‘Our voices, our power’: supporting conflict-sensitive humanitarian action in South Sudan

3 October 2018 David Otim and Elizabeth White ‘Our voices, our power’: supporting conflict-sensitive humanitarian action in South Sudan

Humanitarian workers are providing vital services for many communities in South Sudan. David Otim and Elizabeth White outline some of the challenges aid workers face and explore how humanitarian responses can contribute to peace rather than conflict.

As the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly began last week, our friend Angelina Nyajima, director of South Sudanese women’s empowerment organisation Hope Restoration was in New York representing the South Sudan NGO Forum at the High-Level Humanitarian Event on South Sudan. After speaking at the event, she tweeted, ‘Our voices, our power. The world has to listen to local agencies now!’ UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock responded: ‘The real heroes in South Sudan are national humanitarians, like Angelina’. 

Back in South Sudan, Angelina and her team at Hope Restoration grapple with the realities of working to address humanitarian needs in the midst of violent conflict. This month, South Sudan’s leaders signed yet another agreement to end nearly five years of fighting across the country. But barely had the ink dried before there were reports of new violent clashes in Yei – just a stone’s throw from the country’s capital Juba.

For anyone who knows South Sudan, this feels depressingly familiar. It’s a reminder of just how fragile South Sudan’s security situation is. In 2016, just a year after the first peace agreement was signed, a sudden and sustained outbreak of violence started in Juba and spread across the country.  It forced the majority of international aid workers to leave the country which resulted in the downscaling and even suspension of many aid operations.  To this day, the situation remains tense and extremely volatile.

According to the UN, almost 500 aid workers have been relocated so far this year because of fighting and security risks. Those humanitarians who stay are a vital lifeline, often supporting the very communities they grew up in. The risks these aid workers face are clear - nearly all the 108 aid workers killed in South Sudan since December 2013 are from South Sudan.

To ensure that aid contributes to peace rather than conflict, international donors joined with peacebuilding organisations in 2015 to create South Sudan’s first Conflict Sensitivity Resource Facility (CSRF). The CSRF guides donors and aid organisations towards more conflict-sensitive aid. At CSRF, we spend a lot of time trying to understand the challenges, barriers and opportunities donors and aid workers face, and working with them to identify ways they can maximise peace while minimising the potential to cause harm.

Debates around international humanitarian reform increasingly talk about putting power and funding into the hands of organisations in conflict-affected countries – but there are considerable risks and opportunities for all involved. This is where conflict sensitivity comes in. We need to understand the context, how our actions can affect conflict, and how conflict can affect our actions so that we can ensure the transfer of power and resources contributes to long term peace and security rather than aggravating conflict. To do this, we need a more collaborative approach between international and national aid workers, informed by the knowledge of communities.

The CSRF acts as a bridge in this regard. We recently supported a number of national aid organisations through a nine-month mentorship programme, working closely with each organisation to understand their work and the challenges they face. We conducted peer assessments to help organisations learn from each other. As trust grew, organisations were better positioned to take collective action. By having monthly discussions on common challenges, aid workers increasingly identified ways to tackle them.  Angelina is one of the aid workers that participated in the mentoring programme.

Many of the challenges identified by national organisations require donors and international aid agencies to change the way they work with South Sudanese organisations. To support this effort, CSRF creates spaces for South Sudanese aid workers to meet with donors and international aid workers. This gives national organisations a rare opportunity to raise their concerns directly with the people who hold the purse strings.

Not all challenges identified by the national mentee organisations sat outside of their control. There are also things they want to do to get their own houses in order. They want to address some of the internal gaps hampering their ability to secure direct funding from donors. This includes developing their organisations in ways that often fall outside of project-focused aid, for example, introducing more robust systems to manage finances and people. There is also much discussion about how to be accountable both to donors and communities; too often there is pressure to prioritise accountability to the former over the latter.

Our experience of mentoring aid workers from South Sudanese organisations has shown us that progress towards the aspirations of the Agenda for Humanity and Grand Bargain needs to be built on strong collaborative relationships between national and international aid workers. We will only move forward if we take the time to listen and understand our respective realities and talk to one another.  We just need to make more space for these exchanges to take place more frequently.

This blog is part of a series produced by Saferworld on the theme: towards a devolved and conflict sensitive humanitarian system. Please email to receive the blog series direct to your inbox or to propose a guest blog on the series theme.

The Conflict Sensitive Resource Facility is a joint initiative of Saferworld, Swisspeace and CDA Collaborative Learning, funded jointly by the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada and the Netherlands.

Photo: UN Photo/Isaac Billy