July-August 2011: The Republic of South Sudan turns a new page – but humanitarian needs persist

Op-ed published  July 8, 2011 in The Guardian

This is not the time to give up on vulnerable populations in Darfur and South Kordofan

As The Republic of South Sudan prepares for its formal independence on 9 July, there is a danger that the attention of the world’s donor governments is distracted away from the dire humanitarian situation in Darfur and the South Kordofan region, recently subject to military operations by the Sudanese government.

In our work assessing the response of donor governments to the crisis in Sudan a few weeks ago for the Humanitarian Response Index, we found increasing concerns among humanitarian organisations that the international community – in particular donor governments and the UN – will cut back their efforts to address the persistent and ongoing needs in some parts of Sudan.

Sudan has not been an easy operating environment for anyone concerned about the millions of people suffering the consequences of armed conflict, deprivation and, now, acute drought. Three decades of massive humanitarian assistance to Sudan have addressed immediate needs, but have not done much to build capacity for self-sufficiency of the Sudanese. Delivering aid to Sudan’s most vulnerable people has been challenging, especially due to a government which often obstructs impartial humanitarian actors.

The most obvious example is the termination of the activities of 16 aid agencies in March 2009, and the severe restrictions placed on NGOs and other humanitarian organisations to operate in the country. The government has manipulated the response by maintaining tight control over needs assessments and restricting access to affected populations, making it difficult to have a clear picture of the situation and allocate aid resources where needs are greatest.

Meanwhile, aid organisations are fearful of speaking out about the government’s and non-state actors’ failure to fulfill their responsibilities to protect the lives and dignity of civilians. The government has also tried repeatedly to stop any mention of the need for protection of civilians. Addressing sexual and gender-based violence is highly sensitive.

More recently, the Sudanese government has deliberately kept the international community away from South Kordofan, a region with pressing humanitarian needs following the indiscriminate bombings, harassment and killing of civilians there.

Although donor governments have been very generous with their funding to Sudan – with £870m ($1.4bn) allocated in 2010 – they have continually struggled to find a common voice to denounce the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Sudan, or develop a coherent and effective strategy to interact with the Sudanese government and deliver aid.

It is not surprising, given this difficult working environment, that many humanitarian actors and donors might be tempted to focus their efforts on the South, start afresh and build a more healthy relationship with local authorities. South Sudan’s independence offers a unique opportunity for donors to work with their humanitarian partners and the new government towards application of the Good Humanitarian Donorship principles, principles that outline many of the key elements of good donor practice that seem so difficult to implement in Sudan, such as respect for international humanitarian law and human rights laws.

The Republic of South Sudan has real needs of its own that need to be met, however this is not the time to give up on vulnerable populations in the North, and in particular Darfur and South Kordofan. Both Sudans will continue to require the full attention and support of the international community, regardless of how difficult a challenge it poses. The humanitarian imperative absolutely requires that donor governments keep the pressure on the authorities to allow unrestricted access to all populations, ensure protection of civilians, non-combatants and humanitarian workers.

It is the responsibility of both Sudanese governments, to safeguard the basic needs of their populations, including protection. Discrete diplomacy, as well as active advocacy by donors and the international community will be required.

Donor governments must re-engage with the humanitarian situation in Sudan and work towards a principled humanitarian approach that meets the needs of all vulnerable groups. For the benefit of the people of both states.