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Accessing South Sudan in time of humanitarian crisis

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By Erol Yayboke

The Issue

Since gaining its independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan has struggled to fulfill the promise of a new nation, eventually descending into civil war in late 2013. The country is now bearing the devastating human and financial costs of a complex conflict with ever-changing armed and political actors. Aid organizations face an array of humanitarian access constraints while working to address the acute needs of 7 million people, roughly half of the country. Although there is cause for cautious optimism after a peace agreement was signed in September 2018, these humanitarian needs will only grow in the absence of sustainable peace and a political solution to the man-made crisis in South Sudan.

South Sudan has received significant humanitarian aid from the United States and the international community for decades. Since 2011, total humanitarian funding surpassed $9.5 billion, most of which has been part of the coordinated South Sudan Humanitarian Response Plan (SSHRP). The U.S. government has provided almost $3 billion to the SSHRP, with even more to development priorities.This aid has helped and continues to help millions: in 2017 alone, more than 5 million people received food assistance, almost 3 million people received emergency health kits, and nearly one million children and pregnant and lactating women were treated for malnutrition.

Some hoped that peace and prosperity would follow years of devastating armed conflict. Such hopes were, however, short-lived: South Sudan descended into civil war in late 2013. Since then, more than 4 million South Sudanese, or approximately 1 in 3 of its citizens, 85 percent of whom are women and children, have been forced from home. The protracted crisis is further complicated by domestic political actors who seem immune from or uninterested in the suffering of their people and regional diplomatic processes that often result in fleeting promises of reconciliation before retreat into armed conflict. This has led to a staggering number of South Sudanese caught in the cross fire. Of the 7 million people currently in need of humanitarian aid, 5.3 million are food insecure. A recent study showed that the conflict has led to almost 400,000 deaths since late 2013.

With so much need, the country relies heavily on external humanitarian funding, which should be credited for saving countless South Sudanese lives. However, the UN estimates current needs at $1.7 billion, only half of which has been funded to date. At the same time, the Trump Administration initiated a comprehensive review of its aid programs to South Sudan in May 2018. In its statement, the White House said that while the United States remained “committed to saving lives, we must also ensure our assistance does not contribute to or prolong the conflict, or facilitate predatory or corrupt behavior”. Ultimately, a cessation of hostilities, a more inclusive and reconciliatory political process that results in a functional government delivering services to citizens, and economic growth all are critical for South Sudan to one day emerge from this dark period in its history. These goals have proved elusive, primarily because of armed conflict, and aid groups find themselves dealing with predatory and often corrupt behavior that increases the human and financial costs of humanitarian access. Although similar or even more acute challenges may exist in other places (e.g., Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen), the constraints in South Sudan on aiding some of the most vulnerable people on the planet are no less formidable.

Inconsistent access in South Sudan is coupled with staggering human costs: today more than half of the country’s population is in need of life-saving humanitarian aid. Protracted and widespread conflict means that people throughout the country are suffering, stretching the capacity of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and offering opportunities for state and nonstate actors to manipulate aid for their own, primarily nonhumanitarian purposes. To deliver humanitarian aid to vulnerable people, NGO workers must regularly navigate access with myriad local actors, many of whom are armed. They have limited money, food, supplies, and vehicles and thus see NGO-provided goods as ripe for exploitation.

Thus, the human costs of humanitarian access constraints are most acute for those who are unable to receive assistance. But the costs to the people delivering that aid are also high. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) counts 192 organizations currently responding to the crisis in South Sudan with emergency programs; more than 100 aid workers from these and other organizations have died since the most recent conflict erupted in 2013.9 In 2017, South Sudan was the most dangerous country for aid workers, with 50 percent more workers killed than in Syria and 612 aid workers forced to relocate due to ongoing conflict.10 Already in 2018, 36 aid workers have been kidnapped, with a vast majority of those at risk working for national NGOs.11 In response, many NGOs maintain security apparatuses that add to the already high financial costs of operating in South Sudan.

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