JUBA, South Sudan — Last week, ambassadors from China, Kenya and the U.S. met with First Vice President of South Sudan Taban Deng Gai to express concern over the country’s dramatic new aid worker permit fees.
In early March the South Sudan Ministry of Labor shocked aid workers by announcing a $10,000 work permit fee, a drastic hike on the previous fee of roughly $200.
The new law, which states the fee must be paid annually, applies to any foreigner wishing to work in South Sudan, including aid and humanitarian workers. Those working for the U.N., however, are exempt.
Two weeks after its announcement, NGOs and government officials are pressuring South Sudan to reconsider its position. According to South Sudan’s undersecretary for the Ministry of Labor, who requested to only be identified by her title, the law won’t be reversed. “If you currently have a work permit that’s fine,” she said. “But when you go to renew it, you’ll be subject to the new fees.”
The undersecretary tried to ease concerns, saying that those who can’t pay will need to speak with their respective “government partners” in the country to figure out what can be done.
“There’s always a solution,” she said, alluding to the potential for authorities to perhaps be flexible in certain situations. Yet she remained firm that the law would not change, and that the increase is justified.
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“We’re a new country and we’re trying to protect the workers in our country,” she said.
But the recent diplomatic delegation could mean otherwise. As a result of last Wednesday’s ambassador meeting, it’s possible a directive will soon be released from the South Sudanese government “canceling” the $10,000, according to a source close to the matter who wished not to be named. Instead, the government would sidestep the permit fee hike even though it’s already written into its Financial Act of 2016, and the fee would remain closer to $100.
If South Sudan does instead move forward with the $10,000 fee, concerns abound that it would greatly hinder organizations’ abilities to deliver food and supplies to vulnerable communities.
“My initial reaction was that someone’s finger slipped and hit one too many 0s,” said Elizabeth Deng, South Sudan researcher for Amnesty International. “The fee is exorbitant and is counter to humanitarian efforts in the country.”
Not only are 100,000 people in South Sudan facing starvation, but humanitarians are already stretched thin trying to deliver aid to 7.5 million people in a country rocked by civil war and riddled with grave human rights violations.
“Under international law, the government has to provide relief,” Deng said. “This measure could hinder access.”
It could also exacerbate the already existing funding gap. According to the U.N., $1.62 billion of aid is still unfunded in South Sudan for 2017. If agencies were to pay the fee, much of the costs would fall to their donors, as NGOs’ budgets have already been allocated for the coming year. But that, too, seems unlikely.
“I can’t imagine any organization being able to justify this cost to their donors,” Deng said.
It’s a potentially stark setback to future work of thousands of humanitarians, and it’s especially concerning given the timing of the announcement, which came on the heels of the recent famine declaration.
“It’s hard to imagine any rationale,” Deng said, adding that she hopes the government isn’t trying to leverage the famine in order to make money.
As of now, most organizations within South Sudan are measuring their responses and not jumping to conclusions.
“We welcome any ease in procedures that can help us to ensure that urgent aid and support reaches those who most need it, quickly and effectively," said Deepmala Mahla, South Sudan country director for Mercy Corps.
Deng is hoping that the pressure will “embarrass [the government] into back tracking” and said ultimately she thinks they will.
“I’m hopeful that rational minds will prevail,” she said.
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