Where has the humanitarian world left South Sudan?

Tiffany Easthom

Guest writer Tiffany Easthom addresses an issue close to our hearts: unrivaling nonprofit and philanthropic models to better serve peacebuilders.

June 2022 marked the 11th anniversary of independence for South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation.

In 2011, Independence was a hopeful proposition. Civilians dreamed of a smooth transition towards a peaceful, unified nation, and international institutions and allies rushed to prop up the new government with funding and other forms of support.

Fast forward 11 years later: many of those dreams are waning. 

While much of the narrative in the media this year highlighted youth programs and other success stories, by and large the stories traced symptoms of long-standing conflict met with meager political band aids and ineffective international humanitarian support. 

Why has the world lost hope in real change for South Sudan?

This question is also an opportunity to reassess strategies and reorient directions: we must recognize that peacebuilding, conflict navigation, and civilian protection cannot be one-time investments with simple solutions. These are persistent problems that continue to exist and impact civilians’ lives, even beyond significant anniversaries. 

We need is a dual shift: 

  • away from crisis-driven funding and top-down program development
  • towards long-term, community-led peace infrastructure.
A crisis is trendy, but addressing violent conflict is a long game

Why is the humanitarian response in South Sudan so rooted in damage control—verging on hopelessness when so much of the conflict is cyclical and predictable? 

Why is the humanitarian focus reactionary, rather than oriented around preventing such a predictable and scheduled humanitarian crisis? 

In the humanitarian sector, a lack of systemic analysis and inability to address the root causes is partly to blame—along with a penchant for chasing trendy crisis headlines.

For example, South Sudan experiences extreme floods every year, leading to a scarcity of grazing land, food shortages, and mass displacement of people. We can understand this as a flashpoint: an event which might aggravate old conflicts and incite new ones.

The flood season of 2021-2022 was one of the worst on record, impacting some 760,000 people, primarily in Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile. The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR attributed the severe flooding to climate change and pronounced it to be the worst flood season in at least 60 years.

While the duration and severity of the floods is increasing year after year because of climate change, we must address both the factors leading to climate change, and also  anticipate the conflicts that come with them. 

However, when the same flashpoint strikes year after year, it sounds less like a crisis; international support dwindles, and the issue fails to pique funders’ interest in a humanitarian prevention response.

For instance, while humanitarian funding totaled nearly 1.6 billion USD around the country’s independence in 2011, that number dropped to under one billion USD by 2018 and continues to decline. 

While decline in funding during transitions from an acute emergency to a protracted situation is quite normal and even expected, we cannot neglect how crises continue to flare and impact people’s lives and communities. 

In a 2021 funding announcement, EU commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarčic explained: 

“There seems to be little international interest in this acute situation in the country. Only five donors, including the European Commission, account for almost 77% of the total aid to South Sudan. This lack of interest risks turning this already disastrous situation into a forgotten crisis.”

I agree that the lack of international interest and funding is shameful. The predictable nature of many of the conflict flashpoints (such as annual flooding and climate-related food shortages) as well as the complexity and uncertainty behind any potential solution, creates the perfect circumstances for us to stop “seeing” the need for help. Because of this, we should use South Sudan as an entry point to understand the shortcomings and structural flaws in the humanitarian sector’s responses to protracted conflicts.

South Sudan and many other regions with protracted conflicts require a persistent, locally-owned response, which is incompatible with many institutions’ preferred funding patterns. Resources are always easiest to come by in response to a crisis or a flashy achievement. 

Donation patterns in the aid sector are no different, due in part to the inflexibility of the institutions which fund them. When a new crisis hits the headlines, funders rush to allocate resources and give the crisis their attention, only to divert their energy to the next crisis that hits. We must recognize the gaps in identifying and funding prevention opportunities, as well as the limited investment in peacebuilding as a whole. Our resources and energy can prevent human suffering rather than mitigate it, if we commit to the sustained and persistent response that is necessary in places like South Sudan. 

Lenarčic continues: 

“A scale-up of the humanitarian response is urgently needed from all donors to ensure adequate capacities are in place.” 

But I posit that what we really need, in South Sudan and elsewhere, is an investment of a scale equivalent to crisis funding, but harnessed to fund infrastructure for peace.. This is a far more comprehensive and sustained undertaking, requiring a shift from our exhaustive infrastructures for war, as well as resources and energy to address short-term crises.

We should use South Sudan as an entry point to understand the shortcomings and structural flaws in the humanitarian sector’s responses to protracted conflicts.

Shifting funding from crisis responses to peace infrastructures isn’t enough: we must turn the top-down funding paradigm on its head.

Whether intentional or unrecognized, the traditional, top-down humanitarian funding structures mimic—and to a certain extent, further entrench—the asymmetrical power relations between the Global North and formerly colonized countries. 

When most of the pertinent decision-making functions are concentrated in the Global North, program design and research become rooted in Western academia and Western values. Given these factors, local knowledge is routinely undervalued and overshadowed by Western expectations and expertise.

In part, the short-sighted humanitarian response in places like South Sudan can be attributed to a hesitancy on the part of institutions in the Global North to fund longer-term projects that lack clear benchmarks or deadlines. This limits planning around the predictability of triggers that might set off another humanitarian crisis. In response to the cyclical flooding in South Sudan, a grassroots approach would be better suited to identify threats and needs than a top-down approach. 

If organizations in the humanitarian sector relied on such a bottom-up analysis, they could start making changes. For example, organizations could submit funding proposals at the end of the flooding cycle in anticipation of the upcoming year, rather than waiting.

Although there are sector-wide efforts to “localize” humanitarianism, funders and agencies in the Global North are almost always responsible for setting deadlines and objectives, and local actors often feel enormous pressure to meet these benchmarks rather than the needs of the communities they are supposed to serve.

This top-down approach to project development is a dangerous match when paired with geopolitical inequities. 

As highlighted by former US diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford (who worked in South Sudan when the war broke out): 

“The international community did the people of South Sudan a disservice by focusing on the achievement of independence more than the challenge of building a new nation. We used the government’s youth as an excuse to let bad acts slide and bad habits form, and our continued support enabled it.”


There is another way

The humanitarian sector is in a slow transition towards truly localizing its programming, benchmarks, and wholesale approach. 

This year marks the 5-year anniversary of The Grand Bargain, an agreement between several humanitarian donors and organizations to improve the efficacy of coordinated humanitarian action. Among the commitments was the objective to direct a total of 25% of international humanitarian assistance to local and national organizations. 

While the commitment remains, some say that the sector has made slower progress than promised.

Organizations must prioritize effective answers to the localization question. For the past 20 years, my colleagues at Nonviolent Peaceforce have responded to the invitations of people experiencing violent conflict by supporting unarmed protection teams that protect civilians and train them to understand the root causes of violence. Our protection officers have helped protect thousands of lives in South Sudan, Iraq, the Philippines and Myanmar, among other areas experiencing violent conflict. 

In all of this, local actors and relationship-building are at the center of our work. We build on the pre-existing capacities of communities dealing with conflict to solve their own problems, so that local citizens become the agents of peace. 

We strategically use a series of nonviolent methods that have proven to be effective in very violent situations to address the symptoms and roots of violent conflict. 

To interrupt cycles of violence and facilitate sustainable peace, we work around the globe through 

  • inclusive ceasefires and peace processes
  • protection in humanitarian emergencies and response to crises
  • protection of children, 
  • and social cohesion

Nonviolent Peaceforce also works on protection by and for youth (from the U.S. to Darfur to the Philippines), at the intersection of gender, peace, and security (from Women Protection Teams in South Sudan to protection of Black Trans Youth in the U.S. to supporting former women combatants moving towards peace in the Philippines).

Our work has confirmed that the outcomes and impacts of conflict do not change unless we address the root causes of violence, and that locals are best-suited to do so. Besides training youth and women in protection teams in South Sudan, our protection staff help to dispel deadly rumors. They also protect civilians alongside the distribution of humanitarian aid and supplies.  

Peace infrastructure creates the foundation for all other processes of a functioning civil society, including the provision of healthcare, education, governance, and economic activity.

Too often, though, donors and international agencies rush to allocate large sums of money and identify band-aids that fail to address the legacies of colonialism, extraction of resources and inter- and intranational tensions that spur violent conflict in the first place—all while failing to recognize local leaders and ongoing locally owned work.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed systemic inequalities in every sector of society. With so many inequities laid bare, we have a unique window to advocate for and enact transformative change. Rather than appeal to donor priorities and funder demandsor even metrics set in remote offices, which are themselves a vestige of colonialism and imposition of Western standardswhy not learn from local knowledge and experience?

Rosemary Kabaki, Nonviolent Peaceforce’s Head of Mission in Myanmar, said it best: 

“I would love to wake up at a time when we are all looking at a protection approach and … doing it for the communities without paying so much attention to meeting objectives and meeting our deadlines.

“Because everything is so interrelated. We work with the same communities in the same country.

“Let’s say everybody is focused on protection, but an overview of looking at what that protection means sometimes may mean we back off and support another organization to be able to do it. Because maybe they have better links, they have better connections, they’re able to do things better. That would be my ideal … I know it becomes very complicated to do that, but when we are looking at protection as the main outcome, that we don’t lose that. That whatever it takes to protect the communities, that that’s what we are doing.”

I applaud organizations building equitable and reciprocal partnerships to focus on results and impact–not on who gets the credit, or which timeline aligns with the flashiest milestone. I invite others to do the same. 

Together, if we prioritize the protection of civilians through peace infrastructure and set out to do the work we say we are doing, we can build a future of sustainable peace.


Tiffany Easthom has been with Nonviolent Peaceforce for 11 years. She started and ran nonprofit missions in Sri Lanka, South Sudan and Lebanon before becoming the executive director in 2016. Prior to joining Nonviolent Peaceforce, Tiffany engaged in peace, conflict and development work in Southeast Asia and Latin America.

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