Localising humanitarian aid during armed conflict: Learning from the histories and creativity of South Sudanese NGOs

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Leben Moro, Naomi Pendle and Et al
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In contexts of armed conflict, international humanitarian organisations increasingly rely on local and national actors to deliver aid. South Sudan is no exception: while international organisations have worked with and through South Sudanese organisations for decades, the number of local and national NGOs involved in the South Sudanese humanitarian response has increased substantially since the outbreak of widespread armed conflict in 2013. The number of South Sudanese NGOs registered as members of the South Sudan NGO Forum has also grown, from 92 in 2012 to 263 in 2019. The proliferation of South Sudanese NGOs and their increasingly central role in the humanitarian response has been driven, in part, by the significant access constraints and risks associated with operating in South Sudan. International actors increasingly depend on South Sudanese NGOs to reach conflict-affected communities. These shifts are also taking place in the context of global commitments to ‘localise’ humanitarian response, with humanitarian organisations and donor governments committing to shift power and resources closer to affected populations.
South Sudan provides an opportunity for us to learn about the realities of implementing these localisation commitments in the context of protracted, complex crises, including armed conflicts. While there is a desire among many international organisations to localise humanitarian response, there are also concerns that the national NGO sector can be more easily captured by political interests that contradict humanitarian principles, and that humanitarian funds can be diverted to resource violent political economies. In South Sudan, violent conflict has been consistently driven by political structures in which claims on power can be made through violence and loyalties can be bought with money. This raises questions over how national organisations (and humanitarian assistance more broadly) play into this marketplace of money and power.
This report moves beyond abstract assumptions and global-level debates to understand the reality of the struggles and strategies of local and national organisations during complex emergencies. We focus on the histories, politico-economic dynamics and everyday realities of South Sudanese NGOs during South Sudan’s armed conflicts and intermittent periods of peace over the last four decades. We draw on consultations with over 200 people in six sites across South Sudan, including urban and rural areas, and sites controlled by rebel forces as well as sites controlled by the government. We consider South Sudanese NGOs’ institutional development and funding sources, as well as the backgrounds and motivations of their founders and staff. The report focuses primarily on the perspectives and experiences of those working for local and national NGOs, as well as local communities, authorities and former staff, thus bringing these local perspectives to the global debate on localisation.
By starting from the perspective of South Sudan and drawing on detailed ethnographic and historical research in sites across South Sudan, this report is able to make a rare, locally informed contribution to these global debates. This allows us to see the everyday efforts and motivations of South Sudanese NGOs, as well as noticing the structural issues within the aid sector which elevate the risks they face and, over time, reproduce a lack of trust in South Sudanese NGOs.
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