I was speaking with a UN protection specialist this evening over drinks in Sudan’s Western Darfur, where I have just arrived for a short assignment. We got to talking about (what else) work. And talking shop in Darfur, I am rapidly learning, involves a lot of sighing and disgusted hand gestures.
The Darfur region is in an awkward position by humanitarian relief standards. Funds from the normal international donors are drying up and conflict in the region, while certainly down from five years ago, is by no means absent. The number of internally displaced people still living in IDP camps is pushing a million and a half, grouped together for over ten years, caught in (and sometimes party to) a series of power struggles- national (tensions between Khartoum and periphery states such as North Darfur), administrative (States keep getting divided in Sudan, not unrelated to Khartoum’s desire to keep things quiet), local (the Shiekh leaders of IDP populations have their own agendas, which often clash, so a series of mediations is always necessary to keep tenuous peace and order).
But the money is drying up, and humanitarian organizations don’t really know what to do about that. Aid allocations to Darfur are falling, and have to compete in space now taken up by an unprecedented number of crises in the world: Ebola in West Africa, unrest in the Central African Republic, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan…
So the UN agencies and their partners (to say nothing of the government) find themselves with all these displaced people, who have been living in a sort of protracted emergency situation in camps for many years, for whom there will soon be very little assistance (money) left. And all of a sudden these agencies are realizing that they should probably not have kept treating so many people as freshly arrived IDPs for so long. People in the camps are now used to receiving their monthly allowances of food and other items for their household. Thinking on how to avoid creating these protracted emergency situations is happening, for example by changing approaches, working on recovery and resilience from day one, using market interventions such as cash transfers and vouchers to support people- Syria and Lebanon are a good example of the beginnings of this change.
But in Sudan, the fundamental issue is not a technical one.
Back to my conversation with my colleague in West Darfur. While agonizing over the absence of any long-term vision for transitioning out of the untenable IDP situation in Darfur, she told me that for her, the issue was that the government had little interest in sustainable solutions in the region at all: “That’s the problem: they don’t care about developing Darfur”.
The charges are serious. New funds for Darfur coming from Qatar and administered through the Darfur Regional Authority are creating extra confusion when agencies working on the ground try to choose which areas to intervene in. Some police and intelligence services, especially those who take orders directly from Khartoum, are more interested in keeping a certain degree of tension in the region than in protecting the population. Humanitarian assistance, especially in the still insecure areas of the region, have to pass through the filters of sometimes armed groups, who will arrange to take their share of goods first…
What can international agencies do in this situation? A few things, certainly. Taking the example of protection issues, my colleague talked about how women’s centres were paired with work being done by UNDP on rule of law within IDP camps, to create a safe space for women and link them up with viable livelihoods. Okay.
But I am convinced that in so many cases, particularly where there is conflict, humanitarian assistance has all too easily labeled itself as a technical solution to a technical problem, when the reality is that the problem is fundamentally more political than technical. That is to say, without rethinking the approach of Humanitarian agencies sitting in the capital city who are more interested in preserving the space that they currently have to operate (Sudan is wont to throw you out of the country at times) than in challenging the overall approach to delivering assistance and ensuring a solid transition out of conflict– without rethinking the assumption in the UN that the government should always be in the driver’s seat– then there is de-facto no longterm plan, no recovery, no return to normalcy possible.
And this is not just UNDP’s job either. Each agency, country and partner has their own role to play in changing the approach to countries where the priority is calm over peace, status quo over improvement and tension and fear over partnership. The risk in doing this is being expelled from the country, or forced to leave or otherwise not be able to help those who could be helped. The danger in not doing it, besides compromising the very raison d’etre of humanitarian work, is in knowingly being a party to a power game where the winner is decided in advance. And it’s not the people you are working for.