Sudan at a Crossroads: A Humanitarian Opening?

Following the onset of Sudan’s political transition in August 2019, high-level visits by the World Food Programme (WFP) to the South Kordofan and Blue Nile states offered a rare moment of hope for millions of civilians in Sudan’s disputed southern and western regions. Following the trips to the previously restricted regions, the transitional government announced that NGOs expelled during the previous regime were welcome to resume operations throughout Sudan and lifted all restrictions for humanitarian organizations and UN agencies. While the proclamations are important, implementation remains a work in progress.

This momentary optimism for increased humanitarian access is now threatened. The economic fallout caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of Sudan’s democratic transition—and with it the opportunity to improve humanitarian conditions. Political infighting threatens to undermine the humanitarian gains. To capitalize on the progress made, the United States and other donors should empower the civilian agencies managing the humanitarian response through political engagement, increased funding, and targeted technical support. UN agencies and NGOs should encourage Sudan’s government in Khartoum and at the state level to facilitate access for humanitarian workers. Empowering the civilian authorities with political support during this moment of opportunity is vital for Sudan’s civilian population and can help bolster the civilian authorities within Sudan’s government.


Sudan has a long history of obstructing humanitarian aid; in Darfur, aid workers have documented the obstruction of humanitarian aid since at least 2004. Sudanese government tactics constituted a “bureaucratic war of attrition.” Former President Omar al-Bashir used access denial as a weapon of war, blocking humanitarian aid organizations’ access to rebel-held areas. 

Following the appointment of Abdalla Hamdok as prime minister in August 2019, there was hope that humanitarian organizations would gain access to areas previously inaccessible and operate more freely in areas where they are already present. WFP Executive Director David Beasley’s visit to Kauda, South Kordofan, in October of 2019 marked the first visit by UN personnel to the region since 2011 and had the support of Hamdok, the government of South Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), and other security forces. In early December 2019, the Sudanese government and SPLM-N leader Abdelaziz Al-Hilu granted UN agencies access to key areas decimated by flooding in Yabus. After these early steps, Sudan’s Humanitarian Commissioner Abbas Fadlallah announced in January that “Sudan has opened the door wide for the return of all international humanitarian organizations that were expelled during the era of the former regime.”

Covid-19 Compounds Sudan’s Existing Crises

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Sudan is rapidly deteriorating. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 9.3 million people, nearly a quarter of Sudan’s population, require humanitarian assistance in 2020. This includes approximately 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile regions, as well as 1 million South Sudanese refugees. The United Nations estimates that approximately $1.4 billion is required to provide life-saving assistance.

The onset of Covid-19 makes the situation more acute. Mitigation efforts by the Sudanese government have caused economic hardship for substantial portions of the Sudanese population. The combination of inflation, increasing food prices, decreasing purchasing power, and other economic impacts of Covid-19 will likely cause acute food insecurity across Sudan. Covid-19 has drawn international attention and pledges of funding, but hunger remains the highest concern for civilians and the government.

Covid-19 has also worsened the humanitarian situation in Darfur and the Two Areas (the South Kordofan and Blue Nile states). The first case of Covid-19 in Sudan was confirmed on March 13, 2020; as of July 8, there are 10,250 confirmed cases, including 650 fatalities across all 18 states. The majority of cases and fatalities are concentrated in Khartoum, but several reports have cautioned that the virus has spread unchecked in the rest of the country. Questions abound regarding the accuracy of official numbers; outside of Khartoum, there is very limited testing capacity. The risk posed to the Two Areas and Darfur is especially high due to decades of disinvestment, conflict, and isolation that has left populations more vulnerable and with limited access to a very weak health infrastructure. The economic fallout from Covid-19 mitigation measures and Sudan’s agricultural lean season (June through September) have coincided, leaving more people at risk for famine, especially among IDPs in Jebel Marra and the Two Areas.

Donor Response

Complicating matters for donors is Sudan’s continued designation on the U.S. State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST) list. Although most economic sanctions on Sudan were removed in 2017, Sudan’s designation as an SST presents a hurdle for the civilian-led transitional government as it tries to rectify economic woes that are a legacy of the previous regime. Most analysts agree that Sudan no longer warrants inclusion on the list, yet the process for removal is complex and lengthy.

Sudan’s designation as an SST, the $3 billion in debt arrears it owes to international financial institutions, and its $57.5 billion in external debt all pose significant challenges to Sudan’s economy. The SST designation discourages foreign direct investment and blocks access to debt relief through the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) program, not to mention Covid-19 response funds such as the IMF’s Rapid Credit Facility (RCF). In addition to its SST designation, Sudan owes $3 billion in arrears to the IMF and the World Bank. The restart of negotiations with the IMF is promising, as the IMF is attempting to establish a track record of policy performance to recommend Sudan for HIPC if it is removed from SST and to help consolidate unsustainable debts. Moreover, Sudan’s removal from SST will enable the United States to vote in favor of loans, credits, and guarantees by international financial institutions. Sudan’s designation also discourages foreign investment and causes some banks to be reluctant to process financial transactions (including remittances), causing further hardship as the transitional government struggles to fix the failing economy.

To counteract the debilitating socioeconomic effects of Covid-19 containment measures and the economic crisis, the government of Sudan partnered with the WFP to implement the Family Support Programme (FSP) to provide 80 percent of Sudanese families with monthly direct cash transfers. The FSP is meant to provide individual family subsidies to help navigate hardships caused by the exponential rise in food prices and the economic crisis. The wide scope of the program is appropriate; according to Sudan’s government, 65 percent of Sudan’s population lives below the poverty line, particularly concentrated in rural areas.

Yet the FSP is only a small step toward alleviating Sudan’s economic and humanitarian hardships. Discontent with the level of economic reform needed in Sudan was underlined by the recent “millions march” protests that showcased the continued frustration of the Sudanese population over inaction on democratic reforms and enormous economic difficulties. The recent surprise cabinet reshuffle that led to the departure of Minister of Finance and Economic Planning Ibrahim al-Badawi also threatens the future of the FSP, though to what extent remains unclear.

Recognizing the significant economic and political challenges facing the civilian-led transitional government, donors held a pledging conference in late June that generated $1.8 billion in pledges and an additional $400 million pre-arrears clearance grant from the World Bank. This is an important step yet insufficient for the scope of need, as much of the funding came from pre-existing pledges. Further, donors continue to express reservations around ensuring the transparency and accountability of funding going into Sudan, given the history of corruption and misappropriation of funds.

Access Challenges

Despite cautious optimism regarding the civilian component of the Sudanese government’s commitment to unfettered humanitarian access, and the increased attention and funding offered by donors, the humanitarian situation remains precarious. Aid organizations continue to deal with a “challenging operational environment.” Interviews with multiple stakeholders operating in the country have confirmed that while the WFP and other UN agencies have substantially increased freedom of movement, restrictions remain for local and international NGOs. Access to South Kordofan continues to be a challenge from Khartoum. While the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) in Khartoum has demonstrated exceptional openness to assist in the reregistering of NGO’s expelled under al-Bashir, HAC offices in the southern states report directly to state governors (previously appointed directly by the military) and have been much less receptive to the renewed presence of international and domestic organizations. Bureaucratic impediments, a legacy of al-Bashir’s regime, continue to be a challenge for lower-profile NGOs.

Institutionally, while the HAC has been more open toward foreign agencies federally, the legacy of a heavy bureaucratic structure remains. The agility of the civil service structure to manage a complicated humanitarian response in the south and west, as well as the FSP, remains uncertain. Furthermore, the lack of access for international and local NGO’s also highlights the lack of data on the scope of needs, especially in areas that have been historically inaccessible. A legacy of al-Bashir’s regime is a trust deficit with international organizations, especially in terms of information sharing and data. Humanitarian organizations have to rely on thin data that only offers estimates of the scope of need, reinforcing the need for technical support to civilian authorities to improve data collection and sharing. Furthermore, concerns abound regarding transparency for humanitarian funding, especially as legacy elements of al-Bashir’s government remain in positions of authority.

The increase in the presence of the WFP and other UN humanitarian agencies is also complicated by debate over the drawdown for the United Nations–African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), generating a sense of competition within the United Nations for funding, pitting civilian protection concerns against hunger and other assistance priorities. There is clearly a greater rhetorical commitment to humanitarian action under the new civilian authorities. However, civilian protection issues remain, and the need for a sustained UNAMID presence has not yet abated. The recent declaration of a state of emergency in North Darfur in response to an escalation in violence underscores the need for continued civilian protection; unrest and insecurity continue in the region. Assistance is needed, but so is physical protection, and the pressure for a swift exit for UNAMID highlights the challenges faced by the civilian government from military elements loyal to the previous regime.

A Delicate Political Balance

Finally, access and transparency around humanitarian operations are challenged by ongoing jockeying and political fighting, especially between and among Sudan’s competing security forces and the civilian authorities within the transitional government. Under al-Bashir, Sudanese security forces manipulated aid distribution in contested areas. Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo, head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and deputy chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, is continuing the legacy of the securitization and politicization of aid by delivering aid in Blue Nile in the name of the RSF to posture himself as able to provide services. This occurs at the expense of Hamdok and civilian agencies who are increasingly unable to deliver on the promises of the revolution. Given the preponderance of military figures in Sudan holding a disproportionate amount of power and influence, including individuals tied to the previous regime, there is a danger this trend will continue.

The securitization of humanitarian aid threatens the gains made in humanitarian access. Aid agencies will be challenged with navigating receptive but poorly equipped civilian authorities in Khartoum and security agencies controlling access in contested areas. This underscores the importance for donors of establishing a meaningful and collaborative technical relationship with a broad range of civilian authorities in order to improve service delivery, empower and legitimize them, and ensure transparent and effective distribution of assistance.


First, the United States should make it a top priority to formally remove Sudan’s SST designation as a legitimization effort and to facilitate Sudan’s economic recovery, enabling increased donor support for the FSP and Sudan’s other response efforts to humanitarian challenges.

Second, to capitalize on gains made in humanitarian access, the United States should support Sudan’s civilian leadership by offering technical support to civilian agencies managing and overseeing the humanitarian operations, including the FSP. Technical support should include efforts toward data collection and management to ensure a coherent and efficient humanitarian response.

The United Nations should advocate on behalf of the NGO community and ensure all qualified national and international humanitarian organizations have access to all regions of Sudan. Humanitarian organizations should continue to advocate to Khartoum and at the state level for access to Darfur and the Two Areas via regularized corridors from Khartoum. Further, the United Nations and donor states should publicly commit to a sustained UNAMID presence for the near future.

The Sudanese government should provide technical assistance to humanitarian organizations seeking to independently collect data analyzing the totality of humanitarian need. This small step by the interim government would shore up donor confidence and ensure the ability of NGOs to identify the totality of needs and respond accordingly.

Jacob Kurtzer is interim director and senior fellow with the Humanitarian Agenda program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. Nadia Schaaphok is a former research intern with the Humanitarian Agenda program at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jacob Kurtzer
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Humanitarian Agenda

Nadia Schaaphok

Intern, Humanitarian Agenda Program