WFP's vulnerability-based programming in Sudan still evolving

Adnan Khan (left), World Food Program country director speaks with Devex reporter Jenny Lei Ravelo (right). Photo by: WFP

In the wake of dwindling resources, it may seem as though the only viable option for organizations operating in Sudan is to reduce assistance.

Yet, when more than 5 million people continue to rely on aid, the road to scaling back isn’t quite so straightforward.

This was the situation the U.N. World Food Program in Sudan found itself in 2013, when it started to discuss — initially internally — the role it is meant to play there amid increasing pressure on humanitarian resources around the globe. While the humanitarian situation in the country remains critical, it’s not the only one. The conflict in Syria continues to cause massive displacement, while a strong cyclone and Saudi-led airstrikes are creating a perfect storm of humanitarian emergency in Yemen.

The decision, made months later, was for WFP to move toward more vulnerability based programming — not moving away from food distribution work, but rethinking blanket food distributions on the basis of status that the agency has been conducting for more than a decade now in favor of a more nuanced response aimed at reaching the most vulnerable among the internally displaced.

For the next two years, the organization’s phrase to live by was, “break dependency.”

But taking that route has been a huge effort for the agency, and something they continue to work toward today, according to WFP Sudan Country Director Adnan Khan.

What really went into those early discussions in 2013? How did the agency arrive at this decision? And how close — or far — are they from their goal?

Here are the highlights of our exclusive interview with Khan:

What triggered the discussions within WFP of moving toward more vulnerability based programming?

The question was, the big question was, following a decade of displacement and in many cases in urban areas what is WFP’s long-term strategy for [the internally displaced]? What is even its medium-term strategy? The question became all the more relevant in the environment of competing priorities for resources. Through a food security monitoring system which we introduced in Darfur in 2009, we have been able to collect evidence that tell us the displaced people in this region have found some means to supplement food assistance that we have been giving them. That means they do not rely solely on WFP food assistance.

In our quest for a more robust transition strategy, we asked if there was a better way of dealing with the long-standing food needs of displaced persons that places the most vulnerable and food-insecure among them at the center of our operations. What might be a way of graduating those who may have found alternative means of livelihood over the long period of displacement, and what might be the needs of those who with a different package of assistance could develop other means of sustenance?

It can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. We have to determine the varying degrees of vulnerability among the hundreds of thousands of displaced people whom we have been assisting since the early days of the conflict. We then tailor our response based on their vulnerability.        

When you had these discussions, who were the players involved? Did you also engage some of the local leaders and the beneficiaries in the discussions?

Discussions took place at all levels both here in Khartoum and in various locations in Darfur.

The first set of discussions were in-house. We asked: What is our transition strategy? What are we going to do about it?

After some internal discussions, [we engaged] stakeholders, including the government, our partners on the ground and the donors and they were all enthusiastic about the proposed approach.

But the big consultations had to be with our beneficiaries and their representatives or traditional leaders such as the omdas and sheikhs because those entailed a lot of sensitization and in-depth discussions on why and how WFP will be doing it and what is the extent and nature of their involvement in the process. The idea was to move from a status based to a vulnerability based targeting through piloting different approaches to see which one worked best in which specific context.

So I would say we embarked on a dynamic exercise. We did the first round of assessments to determine the level of food insecurity among verified households; we made some mistakes; we did some mid-course corrections; we faced huge challenges in creating an atmosphere conducive to dialogue on these bases. We realized early on that continuous sensitization of the beneficiaries and their leadership would hold the key to success.

[But] we also need to be sensitive. Part of it is strategy. So if the sheikhs realize that we are open to reopening everything, then they may have a counter strategy on how they want to deal with us. So we have to be mindful of throwing anything open again. We want to build incrementally on what we have, so we don’t do something that would give the opening to those who want to exploit that opening to nullify everything that we’ve done.

The big thing is that the entire humanitarian country team is rallying behind the concept and is currently working on a larger multi-sectoral strategy to address the issue of assistance to long term displaced.

What are some of the challenges of this transition?

Well first and foremost it is the acceptability or readiness to accept change. We knew at the outset before we decided to embark on this that there will be some resistance to change.

This is still a problem?

Yes, in some areas we still encounter some form of resistance and we continue to hold dialogue and consultations with camp leaders and the displaced people themselves. But we have been encouraged by some of the early successes that we have had in El Geneina in West Darfur.  We have been able to carry out assessment in three camps without encountering any form of resistance at all.

Can you expound a bit on those successes?

When we went and started to confer with the displaced people and explain the logic of the proposed direction, in many cases, instead of outright rejection or hostility, the community elders were open and receptive to our line of thinking. Of course they had their reservations and we continued to sensitize them as the process went along but they collaborated with us, they assisted with the assessments and we were able to implement the changes in some of the camps. These were indeed very encouraging.

Isn’t there a danger in having too much confidence in the community leadership in assisting this transition?

As I mentioned, this is a dynamic process and we are learning at each stage. As we move along we have gained a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. In places where working through local leadership has not proved fruitful, we’ve stepped in, for instance to re-verify data and conduct household interviews and fill questionnaires. So, as we move forward in other camps, we know what we can reasonably expect from community leadership and what we need to do ourselves or through other partners to make this work.  

Nevertheless, the omdas and sheikhs remain a very important part of the structure and are essential if the strategy is to succeed. You have to talk to them and you have to get them on board and this entails continuous consultation and sensitization.

Looking ahead, while we may not have achieved perfect vulnerability based targeting solution in West Darfur and we continue to refine it, the big thing is that we have succeeded in commencing the implementation phase. With that early success we have moved to South Darfur again with some early acceptance and success. We have some challenges in North Darfur. and extensive consultations and engagements are in process. We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to complete the process by the middle of [2016].

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    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.