A convoy of trucks travel from Juba to hard-to-reach areas in Unity and Upper Nile States in an operation to stockpile relief supplies before the start of the rainy season in the South Sudan. Renewed violence in the country has humanitarian organizations evacuating their staff and putting all aid operations on halt. Photo by: A.C. Teoh / UNHCR

Humanitarian organizations in South Sudan are being hit left and right with insecurity and a bill that threatens their work in the country.

Early this week, U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations announced they were evacuating staff members from the southern part of Unity State in South Sudan, putting all aid operations on hold.

The move was a precautionary measure aimed at ensuring the safety of aid workers amid renewed violence in the region, given that town such as Koch and Leer had been the center of hostilities in the past. In Leer last year, for instance, international medical group Médecins Sans Frontières lost contact with a large number of national staff, who with their patients fled to the bush to escape fighting in the area.

When the organization went to check the health care facility weeks later, it found a burnt hospital, broken medical equipment and a stockpile cleared of drugs and other medical supplies.

The move, according to a statement released by the United Nations, involves all U.N. agencies and NGOs working in the area. It’s unclear if all national staff members were pulled out as well, as some organizations only announced the evacuation of international personnel. But a humanitarian official with knowledge of the situation confirmed to Devex that South Sudanese who are not local to the state were among those evacuated.

Groups such as Christian Aid meanwhile continue to work through local partners, Devex has learned. Some U.N. aid agencies and international NGOs are also still continuing operations in other parts of Unity State, including in its capital Bentiu.

All evacuated personnel were relocated to Juba, according to the official, who added that aid agencies are also mulling over whether to relocate some staff from the towns of Nyal and Ganyiel as well, due again to the deteriorating security situation.

Another hit

But insecurity in southern Unity State is not the only thing aid agencies are concerned about. On Tuesday, the South Sudanese parliament passed an NGO bill that the South Sudan NGO Forum, which coordinates and helps facilitate the work of member national and international NGOs, fears will have “enormous implications” on its members’ ongoing humanitarian work in the country, and have an effect on the work of civil society organizations in general.

In a statement, the forum said its members are in favor of “better regulation in principle,” but that certain provisions in the bill don’t seem to paint that picture, and instead “hinder their ability to serve South Sudanese people at a time when needs are escalating due to the ongoing conflict.”

The bill asks NGOs — those involved in humanitarian as well as advocacy work — to ensure national staff account for 80 percent of their total workforce, leaving only a fifth of positions to foreign personnel. This unarguably is an improvement over last year’s government order requiring all international workers to leave the country — one that was immediately retracted. Still, aid groups are expected to contest this new rule.

While expats generally don’t comprise the majority of NGOs’ total staff, they account for more than 20 percent of the workforce at some organizations. MSF for instance has 340 international workers in the country, while nationals exceed 3,000.

The bill also reportedly aims to ban the establishment of international NGO forums, among other things.

“NGOs are already under mounting administrative pressure and often subject to arbitrary enforcement of rules and regulations. There are increasing incidents of harassment and violence against NGOs,” the NGO Forum’s statement said.

“At the same time, the conflict rages on, food insecurity is increasing and NGOs find themselves faced with the daunting task of caring for the people of South Sudan under increasingly difficult circumstances. If the bill makes getting assistance to people harder rather than easier, it could cost lives at a time of tremendous suffering for South Sudanese communities.”

The bill still needs the signature of President Salva Kiir to become law.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.