and protection more generally, and agencies that speak out publicly about the situation. This in turn raises fundamental questions about the role of aid agencies in conflicts like Darfur. At what point does humanitarian action become so neutered that it simply serves as a political tool of the regime in power?

Responding to humanitarian needs in the east and in the Transitional Areas

The expulsions have also affected humanitarian operations in eastern Sudan and the three Transitional Areas defined by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement: Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and Abyei. The humanitarian situation in these areas was already grim. In Blue Nile, 15% of children under five suffer from moderate or severe malnutrition, while only 29% of children attend primary school. Blue Nile also has the lowest life expectancy for women in Sudan. If anything, the situation is even worse in eastern Sudan – Kassala and Red Sea states have the highest malnutrition rates in the country, as well as high maternal and child morbidity and mortality rates. The Sudanese government’s expulsion order affected five agencies working in Abyei, three agencies in Southern Kordofan, three agencies in eastern Sudan and one of the largest aid agencies working in Blue Nile, effectively crippling the humanitarian response in many of these areas.

Donors, the UN and NGOs are faced with many of the same dilemmas as in Darfur. Should remaining agencies plug the gaps, if doing so might result in further restrictions on humanitarian space? The situation is further complicated by the fact that development activities were supposed to underpin not only the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in the Transitional Areas, but the 2006 Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement as well.


As aid agencies, the UN and donors grapple with the increasingly complex and fraught humanitarian landscape in Darfur, it is more important than ever that humanitarians coordinate their actions, and decide together on clear parameters for re-engagement. The Sudanese government has long sought to control humanitarian action in Darfur through the imposition of bureaucratic impediments, intimidation by state security agencies and the mobilisation of popular anger and discontent against those NGOs which the government finds most threatening.

The humanitarian community faces difficult choices about how best to respond to the situation in Darfur, choices made all the more complicated by the tension between the humanitarian imperative and the need to preserve humanitarian space. For too long, humanitarian actors have been reactive.

Now is the time for agencies, the UN and donors to be pre-emptive, crafting a common position in advance of any further restrictions or conditions imposed by the Sudanese government. What are the non-negotiables when it comes to the return of expelled agencies, or the relationship between the Government and those agencies that have remained?

Would agencies be willing to accept increased government control over budgeting decisions, hiring decisions or even over programme? At what point do agencies cease to be independent actors, and instead become tools of the regime in power? The only way for the humanitarian community to protect itself is to define clearly where the limits lie.


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