An assessment mission from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan saw some of the 600 households displaced following pastoral community violence around Kuda Payam. Photo by: Isaac Billy / UNMISS / CC BY-NC-ND

ABIDJAN — On Sept. 12, warring parties in South Sudan signed the long-awaited Revitalized Peace Agreement, a milestone on the path toward a permanent ceasefire in the world’s youngest nation.

Aid worker security

In this two-part series, Devex is exploring the security situation for aid workers in South Sudan, ranked most dangerous country for humanitarians.

Read part two: Is the international aid community failing its frontline partners?

Local aid organizations in South Sudan don’t feel well-equipped with security training or adequately funded to purchase the resources to make their operations safer — yet they commonly find themselves on the frontlines of the conflict.

But humanitarians say they remain vigilant, with South Sudan recently named the most dangerous place for aid workers for the third consecutive year by research group Humanitarian Outcomes, citing shootings, assaults, and kidnappings of humanitarian staff.

Roughly five years of ongoing violence has generated the continent’s largest refugee crisis and a dire humanitarian situation, exacerbated by food, health, shelter, and protection needs that have left 2.5 million people seeking safety in other countries and a further 7 million with humanitarian needs inside national borders.

At least 109 aid workers have been killed carrying out their duties since the conflict began in 2013, including 13 so far this year. Restriction of movement and denials for humanitarian access have also become commonplace, aid workers told Devex. A report released earlier this month by the United Nations’ humanitarian office noted that, of those in need of assistance internally, about one-third live in counties with “high access constraints.”

World Vision runs one of the most extensive humanitarian interventions in South Sudan, with a team of more than 1,000 staff, roughly 96 percent of whom are South Sudanese. Keeping them all safe can be a challenge, country director Mesfin Loha explained. Earlier this year, eight team members were abducted by armed groups for nearly a week, leading to relocations and evacuations, as well as interruptions in program delivery.

“Our primary principle is to find a way to be present where the needs and most vulnerable are, which brings its own issues of insecurity,” Loha said. “It’s a [security] situation that has been frequent in some locations … and it calls for a lot of information sharing, collaboration with various stakeholders as a day-to-day responsibility to ensure duty of care to staff, since we work in some of the most inaccessible and insecure locations.”

Many aid workers attacked in South Sudan are local staff due, in part, to the 2016 NGO Act of South Sudan, which mandates that at least 80 percent of NGO staffers should be South Sudanese.

“The majority of humanitarian workers that have lost their lives in South Sudan are … nationals because most of the time they are the ones on the frontline,” Oxfam’s Deputy Country Director Nicolo Di Marzo explained.

“The typical picture of a humanitarian worker is changing and a lot of nationals and people from neighboring African countries are doing the work. So most of the time, they are … victims of attacks stemming from the fact that statistically, they are the bulk of our workforce,” he continued.

The U.N. Refugee Agency estimates that the number of South Sudanese refugees could exceed 3 million by year’s end, making it Africa’s largest refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Still, humanitarians say they remain dedicated to providing for those who remain, with NGOs pursuing various measures to keep their staff safe.

The importance of local context

Fighting in South Sudan often runs along political and ethnic lines, with large-scale recruitment efforts among ethnic militias. The peace agreement is expected to form a transitional unity government and, among other benefits, increase access for humanitarian aid. However, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies argues that without security sector reform, the ceasefire and peace agreement will be broken as on past occasions.

Given the local security climate, Di Marzo told Devex that Oxfam is cautious about sending staff members of a particular ethnicity to a region where they wouldn’t be welcome.

“Although we try to recruit South Sudanese nationals, when it comes to which location to work in, we are very mindful of ethnicity,” he said.

The most important relationship, he stressed, is with local communities, including residents, government officials, NGOs, and security forces. Working collectively with these actors can determine the level of acceptance, local participation and can assuage “bureaucratic impediments.”

“We cannot operate unless we have approval from local authorities, so we try to engage them as much as we can, which has also proved challenging,” Di Marzo detailed.

Routine traffic stops can sometimes end in extensive questioning about exact beneficiaries targeted, presenting larger protection threats to both those in need and those providing services, aid workers tell Devex. Invasive searches, such as these, are often rooted in fear, they argue, but also demonstrate the benefits of closely engaging local communities.

Maintaining neutrality and impartiality is therefore essential to securing safe access to conflict-prone areas. But how these foundational principles of humanitarian action are translated into efforts on the ground can vary.

World Vision, for example, reaches 80 percent of South Sudan, with interventions based on need and no preference for ethnicity, gender, or location. “In our engagement, we have a very clearly defined protocol to be where the needs are the highest even if they are the most insecure area, and [we] have very good collaboration between partners against bureaucratic and access issues,” Loha said.

The rule of thumb for Oxfam is to try to work in the same number of locations under government and opposition rule. “That’s the way we tackle [the] risk of being called [partisan],” Di Marzo said.

Remaining vigilant

The fluidity of the security environment means regular evaluation is needed to inform whether to expand, decrease, or terminate operations in a particular location.

Monitoring systems such as the United Nations Department for Safety and Security and the South Sudan NGO Forum provide aid workers with daily updates on the security situation, which can be used to help determine risks and establish operational security management.

One of Oxfam’s two security advisers is focused on security assessments to establish the safety and feasibility of working in certain areas. Since 2016, the international NGO has closely monitored security protocols and made regular adjustments. Aid worker and civilian fatalities alike peaked in July of that year, following the dissolution of the Compromise Peace Agreement, which included the framework for a transitional government and ceasefire.

Its termination led to heightened violence. That same month, Oxfam closed its office in the capital city of Juba for one month while operations continued in other parts of the country.

In recent months, NGO compounds and U.N. warehouses have increasingly become targets for looting by armed forces. An unintended consequence of the conflict is that food supplies can sometimes end in the hands of armed forces, rather than the intended community. However, Di Marzo said Oxfam tries to avoid aid diversion using tactics that seek to minimize the risk of attacks on supplies.

“We are careful not to stockpile goods in huge quantities where possible,” he said, “while traveling in convoys [and] when delivering aid which helps prevent the kinds of attacks that could endanger our staff and threaten out mission.”

Loha said that World Vision conducts security risk assessments for each location on a quarterly basis, or after an incident, to determine the scale of operations.

“This year, we had three relocations, some with aircraft evacuation, and last year it was more because we have been improving on security management. So in terms of big size relocations, we’ve done two related to intercommunal conflict,” Loha told Devex.

“We had to make a lot of changes regarding movement, security protocols, standard operations, but in the last month or so things have improved in many locations, ... specifically in protection of civilian sites.”

The impact of the peace deal on humanitarian work remains to be seen. While some feel optimistic about the comprehensive nature of the agreements, in the meantime, intercommunal conflict continues to impede aid assistance.

About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.