As hundreds of thousands of people in South Sudan struggle to survive the brutal conflict there, South Sudan’s labor minister recently dealt a potentially devastating blow: he ordered all international workers to leave the country. That happened on September 16, when international aid agencies and private companies received a circular from Ngor Kolong ordering all “aliens” to cease work in the country by October 15. The minister justified the decree as “protecting the rights and interests of the people of South Sudan”.
This marked the third attempt in three years to prevent foreigners from working in the country. It came against the backdrop of the government’s ongoing crackdown on the free press and newly-created bills affecting the media, national security, and NGOs—all of which threaten to shatter an already fragile civil society and to seriously hamper the effective delivery of humanitarian aid.
Within a day, under intense international pressure, the South Sudanese government made a U-turn: South Sudan’s foreign minister declared that no foreign workers were to be expelled—temporarily shelving this particular initiative. However, repeated attempts to oust international workers are a clear example of sentiments in South Sudanese policy that are dangerous, misguided, and remain very much alive. At the very least, this latest decree has exacerbated the mistrust between the aid community and the government.
The fighting that erupted in December of last year, between government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and opposition forces loyal to Riek Machar, has divided the country. Much of the conflict-affected areas of Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity States are currently under opposition control. This man-made catastrophe has affected millions. Thousands have required surgery for gunshot wounds and other violence-related injuries; almost two million people have fled their towns and villages; and around 100,000 have sought safety in UN-protected spaces—frequently in cramped and dangerously unsanitary conditions. People are also hungry: according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, lack of sufficient food is at critical or emergency levels across most of the opposition-controlled region. Overall it is estimated that four million people—over one third of the population—are in need of humanitarian support.
Lifesaving humanitarian assistance is essential, and thus aid agencies need to be at their most effective. To begin to alleviate suffering and restore dignity on this scale, agencies must be at their full capacity—which includes their entire contingents of staff.
The majority of professional aid workers in South Sudan are from South Sudan; their skills and local knowledge are invaluable to the relief effort. However the current level of humanitarian need, in a country with some of the world’s worst education indicators, also requires the management and technical skills that international employees can bring to relief operations. This applies in particular to specialized areas such as project management, implementing logistical systems such as airplane charters, and treating complex injuries and tropical diseases. Reliance on this external capacity has been intensified by the destruction of hospitals and schools, the looting of food and medicines, and the difficulties of transportation: even four-wheel drive vehicles are easily bogged in the muddy black cotton soil of South Sudan’s ongoing rainy season.
As a sovereign state, South Sudan is well within its rights to determine its own policies—be they on immigration, labor, or security. Yet, as the labor minister stated, South Sudan must also protect, and provide basic services to, its citizens—even when that requires outside help. At this time of crisis—when those citizens are at their most dependent on that protection and support—surely the government of South Sudan should implement policies that makes aid delivery easier, not harder?
International aid workers are not only needed for their expertise: they are crucial to safe-guarding the impartial delivery of aid. That is, aid must be delivered based on need and need alone. Because international staff are removed from local social pressures, they are less likely to be swayed by domestic politics and the dynamics of the conflict, which has displayed an often brutal ethnic motivation.
In this environment, aid is subject to politicization by all parties. This could not be demonstrated more clearly than by the reaction of the opposition leadership, who called the decree evicting foreign workers a “tribalistic and genocidal act by members of Kiir government to depopulate the Greater Upper Nile region”. If aid is not seen to be delivered impartially and independently from belligerents, it will become yet another tool of the conflict. Not only do international workers help aid go to those that need it most, but their presence gives confidence to all stakeholders that this is the case—to the warring parties, donors, and—most importantly—to the recipients themselves.
Furthermore, the January agreement—and the May recommitment—on ‘Cessation of Hostilities’ obligates both parties to facilitate humanitarian assistance within their respective areas of control. A labor policy that ousted impartial aid professionals would constitute a serious block to aid delivery, increasing the suffering of ordinary South Sudanese. Thus such a decree would join the catalogue of violations by both parties of the ceasefire agreement, leaving aid open to manipulations that could easily be used to legitimize escalation.
Perhaps these plans were born of a genuine concern for the South Sudanese population, in that evicting aid workers would provide for more local employment. That would constitute an unlikely outcome considering the modus operandi of most international organizations, which rely on the management and neutrality of international staff—a model with which the government of South Sudan is very familiar. Rather, this likely represented a deliberate attempt by a belligerent party to gain control of aid provision at a time when impartial aid could not be more vital for the people of South Sudan.
Both the government of South Sudan and the opposition are belligerents in a conflict that has caused suffering on a massive scale and seen violations of both international law and the regionally-brokered peace agreement. Neither side may abdicate its responsibility to safeguard civilians from the mass violence witnessed since the onset of this conflict. Any failure to facilitate the capacity of aid agencies to deliver basic lifesaving needs to the population represents a dereliction of these parties’ first obligation to their citizens. To jeopardize these agencies very access to serve in South Sudan would be graver still.