Mutual aid & rethinking international humanitarian engagement in Sudan
It has now been nearly three months since Sudan has slipped into a conflict that has displaced over three million people, killed thousands and continues to wreck devasting havoc on the Sudanese people. The crisis has created immense humanitarian needs on the ground, yet the insecurity and exodus of the international community has translated into very limited humanitarian access. Sudan, a country that has seen decades of international humanitarian response, is now facing a new set of complex humanitarian challenges and perhaps the solutions also need a re-think.
Amidst these challenges, Sudanese civilians are organizing in various forms to help themselves and their communities access the myriad humanitarian support needed. The setting up of Emergency Response Rooms (ERRs) is one of these initiatives and the experience of Noor (below) highlights some of the sensitive and challenging humanitarian realities on ground.
“Noor* was a volunteer in an emergency room in Khartoum that handles cases of sexual assault and violations. There was a report of a case of rape of two sisters, one of whom is underage. There was a request to transfer them for medical and psychological care. After a while, Noor discovered that the girls were her sisters. It was one of the most difficult moments for us in the room. We went through a very difficult time as volunteers to support our colleague and her family.” – as retold by an ERR Volunteer
*Name has been changed to protect the identity
Noor’s story, is just one example of the many community-driven mutual aid efforts that have emerged in Sudan as a response to the conflict and suffering on the ground. Many have called these interventions heroic as the community volunteers courageously put their own safety at risk to serve others, attending to the needs of their fellow neighbours. These community-driven interventions have succeeded in supporting a remarkable number of people, all with limited resources.
Many have called these interventions heroic as the community volunteers courageously put their own safety at risk to serve others, attending to the needs of their fellow neighbours.
These mutual aid efforts now organized or self-defined as emergency response rooms in some areas of the country were birthed out of the neighbourhood/resistance committees and of the efforts of activists, unions, doctors, journalists and civil society organizations. There are now dozens of them across the country with hundreds of volunteers providing lifesaving support in areas that are difficult for the international aid actors to access. Based on the varied needs and capacities to support within each neighbourhood, these efforts have led to a range of interventions, from setting up community clinics, delivery of medicine, help with evacuations, restoration of water and electricity services, setting up soup kitchens, provision of food to vulnerable households and organizing local markets. These decentralized efforts have structured themselves into sub-rooms and have created some coordination mechanisms, especially in Khartoum State.
A high risk endeavour
Mutual aid is defined as the voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit. It is an act of solidarity, not charity, and is driven by community members with limited bureaucracy. Globally, we saw a rise in mutual aid efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic. Mutual aid is also seen as an act of political participation, often by marginalized groups, that are seeking to find their own solutions to the problems they face.
In Sudan, the emergency response rooms are largely being organised by actors that have driven the pro-democracy movement and who are working towards a vision of Sudan that is peaceful, just and equitable.
“At a time when the sound of the bullets deafens the ears, solidarity and localized mutual aid keeps our sanity and hope alive.” – ERR volunteer.
Yet, these efforts have faced a number of challenges which increase daily as the needs grow throughout the country. With major trade routes blocked, access to goods, supplies and food is starting to become a critical concern. The banking system is currently not operational and there is a severe shortage of cash in the country. A mobile banking app has become one of the only ways that people are able to send or receive money in the country. Severe damage to basic infrastructure, including water, electricity and communication networks have increased the needs and made support and organizing more challenging.
With major trade routes blocked, access to goods, supplies and food is starting to become a critical concern.
There is also a mounting polarization taking place and as the conflict is prolonged, it is also starting to affect the operations and safety of the volunteers behind these local response groups. Operating in territories controlled by the various warring parties puts them at risk. There is a need for them to communicate and often negotiate access within communities which has resulted in them being labelled as cooperating or supporting one side or another. As the weeks have turned into months, there has been an increase in civilians being targeted including volunteers and members of the emergency rooms, doctors, journalists and activists. There have been countless cases of arrests, detainment, interrogation and disappearances of civilians.
More than just humanitarian aid
It is important to understand that these community-driven mutual aid responses are more than just humanitarian aid. These efforts are building trust, legitimacy and seeking to prevent further damage to the torn social fabric. They are empowering communities, not creating the dependence that traditional aid often generates. These groups have impressive levels of transparency and downward accountability within their communities and the horizontal governance and democratic decision making will help build experience and understanding and make an important contribution towards a return to civilian rule. Such groups built and led the Sudanese revolution that toppled a 30-year-old dictatorship, and they are also now what will hold Sudan together from total collapse.
They are empowering communities, not creating the dependence that traditional aid often generates.
As the international community continues to struggle with access and ability to provide humanitarian assistance, finding ways to partner and support these mutual aid efforts is critical. It is time to think differently and radically about our engagement and support to Sudan. It is time for true solidarity - that not only provides lifesaving needs but does so with an approach that is de-colonized and respects the capacity and will of the Sudanese people to help themselves. We must also acknowledge that backing these community-led responses is not only saving lives but directly contributing towards building a Sudan that is more representative and responsive to the needs of its citizens.
As international organisations get ready to partner and support these groups we must keep the following in mind. Let us work hard to ensure our engagement is not co-opting these mutual aid efforts into the often highly bureaucratic, slow and bloated humanitarian aid system. These are informal groups that are built to function at low cost with minimal bureaucracy and are currently operating in a very dangerous, complex conflict. We need to coordinate our support, allow them to take the lead and guide our assistance. We must relax and minimize our reporting expectations under the current situation and let the first responders focus on the actual work. We also need to ensure we are using a trauma informed approach in our partnerships and help mitigate the risks our partners facie with increased duty of care efforts and advocating for their protection at all levels.
Let us work hard to ensure our engagement is not co-opting these mutual aid efforts into the often highly bureaucratic, slow and bloated humanitarian aid system.
Finally, let us remember in the end that what is happening in Sudan is happening first and foremost to the Sudanese people. We must respect their agency to resist, organize and serve their communities during this devasting conflict, and do all we can to immediately support them to save lives and their country.
This Sudan blog post is written by Michelle D'Arcy, Norwegian People's Aid, Sudan Country Director.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the SNAC project or CMI.
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