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The next two years will be critical in determining Sudan’s future. The country faces national elections in April, the first multi-party elections in 24 years, and a referendum on southern independence in January 2011. While the U.S. and others must do everything possible to ensure that the governments in north and south Sudan reach agreement on outstanding issues before the referendum, the humanitarian community must simultaneously prepare to respond if conflict erupts around the upcoming political events. Decades of responding to crises in Sudan has created a complacent “business as usual” attitude among some humanitarian agencies and donors that must be overcome.
UNCERTAINTY AND FEAR
Sudanese people in a number of locations in the south and Southern Kordofan shared with Refugees International (RI) their concerns over upcoming events. In Upper Nile, communities told RI that they were uneasy about the elections in case they led to violence, as competition between candidates and their supporters might spill over to politicize and exacerbate existing tensions between communities. In Southern Kordofan, communities expressed a direct fear to RI that, should the south secede, southern-aligned communities in the Nuba Mountains would be isolated and targeted by proxy groups armed by the north in an effort to remove them from their land.
Almost all of the community representatives that RI spoke with said that if conflict broke out they would be very reluctant to leave again or go far from home. Many people who had gone to Khartoum during the north-south war said they would not go north again. In Southern Kordofan, many people said they would flee to the surrounding mountains, and some said they were already preparing houses there.
RI heard a wide divergence of views on the likely humanitarian impact of the elections and referendum. While many international observers felt that the country would “muddle through” with only limited outbreaks of fighting in border and oil-rich areas, others felt that south Sudan was heading towards total collapse with an explosion of inter-ethnic tensions. A key concern was that a gradual ratcheting up of tensions rather than all-out war would mean no “CNN moment” to attract worldwide attention and funding.
Given the exceptional political events of the next two years and the unpredictability of the scenarios, it is critical that the humanitarian community quickly put comprehensive contingency plans in place, in case a return to major conflict occurs.
MAKE CONTINGENCY PLANNING COUNTRY-WIDE
As many international humanitarian workers argue, south Sudan is already in a state of emergency. Last year over 390,000 people were displaced and 2,500 killed according to the UN, and drought has caused major food insecurity. The emergency response architecture in the south largely remains following decades of conflict and humanitarian response (with the notable exception of the much scaled-back OCHA presence). This is a potential advantage in terms of capacity to manage future crises but it is also leading to a “business as usual” mentality among some humanitarian actors, who believe that if necessary the response system would kick in automatically. Politically, the next two years will be anything but business as usual and the cost of reacting at the last minute to potential conflict will be greater than that of preparing in advance.
For many humanitarian actors, contingency planning was seen as sensitive and controversial and some did not want it publicly known that they were creating such plans. Given its sensitive nature, contingency planning must be a system-wide effort led by the UN that includes NGOs, donors and Sudanese and south Sudanese government agencies, rather than a series of individual initiatives that could expose organizations to political risk. A whole-of-Sudan process is also critical to ensuring coordination takes place should the plans ultimately need to be implemented.
The Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) in south Sudan has just initiated a contingency planning process, with a senior UN staff member assigned to lead and coordinate among UN agencies and with external actors. However, while everyone is talking about scenarios and planning, there is no blueprint yet. This initiative must move quickly from theoretical discussions to putting concrete plans on paper, with the understanding that plans will be a work-in-progress that will need constant updating.
The contingency planning process is far less established in north Sudan than in the south. RI was told that individual plans existed for certain geographical areas in the north but there did not seem to be a strategy for developing a single contingency plan for the north. Even more concerning is the lack of coordination between the UN in north and south Sudan, which will be especially important for the transitional areas, where populations in former SPLM-controlled areas may face harassment or violence after separation. The vulnerability of the people will be compounded by the fact that access to the transitional areas is still difficult for international humanitarian staff. At the moment, it is unclear how contingency plans being developed in Southern Kordofan will fit into wider north/south planning.
International NGOs largely felt they did not have much capacity for contingency planning as they were already struggling to respond to existing humanitarian needs due to lack of resources. Furthermore, the current UN 2010 consolidated appeal for Sudan (US $1.9 billion) is only 23% funded so far. Meeting existing needs is critical as planning processes continue.
CONSULT WITH COMMUNITIES AND SUPPORT THEIR EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS
RI found no evidence that communities were being directly consulted in the preliminary phase of the contingency planning processes. Some international organizations said that their field staff would simply know the issues in the community, making consultation unnecessary. There may also be a well-intended desire by some humanitarian agencies not to create panic. However, gaps in information on security issues can also create fear and panic.
NGOs are better structured than UN humanitarian agencies to run community consultation programs, especially in partnership with local networks, to share information and to help communities develop early warning systems and local self-protection strategies. This must involve the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan (UNMIS) in the places they are deployed, but protection by UNMIS will not be the only strategy that communities will have to rely on. Such consultations should target a broad community audience beyond just traditional leaders, and should begin with flashpoint areas. A particular focus on involving women is critical. Donors must accept that consultations will be time consuming but are essential, and so will require specific additional funding. In areas where UNMIS is deployed, its substantive sections should be conducting community consultations on protection strategies.
In Southern Kordofan, RI was informed of a proposal for community-based early warning systems in which women would help set up local protection strategies. The system would be implemented by a consortium of UN, international and national organizations. Given the widespread community concerns about security and the uncertainty of upcoming events, such proposals warrant funding and senior UN institutional support.
During discussions with local government authorities in Juba, Upper Nile and Southern Kordofan, RI found that there was less reluctance to discuss these issues than expected. Officials were very open about their concerns over conflict erupting, and they were forthright in saying that they would need and expect the international community’s support. In fact, both communities and local officials said openly that they expected that the U.S. would send military protection forces to south Sudan in case of conflict with the north.
There is clearly room for more dialogue between local government officials and the humanitarian community on emergency preparedness, beyond closed-door discussions at senior levels. Donors should be willing to facilitate this openness through workshops at the national and state levels involving government officials, civil society representatives and the humanitarian community, aimed at ending the “taboo of silence.” The Government of Southern Sudan should be brought into the contingency planning processes and should also be assisted in reaching out to communities to discuss upcoming events.
KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR CONTINGENCY PLANS
Although operational agencies in Sudan are best placed to determine the specifics of what must be included in contingency plans, there are some key considerations that should be addressed.
BUILDING COMMUNITY RESILIENCE TO REDUCE POTENTIAL CONFLICT
Because nearby towns and villages are likely to be the first port of call for people fleeing any conflict in the future, it is essential to increase these communities’ access to basic services, as well as job and agricultural opportunities, in order to minimize the humanitarian fallout. Such reintegration support is especially needed for displaced people who are returning home and rebuilding their lives and will maximize a community’s ability to absorb newly displaced people. As competition over access to basic services is often a source of conflict, USAID’s new local conflict mitigation program in south Sudan is a positive step.
As with previous Refugees International field visits in 2008 and 2009, the first concern that communities reported was the lack of basic services – especially education, health services and water. Furthermore the lack of rain this year has hit local towns and villages as hard as returnees. The impact of drought has meant a much larger population struggling to access food, with WFP dramatically increasing its target beneficiary numbers in the south from 1.1 million to 4.3 million. In some areas of Southern Kordofan, local authorities told RI that the majority of returnees have gone back to where they had previously fled due to lack of basic services.
Most women told RI that their priority need was for trained midwives, as south Sudan’s maternal mortality rate is one of worst in the world (2,054:100,000). Donors should support programs that reduce maternal mortality, especially training of midwives and traditional birth attendants. With UNFPA assistance, the Ministry of Health has assessed the initial cost of reducing maternal mortality by 25% in the south at $107 million. Donors must also insist that all proposals encourage women’s participation and examine any new program’s impact on women. USAID should advance its work in this area by developing a Sudan-specific gender policy.
The USAID-funded BRIDGE project is aimed at building the capacity of state-level government agencies to provide services and should be supported by other donors. The project has made some good progress in the four states in which it is operating in the south, but it has been seriously delayed in the transitional areas by the NGO expulsions in March 2009.
Virtually all provision of transport to help displaced people return home has stopped. Funding ended for most IDP returns in 2008 and hardly any refugees have chosen to return so far in 2010. But IOM estimates that 161,500 internally displaced people and refugees returned to the south and Southern Kordofan spontaneously in 2009 and they project that this may increase in 2010 due to the elections and run up to the referendum. There is still insufficient funding directed to the reintegration of returnees, especially in livelihoods support, as international donor interest seems to have waned.
CONCLUSION: LOOKING BEYOND JANUARY 2011
If south Sudan opts for independence in 2011, as looks likely, there will be a considerable need for donor governments to support the Government of Southern Sudan to ensure that its structure and leadership are capable of successfully delivering services to its people and protecting them. Yet political sensitivities are preventing donors from clarifying what the post-2011 aid architecture will be and from engaging in a robust advanced planning process with implementing partners. This risks a situation where preparations are left to the last minute, when urgency will end up trumping the need for thorough coordination and consultation. The international witnesses to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the north and south have already accepted in principle the option of southern independence. It is not unreasonable, therefore, that they should be planning to support its implementation, if the voters so decide.
Melanie Teff and Jennifer Smith traveled to south Sudan and Southern Kordofan in February to assess the humanitarian community’s ability to respond to potential conflict in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2011 referendum on independence.