How do you deliver lifesaving aid in an armed conflict? Support local responders.

Mohammed Mohammedian, program coordinator for KSCS, discusses water-supply issues with community members. “In the past five years, there have been four major crises in the area of Kebkabiya,” he says. “In each case, we were the first aid agency to arrive with help.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/ Oxfam

When disaster strikes in Darfur, Sudan, Oxfam partner KSCS has what it takes to save lives.

There is an element of risk in every emergency response, but in war-torn regions of the world like Darfur, Sudan, the dangers are acute. Distributing supplies, digging a well, or simply driving along a road can put staff in harm’s way—but failing to deliver aid could imperil entire communities. When emergency response succeeds in times of conflict, it’s often thanks to the work of committed local groups that can navigate the physical, political, and cultural terrain.

Building trust

For emergency responders around the world, trust is crucial to getting the job done well. But it’s extra important in an armed conflict, where doubt and suspicion can jeopardize programs and even lives. Sometimes an international agency inspires trust because it lacks deep ties to any of the warring parties. But sometimes it helps to be local.

Omar Idriss is the coordinator of the Sortony camp, a makeshift settlement that sprang up in 2016 in the aftermath of attacks on villages in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur. He tries to be sure everyone has access to essentials, from food and water to schools and safe spaces for children to play. Residents now number around 22,000, and living conditions are harsh, but when he walks through the camp, people smile and call out “Baba!”—an affectionate term for father.

Omar Idriss, the aid coordinator for Sortony camp and a founder of KSCS, takes part in a hygiene-promotion session. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Idriss is on the staff of the Kebkabiya Smallholders Charitable Society (KSCS), an Oxfam partner that has worked for decades to improve life in the rural villages of North Darfur; in fact, he is one of the agency’s founders. Since the outbreak of armed conflict in 2003, KSCS has developed expertise in the crucial, but often dangerous work of making sure communities displaced by violence have access to clean water and latrines, and to the hygiene materials and information they need to prevent outbreaks of disease in the crowded camp communities. 

How do you deliver aid in the fraught environment of an armed conflict without inflaming or falling prey to violence? By taking the time to get to know people on both sides of the divide.

“When people are in need and we can support them, we do,” he says. “In Darfur, this applies to both farmers and pastoralists, so although they are in conflict with one another, we have relationships of trust with both."

Wasting no time

KSCS is based in a particularly volatile area of Darfur, where a host of tribes live side by side, and where the government has clashed violently with rebel groups for more than a decade. That means KSCS staffers are perpetually on the front lines of emergency response. The group’s local connections, diplomacy, and reputation for helping communities on the basis of need (not politics) means its staff and equipment can often travel quickly through territory and checkpoints that outside organizations might consider too dangerous. The results have been impressive:

“In the past five years, there have been four major crises in the area of Kebkabiya,” says KSCS program coordinator Mohammed Mohammedian. “In each case, we were  the first aid agency to arrive with help. We started water trucking operations, distributed plastic sheets, water cans, sleeping mats, and other essentials, and as soon as possible, we helped the communities get started building latrines and sharing information about health and hygiene. People arrived with nothing, so we distributed cash to help them buy the things they needed most.”

In 2016, they didn’t even wait until people began arriving in Sortony to act. “As soon as we heard there was conflict in Jebel Marra,” he says, “we began to plan the response.”

As displaced villagers began arriving in Sortony, KSCS was the first NGO to begin delivering aid. The top priority: water. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam America

Easing risks

Reducing disaster risks is key to any humanitarian program. In an armed conflict, that means finding ways to address root causes, and also ease tensions before they explode into violence.

KSCS is helping 10 communities in a particularly volatile area improve their ability to resolve local conflicts peacefully. It’s common for Darfuris lodging a criminal complaint to invoke the traditional Ajaweed system of justice rather than Sudan’s more modern legal system. Oxfam and KSCS have been helping these communities tweak the system—to include women in the process and, in order to ensure equitable solutions, to replace arbitration with mediation. (Read more about the peacebuilding program in Closeup Magazine.) And KSCS is working proactively to prevent conflict by, for example, helping farmers and herders agree to migratory routes that will minimize damage to crops.

Politics and prolonged conflict have driven a wedge between farmers and pastoralists in Darfur. But the two groups have many struggles in common, among them the difficulty of accessing water during the dry season. Shortages can spark armed clashes, so when KSCS improves water supplies by drilling and rehabilitating wells for both pastoralists and farmers, it amounts to humanitarian response and peacebuilding rolled up into one.

Knowing what matters

Aid agencies that don’t understand local priorities can overlook big risks and opportunities; when it came to the impact of the Sortony displacement on education, KSCS was able to connect the dots.

“KSCS realized that the displacement was happening right at the time of an important exam,” says the organization’s executive manager Ali Mohammed. “Students who don’t take that exam at that moment can’t enter secondary school. So while we were rushing to get water and other essentials to the displaced community, we were also making arrangements for students to travel to a nearby town to take the exam, and to receive food and lodging for as long as necessary.”

He added, “We knew that the future of these families depended on it.”

How you can help Oxfam strengthen local responders 

Oxfam sees one of our most important roles around the world as enabling local organizations like KSCS to manage emergency responses. Their networks and their deep knowledge about the communities are invaluable, and they deserve the space and resources they need to take charge.

“Ideally, humanitarian responses are led by local and national organizations,” says Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima, “and are reinforced by Oxfam where needed.”

The KSCS-Oxfam partnership reflects Oxfam’s aspiration to be a strong ally to local groups.

A woman walks home with a jug of water in Kebkabiya, where KSCS supports community water management. “We consider ourselves accountable to all of our donors and to the communities we serve. We have strict procedures for tracking spending and preventing fraud of any kind. Every year, we are audited by our major donors, including Oxfam and UN agencies, and they have been satisfied with their findings.” – Ali Mohammed, executive manager of KSCS Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

“Oxfam has provided us with training in emergency response, water and sanitation, nutrition, emergency livelihoods, and public health promotion,” says Omar Idriss. “They have also offered training in organizational systems and management. Now, our work meets international standards. UN agencies are satisfied with KSCS and regularly provide us with funding.”

And on the ground in Sudan, the group is putting it all together. With trust, speed, skills, access, a solid reputation, and an understanding of local priorities, KSCS is saving lives and helping chart a path to a more peaceful future.

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