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Spotlight on the Start Fund

The challenges of working in fragile states

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Conflict and insecurity are common issues in fragile states such as South Sudan. For Christian Aid and its partner, this meant at times it was dangerous for staff to operate.

By using a sensitive and diplomatic approach towards coordination with local authorities and security personnel and continuously adapting project activities Christian Aid and its partners were able to mitigate some of the challenges and learn a few lessons in the process.

Almost nine months have passed since conflict broke out in South Sudan, creating vast humanitarian need in a country already struggling to meet the basic needs of its diffuse communities. When the Start Fund launched on April 1, at least thirteen members of the Network were already on the ground. At 11:40 am, less than three hours after opening for business, the Fund was formally alerted by Christian Aid for the Upper Nile State, one of the worst conflict-affected areas.

The alert described a dire situation of impending famine, deteriorating access from conflict and coming rains and funding gaps. In a rapid survey, 12 other members agreed that the emergency had experienced a spike in the situation and 10 members alone expressed immediate programming needs of £1,655,000, almost the entire amount available in the Fund for distribution in the first six months. After a vote of 8 to 3, members allocated £425,000 to respond to immediate needs with 45 day projects. Seven projects applied, and four were funded with a total budget of £332,014 – not much in the context of vast need in South Sudan but enough to meet the immediate needs of 34,377 people through WaSH, shelter, nutrition and health interventions, preposition supplies before access became impossible and give field teams and partners time to source £3 million from other donors.

Challenges of implementing in contested areas

Christian Aid worked through its local partner, the Universal Network for Knowledge and Empowerment Agency (UNKEA), to distribute hygiene kits, water purification tabs, mosquito nets, drug kits (to health facilities) and nutrition supplements in Nasir and Maiwut Counties. Even without the coming rains, it became increasingly hard to reach targeted communities in these areas of the Upper Nile State. Fighting between opposition and government forced, including the capital Malakal, had already led to thousands of people fleeing their homes. The opposition forces were in control of many areas and fighting continued.

Christian Aid’s window for implementing the Start Fund grant ran from April 4 to May 18. After coordinating with other humanitarian organisations (World Vision, Medair, Save the Children, OCHA, CARE, ADRA and others), government officials and community leaders, permission to airlift items from Juba was granted by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) Ministry of Defense and Veteran Affairs. Humanitarian access was also granted by local authorities in the Upper Nile State.

On May 4, 2014, government forces attacked Nasir town, a traditional stronghold of the opposition forces, and took control. As a result communities were displaced to Mandeng while others crossed the Ethiopian border where UNHCR registered and took them to the refugee camp in Nyinenyang. UNKEA staff moved with the IDPs to Mandeng and assisted the local community in repairing an old airstrip to re-establish humanitarian access into the opposition controlled area.

Poor networks, communication and movement

Communication with staff in the field added an extra layer of complexity. Since the crisis started, the government had shut down mobile networks in opposition controlled areas. Fuel shortage supply in the area also made it difficult to keep the satellite phones charged, and communication became very limited. Christian Aid sent two of its staff to Maiwut to assist with implementation and coordination on the ground.

Movement to and from the project locations was often difficult even in the field. As a result, Christian Aid and its local partner were not able to complete all planned monitoring trips or the planned 1% learning exercise. Eventually the rains came with increasing intensity. In Pagak the delivery of relief items by air from Juba was delayed due to heavy rain making the airstrip unusable. Floods made roads impassable for two days, delaying distribution of non-food items, and during the reporting period, the rains even stranded Christian Aid staff for over a week.

Humanitarian accessibility challenges

The heavy fighting in Nasir County during implementation led to challenges in delivering humanitarian assistance. During the implementation period, there were also increased restrictions and checks along the humanitarian corridor to Gambella. This delayed items being cleared in customs to cross the border into areas controlled by the opposition. Due to the tight time restrictions of the Fund, some items were airlifted from Juba to Pagak in Maiwut County instead.

As this was an opposition controlled area, it raised high suspicions from the opposition forces since some of the supplies came from Juba. Initially humanitarian access was granted by the opposition. However, misunderstandings arose regarding the Juba supplies which led to temporary detention of partners staff for two days. This resulted in further delays in the distribution of non-food items in Maiwut County, making it impossible to finalise distribution during the implementation period. The items were therefore held in storage while further discussions took place between the Acting County Commissioner, UNKEA and Christian Aid. Fortunately, negotiations proved successful and the food aid was released for distribution, but this happened only after the window for implementing.

In other words, the highly insecure environment and initial mistrust from local authorities made it difficult to deliver the project under the Start Fund’s tight 45-day deadlines.

Addressing the challenges

Christian Aid and its local partners had strong risk mitigation measures already in place to deal with the challenges they faced quickly and effectively and uphold humanitarian principles. While delayed, all the planned aid was successfully delivered in the end, although this required sensitivity in coordination and continuous adaption of programme activities.

As the project reported, “Humanitarian work in opposition controlled areas of South Sudan requires sensitivity in coordinating with local authorities and security personnel while at the same time adhering to humanitarian principles. A major lesson in delivering assistance in the midst of conflict is that the frequent changes in control of certain areas does not allow for adequate planning. Programme changes have to be made every day, some very costly. Local authorities also need to be continuously updated. The politicization of humanitarian assistance is a major challenge that makes planning difficult. Some of these delicate operations in highly insecure areas require longer times as opposed to the tight deadlines of funds like Start.” From this experience, it was recommended that the Start Network deliberate on a framework to balance the unique conditions of high risk settings with the key tenets of the Start Fund.

In such a volatile and fragile situation, humanitarian need is arguably the greatest, and without the efforts of members like Christian Aid and its partners, it would be impossible to reach the most vulnerable. But working in such insecure environments requires agility, acumen and most importantly, the honesty to admit when things go awry and the courage to learn from stumbling blocks.

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