Think beyond our desire ‘to do good’: Humanitarian aid during the Sudanese Civil War


European Commission DG ECHO

Photo: ECHO/Flickr (CC BY-SA)


By Iona Mulder -

The picture that you will see if you click on this link is one of the most illuminating pictures I have ever seen. It was sent to me by my professor Lee Seymour  after I told him that I wanted to write an essay on humanitarian aid during the civil war in Sudan. The picture is ambiguous: it is humorous and very sad at the same time. It shows soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) carrying blue children’s backpacks, which were distributed by UNICEF for the purpose of being used by pupils. Looting of humanitarian aid products was denied by all sides of the Sudan’s civil war. However, as this picture displays, this was not the truth.

Humanitarian aid is a controversial subject. How can we judge those who want to ‘do good’, while ‘doing’ nothing ourselves. Despite this feeling it is important to remain critical about the policy and distribution of humanitarian aid because  the effects are not always the ones that were desired. In addition, some local, national and international humanitarian agencies work with a double agenda to favor their ‘own group’, or have other interests. Especially in conflict situations  where  much is at stake and interests are  conflicting, this is a great risk. To quote Mary Anderson: “When international assistance is given in the context of a violent conflict, it becomes a part of that context and thus also of the conflict.” The purpose of this article is not to be merely critical, but to give insight in the undesired effect humanitarian aid can have.

Two aspects are important in this relation. First of all, how humanitarian organizations, also called NGOs (non-governmental organizations),  deal with the complexity of violent conflicts. Secondly, how humanitarian aid can affect the patterns of violence of a civil war. Similar to my previous article, Sudan will be the example of this subject, as part of a three-part series I will write about this former-nation.

The general policy of NGOs  dealing with the complexity of conflicts can be divided into two groups with different policy principles. The classists are a-political, whereas the group referred to as the “political humanitarians” have a political premises. Most NGOs aspire, contrary to state support, to be impartial and neutral in relation to the conflict parties and aid they provide. However, the exact interpretation of  this principle leads to two different policies. The classists’, of who The Red Cross is the founding father, state that humanitarian action and politics have to be completely isolated from each other. In contrast, ‘ political humanitarians’ argue that this is impossible and/or should not be the objective of humanitarian aid. An organization that is exemplary for this latter point of view is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The difference in practice is that these latter organizations also try to stand up for the interests of victims by political means: creating awareness of crisis situations and systemic human right violations, encourage politicians and states to take action, and report abuse of humanitarian aid. The down-side is that this can antagonize certain political leaders or groups, as a result limiting the access to victims and donors.

In the 1980s Sudan was in the middle of a civil war. Furthermore, a famine was forecasted in the southern region, Darfur, the Nile area, and the Nuba Mountains. To prevent or minimize the consequences of this famine and to take care of the victims of the violence, an ambitious humanitarian operation was launched in April 1989: Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). The primary policy of the operation was the implementation of an apolitical distribution policy. The goal was to transport 120,000 metric tons of emergency aid to the south, in a timeframe of six weeks. Sudan’s government and the SPLA both gave their permission to the UN and the forty-four different NGOs involved to distribute humanitarian aid in areas under their power. Remarkably, the evaluations  about the success of the OLS are diverse. This diverseness can be related to the debate about the objectives of humanitarian aid. The classicists valuation of humanitarian aid is primarily focused on the lives that have been saved; they were generally positive about the results of the  OLS. Political humanitarians, as the MSF, who have evaluated the OLS beyond the objective of saving lives are more critical. They claim that the OLS suffered from much political abuse.

This abuse went beyond the stealing of aid goods by armies and rebel fractions for their own use, which seems “an inescapable” aspect of humanitarian aid during conflict, as Alex de Waal has argued.  However, MSF and others have made the persuasive claim that the specific organization of the OLS increased the possibility of the government and the SPLA to exploit  humanitarian aid. A larger part of the execution of the OLS was the responsibility of the government, the SPLA  and local authorities, instead of humanitarian organizations themselves. These organizations often acted from self-interest as a substitute of humanitarian principles. Moreover, they blocked humanitarian aid to certain areas if they feared that their enemies would also be able to benefit. As a result, the humanitarian aid did not benefited the weakest  but the strongest: the militias or local elites.

After a few years of operation  the government successfully promoted a shift in focus within the OLS program from emergency aid to development assistance. With this money, agriculture companies owned by the northern elite were developed. As part of the development program displaced persons, who fled their homes because of the violence in the South, were incorporated on these companies as cheap laborers. They were paid almost nothing, still these displaced persons stayed because they did not have other options to create an income, as the development assistance was concentrated around the northern cities and most of the other economy was destroyed during the conflict. Arguably, these laborers could be seen as labor-hostages. Hence, it were the northern elites who did profit the most from the development assistance.

As I stated in my last article the destruction of villages and their economic resources was part of the military strategy of both sides of the  Sudanese civil war.  Reasons why villages were destroyed were to punish  the supporters  of the  enemy within the conflict, to profit from the plundering or to prevent other parties from obtaining this profit. The presence of humanitarian goods in a village thus increased the vulnerability for military attacks.

Moreover, civilians became target of long-term military strategies to attract humanitarian aid. By undermining the economic infrastructure people become dependent of outside relief, which they could confiscate for their own war economy. Especially large groups of displaced people packed in small areas of refugee camps could attract huge amounts of humanitarian fund. The centralization of humanitarian aid in refugee camps also make it easily obtainable by military groups. In addition, the existence of refugees had some other advantages for the warring groups. To reiterate, the displaced were abused by the  Sudanese government as cheap agriculture laborers. The SPLA did not exploit the refugees in the same structural manner, however, they saw the refugee camps as important recruitment areas for new soldiers, including many child soldiers, due to the fact that Sudanese camps were full of vulnerable unaccompanied minors.  The creation of refugee camps also had a direct link with the military strategy of the government. They placed some refugee camps on strategic places to secure their power over these areas.  The creation of the camps was facilitated by the humanitarian fund of the OLS.

Besides material benefits and military strategies, humanitarian action can also influence the political situation and status of political leaders.  On all level of society can humanitarian aid legitimize the power of leaders and groups. Primarily, humanitarian organizations often have to pay “legitimate” payments to local leaders or groups, in that way recognizing their power over the area.  Secondly, because humanitarian aid can fill gaps of social services, such as water, food and education provisions, community leaders will  not be held accountable by  the population for their omission to provide these services.  Thus alienating leaders of the society.

This was the case in Sudan as well. In the words of Alex de Waal, “at key moments, humanitarian aid has been used to defuse the political implications of famine, finally assisting General Omer al Bashir [president of Sudan] to emerge politically strengthened from the 1990-91 disaster.” The close cooperation between the NGOs and the government gave the impression that the government was willing to work on a solution for the famine, drawing a veil over the fact that it was the policy of the government and their unwillingness to prevent the famine that caused it in the first place.

In sum the humanitarian program in Sudan (the OSL) has saved many lives on short-term. However, in the long run it has contributed to the war economy in various ways and has legitimized the power of political leaders when their politics failed to take care of the population. It seems therefore that the following politically associated questions are important to be answered by NGOs and donors before they take humanitarian action; is the population extra vulnerable because of the presence of humanitarian aid? Are those who have the power of distribution reliable to bring the goods to those in need, without other interests? Is the aid not legitimizing the power of politicians, palliating their mistakes and alienating them from their population?  The ethical implications of the mistakes of the OLS are not that it is better not to provide any humanitarian aid at all, but that, especially in continuing conflict situations, the politics and military context has to be taken into account to avoid undesired consequences that can make the population extra vulnerable. We should think beyond our desire ‘to do good’.



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Iona Mulder

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