Sudan Conflict: Rethinking Pathways for Humanitarian Aid Provision

The outbreak of violence between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in mid-April has undermined Sudan’s already troubled political transition and thrown the country into a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations estimates that more than a million people have been displaced by the conflict and $2.6 billion is needed to fund the humanitarian response. To support the delivery of humanitarian aid, the warring parties signed a truce on May 20 in Jeddah. The ceasefire has now collapsed, although in spite of repeated violations, it reportedly facilitated the delivery of aid to approximately two million people.

Now that fighting has resumed, medical care and basic goods are increasingly hard to come by for those who remain in Sudan. In early May, the Sudan Doctors Trade Union reported that 70 percent of the hospitals in conflict-affected areas are no longer functional. According to one estimate, the price of basic goods has more than doubled, while fuel prices increased more than tenfold. Given that many wealthier Sudanese citizens have fled the country, the burden of these skyrocketing prices falls upon some of the poorest Sudanese.

Delivering humanitarian assistance in an active conflict is a huge security and logistical challenge, and the international humanitarian response has been unable to keep pace with the scope and scale of Sudan’s crisis. Not only is Sudan competing for resources with the ongoing war in Ukraine and other humanitarian crises, international assistance efforts are increasingly stymied by deadlock within the UN Security Council and competition among different countries for the allegiance of Sudan’s warring factions. Supporting the people of Sudan, thus, requires rethinking standard models of humanitarian aid. It is critical to create alternative pathways of aid provision that prioritize engaging with civilians over fighting factions.

The Current Humanitarian Situation and the International Response

Before the outbreak of violence between the RSF and SAF, roughly one-third of the country’s population was in need of humanitarian assistance and more than 3.5 million people were displaced. Since the outbreak of fighting in mid-April, another approximately 1.2 million Sudanese have fled their homes. Furthermore, prior to the recent outbreak of fighting, Sudan gave refuge to roughly 1.3 million refugees from other conflict-affected contexts like Ethiopia, Syria, and South Sudan. According to Martin Griffiths, UN under-secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, there was a serious shortfall in humanitarian support for Sudan even prior to the outbreak of violence in Khartoum. The rapidly escalating scale of humanitarian need in Sudan has led the United Nations to almost double its estimate of needed life-saving humanitarian assistance to $3 billion. It is highly unlikely that these needs will be met. The scale of humanitarian need far outweighs the willingness of donors to respond, leading to an unprecedented global shortfall of humanitarian assistance of over 50 percent at the end of 2022.

The continued fighting makes the delivery of the available assistance a huge challenge. For example, in early May, the European Union announced an air bridge to provide essential aid: “30 tonnes of essential items, including water, sanitation and hygiene as well as shelter equipment were transported from the warehouses of the United Nations in Dubai to Port Sudan. Upon arrival, they were handed over to UNICEF and the World Food Programme,” the press release said. Though the allocation of more aid to Sudan is crucial, an air bridge to Port Sudan does not solve the thorny issue of the distribution of aid within Sudan, which is made even more challenging by the large-scale evacuation of UN staff from Khartoum early in the fighting. Griffiths has called on both the SAF and RSF to ensure the safe passage of aid. “It’s not as if we’re asking for the moon,” he said. “We’re asking for the movement of humanitarian supplies and people. We do this in every other country, even without cease-fires.”

Humanitarian actors are not only struggling with funding shortfalls, staffing gaps, and continued fighting, they are also increasingly the target of attacks and looting by armed actors. Since the RSF and SAF began fighting, humanitarians and healthcare providers have faced looting and threats. For example, it was reported in early May that six trucks affiliated with the World Food Program were reportedly looted en route to Darfur; the World Food Program further reported that roughly 17,000 tons of food had been taken from storage sites across the country from the beginning of the fighting to early May. Not only have supplies been taken by armed actors, humanitarians themselves have been the targets of violence and intimidation campaigns. The WFP suspended aid operations for a period in the country as a result of the deaths of three aid workers in mid-April, though it has since resumed operations.

Sudanese doctors and other medical workers have also been subjected to harassment for taking a neutral stance in the conflict. To protect themselves, Sudanese medical workers often refuse to identify which armed actors perpetrated the violence. Al Jazeera notes that “they have adopted the stance in order to not provoke the army or RSF, although both sides have been accused, and have accused each other, of attacking medical facilities and committing human rights abuses since the war began.” This neutral stance is designed to prevent the politicization of their care, although the threats against them show the limits of this approach.

Civilian Mobilization

In the face of the challenges facing the international humanitarian response, civilian-led “resistance committees” have played crucial humanitarian roles. These organizations date back roughly three decades, but became newly relevant during the protest movement that removed Omar al-Bashir from office in 2019. According to one report, “When the violence erupted, many of the resistance committees formed emergency cabinets to coordinate their action. . . . They distribute food, water and other essentials, such as baby formula, insulin and first aid supplies, to hundreds of families.” In response to the looting and targeting of medical facilities, resistance committees have established makeshift “emergency rooms” to provide basic medical care. Though these informal clinics are undoubtedly providing critical care, they are limited in terms of what sorts of treatments they can provide.

One representative of a Sudanese think tank told Al Jazeera that “the resistance committees maintain their legitimacy because they do something differently than political elites in this country and that is service provision. They have always centered all their political work around service and they are doing that much more now during the war.” The article further noted that the resistance committees have not only provided services, but also “coordinated evacuations for besieged civilians and spread anti-war messaging.”

In addition to civilian organizing through the resistance committees, there are reports of citizens organizing humanitarian aid through social media, including WhatsApp groups and through coordinated hashtags.

A Way Forward

The current situation in Sudan presents enormous challenges for Sudanese and international humanitarian actors who aim to help them. Given the likely continued shortfalls in humanitarian aid as well as the widespread insecurity, getting crucial life-saving assistance is likely to be a continued challenge. International aid actors have increasingly committed themselves to allocating aid to “local” actors who can most directly serve the people. At the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, some of the largest donors and humanitarian organizations agreed to a Grand Bargain, which included a commitment to provide greater support “for the leadership, delivery and capacity of local responders and the participation of affected communities in addressing humanitarian needs.” In spite of widespread support for this shift, the increased “localization” of humanitarian aid has faced numerous challenges, including associated risk management for donors and entrenched interests and power dynamics within the aid industry.

The current crisis in Sudan demonstrates the importance of exploring alternative pathways toward the provision of life-saving assistance. Relying on fighting factions to provide for the safe passage of aid is, at a certain point, naive given the pattern of violence that has emerged in the fighting thus far.

Some members of resistance committees have called upon the international community to engage proactively with them to assess need and distribute aid. One resistance committee member told Al Jazeera that such partnership seemed unlikely in the current climate because of the international community’s preference for negotiating with familiar state representatives: “[The global community] makes excuses not to deal with [resistance committees] . . . because they don’t make efforts to understand them. They just understand militaries where there are people in charge and there are people underneath them,” she said.

International aid to Sudan should focus on partnerships that do not rely solely on the approval of the warring factions, but instead connect directly with the civilian populations directly. Within such an unstable context, these partnerships will certainly pose challenges to the established routines for delivering humanitarian aid, but they are also likely to be one of the only ways to help so many Sudanese who desperately need other options.

Hilary Matfess is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Susanna Campbell is the director of the Research on International Policy Implementation Lab (RIPIL) and an associate professor at American University.

Susanna Campebell

Director, Research on International Policy Implementation Lab (RIPIL); Associate professor, American University