From emergency to frustration in South Sudan

A woman receives food assistance in Pibor, South Sudan, where the World Food Program is using helicopters to bring aid to tens of thousands of people who have fled the violence. Bad weather and insecurity are making it even more difficult for humanitarian groups to deliver aid in Jonglei state. Photo by: Martine Perret / United Nations

The rainy season is bringing in a dangerous mix of logistical challenges and frustration among humanitarians in South Sudan, where the seasonal bad weather and almost perpetual insecurity are putting on a considerable amount of stress to aid groups already stretched in capacity and resources.

Many U.N. agencies and NGOs have been voicing concerns for the past two months over the situation in Jonglei state, where violence – some purportedly caused by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army  has prompted hundreds of thousands of people to flee into the bush, leaving them vulnerable to diseases like malaria, but virtually inaccessible for most humanitarian organizations.

Medecins Sans Frontieres has established itself in the towns of Gumuruk and Dorein in Pibor county in Jonglei. The aim was for civilians to meet them at a so-called “critical point,” but this is not being achieved, as people refuse to come back fearing for their safety,” Head of Mission Vikki Stienen told Devex.

“It’s a vast area, a swampy area, and it means you cannot just go everywhere. So anywhere where we want to go, we need to go by helicopter [which we’ll be having in August],” he explained.

This however is not the only source of concern for the organization.

Government authorities were recently able to track almost 28,000 internally displaced people — but Stienen said the United Nations is coming short of providing these people food and other basic commodities.

“The problem now is that actually that the U.N. [agencies, like] WFP, they don’t have enough food or rations or supplies … So that of course means that we now have identified where the people are, but the UN is basically not able to provide them with the supplies that they need … I’m saying it a little bit too harsh, because of course they are doing something, but they are not reaching the big numbers that we are speaking about,” he said.

What seems to particularly upset Stienen is the fact that this situation is nothing new for humanitarian actors in South Sudan. Every year, aid groups face the same problem of inaccessibility during the rainy season, and violence is a constant concern. And yet, he said, the U.N. “response is not adequate. It’s not delivering.”

He added: “The U.N. system has an enormous amount of capacity … they are the ones that should have logistical capacity to deliver.”

Unlike other NGOs, MSF does not rely on the UN system with regard to its operations in South Sudan, and much of its funding comes from private donors.

UN’s side

The United Nations admits food distributions in Gumuruk, for example, have been put on hold due to several factors — although it is expected to resume soon following the arrival of three helicopters WFP can use for its operations — but dispelled notions the body failed to prepare for the crisis. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance country chief Vincent Lelei told Devex the agency and other U.N. bodies, along with partner NGOs, started prepositioning supplies across the country as early as late last year.

“We prepositioned lifesaving supplies like medicine, water purifying tablets, jerry cans, shelter materials, food, nutrition materials, in the right places in a hundred spots across the country … but we never foresaw at any one time that significant levels of destruction and looting would happen at the scale at which it happened. And secondly, far more importantly, we never expected some 100,000 people to be directly affected as it has happened in Pibor county alone,” he said.

In May, before the rainy season, armed groups, suspected as SPLA members, looted warehouses containing humanitarian supplies in Jonglei, including facilities managed by the World Food Program. Acting humanitarian coordinator Yasmin Haque back then voiced that such incidents were making it harder for humanitarians to provide lifesaving assistance to people affected by violence in the state.

Lelei however said he understands where the frustrations are coming from.

“When I was in Gumuruk yesterday, I saw three children who had just been orphaned by the latest violence between the different communities very close to Gumuruk. I was wondering what could have been done to protect those children. I was really overwhelmed with emotion when I saw them. Because they were sitting under a tree, which was now their permanent home. They definitely did not have any shelter materials, food, medicine. This has happened over and over again in various parts of Jonglei, and I saw many many desperate women that looked so much in need. But even if we explained all of our preparatory arrangements, all these contingency plans I have mentioned, many would still get into frustration mode that something else could surely have been done differently.”

Addressing the challenges

Lelei noted South Sudan is an exceptional, complex humanitarian operation that requires continued dynamic planning.

Natural disasters and constant fighting are in play — and while the U.N. along with partner NGOs may have laid out several coordinated measures in place, these are not enough to change the current circumstances.

“The South Sudan humanitarian operation is a hand-to-mouth lifesaving operation. And it is not the right way of doing things ultimately. It is in a sense a treatment of symptoms, not the disease,” he said, underlining the importance of medium- to long-term investment as well as coordinated effort among all actors, the latter also shared by Stienen.

But Lelei pointed out: “As long as that is not fully gaining momentum, it is likely that however effective we will be in a coordinated way in response to humanitarian needs, we will only succeed in the treatment of symptoms and not the disease.”

South Sudan places second among the most funded U.N. appeals. About $634.12 million or 60 percent of the requested $1.05 billion for humanitarian operations in the young nation has been received to date. However, in the face of increasing needs and threats of reduced funding, the United Nations appeals for a sustained, more predictable, and even funding across the eight sectors operational in the country. Some sectors, like food, get more than 70 percent of the funding pie, while others, for instance livelihood promotion, receive less than 40 percent.

“It is likely that South Sudan will be a huge burden to the international community as a whole ultimately, at a far higher cost, if nothing is done right now to support them in an effective way … but if the commitment of the international community will be sustained, it’s very possible that some of the governance structures will become stronger, and some of the opportunities to build credible peace will come,” he said.

Stienen meanwhile underlined the importance of learning from past mistakes, particularly regarding the current emergency situation.

“I think we need to learn from our own lessons — from the year before. This is a problem happening each year, so it is not something new.  These kinds of things are going to happen, and they will happen again. So just to wait till the last moment and then to say we can’t deliver, that is not the right way of saving the situation.”

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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.