Memo to INGOs: time to return to South Sudan

Dear Country Director (cc. boss at headquarters, expatriate colleagues):

It’s time to go back to South Sudan.  (Or decide you never will.)

There are reasons to wait, you might say.  Political uncertainty.  Insurance.  Embassy advisories. The worrying list of incidents summarised in the daily security sitrep.

I’m more worried you will be mugged in Nairobi or Kampala, or pulled over for a grilling by the traffic police for turning on your hazard lights when going through a roundabout.  True, Juba isn’t winning any most liveable city awards.  But that hasn’t changed in the last six weeks.

Why did your NGO come to South Sudan?  To improve education or health or sanitation?  To support agriculture or develop media or train civil servants?  To alleviate poverty or support local institutions or build a justice system?  You might say, now is the time for ’emergency’ operations, a humanitarian response.  Certainly, the 860,000 displaced in and out of the country need that help, but there are still eight million others who call South Sudan home.  People have identities and needs beyond being ‘conflict affected.’  The call for development still exists, and every day of interruption is a day of lost opportunity.

Perhaps your operations have been directly affected and you are worried about the risks of resuming activity.  But South Sudan has no suicide bombers, nor IEDs, nor armed groups specifically gunning for international aid workers.  Nor is the government expelling organisations and revoking registrations, although the new NGO law is a worry.  Caution, yes.  Paralysis, no.  The overwhelming burden of risk falls on your national staff.  And on local organisations with limited international backing and protection. The ones who don’t get evacuated.  You owe your national colleagues a professional duty of care, but what about personal and moral solidarity?

Amidst evacuation, relocation, and general confusion, such criticism is unfair, you submit.  We are trying our best.  Vast swaths of the country are insecure.  One shouldn’t minimise or trivialise the risks.  But now is a good time to ask, if the equation seems impossible to square, whether your agency should be there at all.  South Sudan will be an unstable state for another generation; no deal in Addis will resolve all grievances.  The nature and magnitude of the instability is the unknown; but to channel Rumsfeld, it was, and is, a known unknown.  If you doubt you can be effective in such conditions, perhaps it is best to turn in the keys, hand back the money, and power off the generator.  That may be a decision beyond your pay grade – but it is a discussion you can start.  Good luck.  There’s nothing like a crisis for allowing hard truths to emerge.


3 thoughts on “Memo to INGOs: time to return to South Sudan

  1. LoneStar-AfricaWorks (@LSafricaworks)

    Aly, good post. I wish I was back already but I’m returning in March. Trying to get as much mobilized to hit the ground running. Have heard a lot of groups say, “Look at what happened. Everything was undone. How can you make anything happen?” I say that’s BS. Look at the farmers who kept farming, the traders who kept trading, the students who kept going to school until those schools were shut – South Sudanese are a people that don’t give up, no matter how many people disparage or give up on them.

  2. sssl

    I agree with the sentiment completely. However, the government has threatened to throw out any agency working where they are not permitted. The areas currently restricted are those inhabited by Nuer.


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