Feeding the War in Sudan

Kevin Toolis, The Guardian , London, Aug. 22, 1998

from World Press Review, December 1998


There was no song in the morning for Ayp Mo. Just a grave, dug by her grandmother, in the green fields of Ajiep.The starving one-year-old had died the night before and been carried by her mother to the burial ground, wrapped in a gray-and-red blanket. Just feet away, three other mothers lined up to bury their children in the ground. Beyond them lay 80 to 90 mounds marking other graves in Ajiep's famine fields in Gogrial county, southern Sudan.

Ajiep, in the province of Bahr al Ghazal, racked by civil war, is the epicenter of a famine that is ravaging southern Sudan. Across the region, an estimated 1.2 million people are at risk. And there is no end in sight. The next real harvest will be in October, 1999.

The familiar pictures have rolled across our television screens. The huge-headed, skeletal children covered in flies, Iying on the floor of a mud hut, or sucking vainly at their mother's wizened breast. Or a mad, frenzied mob, fighting in the dust for the aid that planes have dropped from the skies. Along with the pictures, come the appeals: from Oxfam, Save The Children, Merlin (Medical Emergency Relief International), Doctors Without Borders. A joint televised broadcast in May by the Disasters Emergency Committee on behalf of the top 12 British agencies raised more than $12.8 million in three weeks. The message was simple: Give money and save starving children such as Ayp Mo.

When Clare Short, Britain's international development secretary, criticized that appeal as unnecessary and misleading, stressing that the cause of the famine was war, not drought, she was howled down by outraged members of Parliament and bewildered aid agencies.

The major charities are the last sacred totem of late 20th-century Britain and have been largely immune from public scrutiny and public criticism. But the history of recent disaster emergencies such as those in Somalia, Rwanda, and now Sudan proves that the aid world's simplistic mantras are very far from the truth. "High-profile interventions from the outside obviously have a role to play in relieving immediate human suffering, but they also contain a very large possibility of prolonging the conflict," says Rakiya Omaar of African Rights, which has been critical of the work of charities. "This is an issue that nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] are not willing to address-and that is because it is a matter of institutional survival. They need a presence on the ground to raise money and justify their existence."

No one can explain the complexities of Sudanese politics in three minutes of television. NGOs repeat a simple message and raise funds. But those funds then have to be spent in the political minefield of Sudan, where there is no escape from the politics of war.

For understandable reasons, no one from the aid world wants to talk in public about the diversion of food aid to fighters, the manipulation of aid workers by combatants, and the reinforcement of the authority of a nasty government and warlords by agencies working in their territory.

In Sudan, as in other conflict zones, there are rules and agreements about not feeding fighters, but everyone knows they are a farce. "It is very difficult to ensure that aid does not reach the warring parties," says Monyluak Alor, a Sudanese member of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) team that governs aid agencies' conduct inside Sudan. "At the end of the day, none of the NGOs can ensure that it does not happen."

The war in Sudan, which has lasted 16 years, is normally explained as a struggle between northern Muslim Arabs and southern black Christians, with the Islamic regime in Khartoum wanting to forcibly convert and politically enslave the southern population. The reality is more complicated: In the past 10 years, the southern opposition has splintered and fragmented along tribal lines and even into warring factions within the same tribal group. Khartoum has been adept at exploiting tribal or personal divisions in the southern opposition.

In 1989, following a previous famine caused by war in which hundreds of thousands perished, Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) was established to provide humanitarian aid. The largest relief operation in history, it set a precedent for NGOs working in war zones. It was the first relief operation where a government allowed the big United Nations agencies-the World Food Program and UNICEF-and the NGO charities working under their umbrella to aid rebel-held areas and thus violate its own national sovereignty. OLS's mission statement boasts, "The humanitarian imperative comes first."

Logistically, the war zone in southern Sudan is one of the most difficult places on Earth in which to operate. It is larger than Britain and has no roads, no electricity, and no infrastructure outside of a few isolated and besieged government garrison towns. It is a land of endless bush, villages, nomadic cattle herdsmen, and subsistence farmers. The rural Sudanese are the poorest people on the planet. Aid must be delivered by air to a network of poorly maintained dirt landing strips. During the rainy season, many of these airstrips are inoperable.

To cope with such appalling practicalities, OLS has grown into a labyrinthine bureaucracy with thousands of staff, offices in Nairobi, and a forward logistics base, Lokichokio, in northern Kenya- now one of the busiest airports in Africa. There are now upward of 35 separate aid agencies, each with its own agenda, in the OLS consortium.

One outside conservative estimate puts the overall cost of OLS since 1989 at more than $2 billion. By the end of next year, that figure is likely to rise to $3 billion. That is an awful lot of aid- and yet the people of southern Sudan are no better protected against famine than they were in 1988.

The root cause of this anomaly lies in the OLS agreement itself. In order to win the agreement of the Khartoum government to allow foreign NGOs to operate in both government and rebel-held territory, the international community had to give the government control over many aspects of the relief operation. Crucially, every flight had to be cleared 48 hours in advance with Khartoum. And Khartoum had the power to ban all or any flights.

Following the fighting in the government-held town of Wau in January, Khartoum banned all flights until the end of March. The flight ban, of course, did not apply to Khartoum's own military aircraft, which bombed the rebel-held towns of Torit and Kapoeta in the far south.

Because OLS is a UN bureaucracy, it is institutionally incapable of challenging the dictates of a totalitarian government. Despite warnings of an impending catastrophe, no senior OLS figure even protested-publicly, at least-the flight ban. Instead of being a humanitarian breakthrough to save the poor, OLS has become a Faustian bargain: The aid agencies are the silent allies of the principal aggressor and, to guarantee access to that same aggressor's victims, are prepared to make a pact with a Sudanese devil. In order to aid the poor, the international community must also feed Khartoum's besieged garrisons in the south of the country-garrisons that would have fallen years ago without World Food program grain.

The systematic diversion of aid has become part of the standard operating conditions of being in the "field." The main rebel movement, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), also signed on to the OLS agreement, l because it, too, saw the benefits of | "taxing" food distributions. Officials | of the SRRA, the rebels' so-called I "humanitarian" wing, constantly follow clinic workers around, ban them | from certain areas, insist on "vetting" | all the Sudanese staff employed by the I clinic, and even want to put their own | "policemen" on the payroll as security | staff, A significant amount of food aid has been stolen, and it is obvious to aid workers that some children have been receiving triple rations.

Government funding of disaster relief is always channeled through the charities, sometimes doubling or even tripling their income. Under the complex funding formula of the May Disaster Emergency Committee Famine Appeal, Oxfam, for example, received nearly $3.2 million in just three weeks.

Twenty minutes' flying time from Ajiep is Adet. The OLS coordinators awarded Merlin, a small British charity, the "franchise" on Adet, and Britain's Department of International Development granted it $1.3 million to run the operation. The World Food Program will supply the food. Merlin's current annual budget is $8.8 million. Its new Sudan operation represents close to a 20 percent increase in its turnover overnight. Adet will give Merlin the chance to raise its profile and thereby raise more funds.

Of course, the Merlin operation will save lives. But it's a further example of how the humanitarian imperative is bound up with the institutional interests of the NGO. Where is the line when the beneficiaries of Western aid programs become little more than the necessary props for a fund-raising struggle at home?

Many of these arguments have been rehearsed internally in the aid world. The head of OLS, Carl Tinstman, disputes that his organization has helped create an endless military stalemate. "In 1988, there was no OLS, and 250,000 people died," he says. "Did that nudge the parties toward a resolution of the conflict? No, it did not. The war will go on if OLS is there or not. The only difference would be that 100,000 people would die of starvation."

Nick Stockton, head of emergencies at Oxfam, concedes that humanitarian aid may have prolonged the war, but argues that this may be a necessary condition for saving lives. "Humanitarian aid is not going to solve the problems of Sudan. But I do believe it will keep 'Mrs. Dengue' and her son alive, so that, possibly, her son can grow up in a Sudan where there is no war."

But OLS has not stopped, or even blunted, the suffering of the people of Sudan. It has ultimately aided not the victims of war, but the aggressors. It has become a means of politically disengaging from one of the world's trouble spots. "Send in the NGOs" has become the lame battle cry of Western governments.

So what is the alternative? If our goal really is the relief of the suffering of the people of Sudan, then we should pursue a course of action that makes that goal a practical possibility. Instead of wasting billions of dollars on aid, we might as well be spending tens of millions of dollars on arming the rebels, which might, at least, force the Khartoum regime to the conference table and so help bring the war- and thus the famine-to a conclusion. Or else we should stop pretending that we care what happens in Sudan.

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