Aid Workers Unable to Help Communities Most in Need
By Celia Garrett
The South Sudanese soldier “kept hitting me with an AK-47 over and over again, and he kept screaming at me to open my legs, open my legs…‘I’m going to kill you if you don’t open your legs’…that soldier took his gun and pointed it at my left temple and then shot it into the floor, right next to my left temple…I lost my wits at that point.”
Places and communities most desperate for help are often not receiving the necessary aid. Oppressed peoples, victims of grave human rights abuses, are subject to abuses that increasingly extend to aid workers helping on the ground. Safety threats to workers and interference in operations present organizations with a difficult yet unavoidable decision – stay or go. Help those suffering and dependent upon aid (and in so doing, risking the lives of aid workers and constantly fighting other forces attempting to thwart organizations’ work) or leave those most desperate for help behind?
The South Sudanese government has increasingly prohibited international organizations from functioning within the country. As the conflict worsens, the UN and other aid officials say South Sudan is becoming “one of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world for humanitarian groups to operate.” South Sudan recently overtook Afghanistan as the world’s deadliest posting for humanitarian workers. Humanitarian Outcomes, a USAID-funded project, reported that a third of aid-worker deaths recorded this year have been in South Sudan.
The government kicked out several aid workers and journalists without any explanation for detaining and deporting workers, effectively stifling dissent and silencing witnesses of the growing violence. Yasmin Sooka, the head of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, said “humanitarian workers face threats and intimidation on a daily basis.” Amanya Joseph, the acting executive director of the Human Rights Development Organization in Juba, fled the country in August after receiving death threats.
Several organizations’ operations have been threatened by the government and impeded by soldiers. In the beginning of December, two top officials working from the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) – one of the largest international aid groups working in the country – were expelled. The NRC aims to provide food, water and shelter to the South Sudanese citizens stripped of everything in the conflict. Millions are dependent on their aid just to survive, yet the government and other armed groups have made it increasingly difficult for international groups to deliver assistance. Despite the growing demand, the NRC has begun questioning its ability to operate effectively and safely.
Where you need aid the most is often where it’s hardest for aid agencies to be. The NRC and other organizations – if they stay – must reorganize operations. Organizations that continue normal operations risk endangering workers and attracting severe interference in their work – is it worth the risk? Do you limit your mission, failing to perform necessary duties in order to appease the government? Shrink staff? Where is the balance between compromise and no longer being able to operate effectively?
Medical organizations are struggling to function. The maternity wing of the International Medical Corp’s hospital – located in the Protection of Civilian site – was shelled last July, injuring two employees. The organization responded by sending home 19 of its international employees due to safety concerns, leaving the hospital short-staffed among already existing resource deficiencies, such as days without access to water. Shrinking staff and increasing worker safety – necessary steps according to International Medical Corps – will only further impede their ability to attend to South Sudanese civilians.
Large organizations often highly impactful in providing humanitarian aid in similar crises, such as Doctors without Borders, have been banned access by the government to several parts of the country where intense fighting has left thousands in desperate need of medical attention. However, aid agencies fear that speaking out against these gross violations by the government will further undermine their operations, threaten the security of their staff in the country and risk forced deportation of the entire organization, leaving millions without aid. Last July, government forces looted the World Food Program compound and ransacked the base and warehouse. The assault cost the WFP $20 million and food that otherwise would have fed 220,000 South Sudanese civilians for a month. Joyce Kanyangwa Luma, the country director, said, “we didn’t see it coming. We never thought we’d be targeted like that.”
If Doctors without Borders and WFP continue helping those dependent upon them for food and medical resources, pushback against the government would not be tolerated. Sacrificing exposing governmental abuse for those desperate for their services poses difficult trade-offs for aid agencies to make. Is it better to ensure continued operation at a highly minimized level or continue full practice with the risk of being kicked out of the country and losing any ability to provide aid?
NGOs working in countries like South Sudan face these questions daily. The government attacks against aid organizations in South Sudan as well as bombings in Syria and Afghanistan threaten humanitarianism, which rests on the principle of safety and protection for aid workers. Mukesh Kapila, a veteran former UN director, said that “the best thing we can do in my opinion, and it’s harsh and hard, is to leave.” The growing insecurity forces groups to reassess their operations and proceed with more caution in South Sudan.
Despite the violent breaches of international principles and increasing inability for aid workers to meet the needs of the South Sudanese people, several workers decided to stay and continue to make any contribution they can. Jeremiah Young, an aid worker in South Sudan, said, “I see hope in the eyes of the children, and that's the motivation for us to continue doing what we're doing. We see hope in the eyes of mothers and fathers for their children.” Leslie McTyre, a program coordinator for the International Medical Corps who remained in the country after the organization evacuated several staff members over safety concerns, said “I've never seen a place that needs as much [help] as South Sudan. I've also not seen a place that openly appreciates it as much as South Sudan.” Ultimately however, these cases are the exception. The government’s threats to humanitarian work in South Sudan not only undermine the international principle of aiding victims of gross conflicts, but also deny desperately needed services to a population already suffering from an increasingly complex and violent war tearing apart their country. Organizations cannot provide aid to those most desperately in need.