February 24th, 2010
12:00 PM ET

Life in Sudan: Interview with an aid worker

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Chris Guillebeau
AC360° Contributor

Christine (not her real name) is from the U.S. and works in the international development field for a charity that operates throughout Sudan. She has spent more than a year in the country thus far, and recently signed on for another commitment of indefinite length.

Because she is engaged in sensitive work and serves in Sudan at the permission of the government, we mutually decided to post this as an anonymous interview. All answers are her own.

Let’s get started.

* I know it’s probably hard to summarize what’s happening in the Sudan, but can you try?

This is a difficult question to answer. For years the media has simplistically portrayed two conflicts in Sudan: the Darfur conflict pitting government support “Arab” tribes against “African” tribes and the civil war between the Muslim North and the Christian South. I’ll start with Darfur. First, the “Arab” and “African” labels are somewhat arbitrary. The various tribes have been living together and intermarrying for centuries.

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Second, the level of violence is nowhere near what it was a few years ago during what some have labeled the “genocide.” New arrivals to Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps are fleeing low-intensity conflicts. For the most part, these are no longer just janjaweed/rebel conflicts. Often, they may be arab/arab, rebel/rebel, nomad/pastoralist, etc. While people are no longer dying in massive numbers, over 200,000 people are still displaced due to insecurity.

In March of 2009, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Bashir for crimes against humanity, the first time the ICC has done this to a sitting president. The next day, twelve of the largest aid agencies were expelled from the country. Three of the most effective national NGOs were dissolved and all assets were seized by the government. Since then, the level of harassment of international aid workers has reached unprecedented levels. At least seven workers have been kidnapped in the Darfur region, causing the remaining international agencies to pull out of certain areas. In some cases, the government has taken over certain programs, although how long they can sustain this remains to be seen.

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I think it is important to note that the government is not a monolithic entity. There are some very good people in the Sudanese government, particularly the line ministries such as the Ministry of Health, doing the best that they can to provide services to the Sudanese people.

The second conflict is the North/South. In 2005, the leaders of the North and South signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), ending a conflict that had lasted more than 20 years. According to the terms of the peace agreement, a presidential election would be held in 2009 and a referendum in 2011 on whether or not the South would become an independent country. The election has yet to be held due to disagreement over the census. Conflict has arisen in the border areas since the signing, mostly in the oil-bearing regions such as Abyei. These areas have special status and will also have the right to vote whether they want to join the north or the south if the country splits. Of course, where there is oil, there is almost always conflict. In addition, the South has seen significant inter-tribal violence in the past year, with entire villages massacred.

* What are the root causes of the conflicts?

Underdevelopment, politics, race, climate change—ask 10 people, you will get 10 different answers. I’ve given a very simplistic overview above. To learn more about the Sudan conflict, check out Alex de Waal’s blog Making Sense of Darfur. While Alex has a definite bias (full disclosure: a bias that I often share), he is very good about ensuring that those who disagree with him have a voice as well.

* What does a typical day look like for you?

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I don’t think there is such a thing as a typical day. I divide my time between the capital and field sites. When I am in the capital, a typical day consists of writing reports and attending meetings with government officials, donor representatives, and various UN agencies. When I am in the field, I visit project sites (schools, clinics, water sources, etc.) and meet with beneficiaries to ensure that our programs are meeting their needs.

* What are your biggest challenges, personally or professionally?

Maintaining neutrality is critical when working in a humanitarian situation. We are in Sudan at the pleasure of the government. As a sovereign nation, they have every right to decide whether or not we are allowed to stay in the country. Since I believe that the life-saving services we provide are critical, I need to be extremely careful of what I say and do, which is extremely difficult and, at times, ethically challenging.

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The other great challenge is working with UN agencies. While I know some very dedicated, intelligent people who work for the UN and some agencies that function better than others, the system works against them. I despair when I think of the billions of dollars that get wasted on outrageously high salaries and fancy compounds. What most people don’t know is that often UN agencies, such as UNICEF, don’t actually implement anything, particularly in insecure areas. Rather, they subcontract to NGOs (primarily national staff) who then provide services to beneficiaries, with the UN taking a significant portion of the funds in overhead. When money is funneled through UN agencies, rigid, inflexible rules make it difficult to implement projects. UNICEF now insists that any NGOs building schools or latrines with their funds must procure cement from the UN.

I know many projects that have stalled because UNICEF failed to deliver that cement and won’t allow the NGOs to procure it in the local market. It’s not just the wasted money that makes my blood boil. It’s the way they try to control all humanitarian activities with a dictatorial hand, without consulting beneficiaries or the NGOs who work with them.

I should reiterate that I can only speak to my experience with certain agencies in a certain context, although recent studies commissioned by a consortium of major NGOs indicated that this occurs in many countries.

* Do you think people in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Western world are aware of what’s happening in the Sudan?

I think they get a very skewed idea of what is going on. The loudest voices control the coverage and the debate. In the West, these voices come from advocacy groups like Save Darfur and the Enough project. While their intentions are good, they portray the conflict in Sudan in black and white terms—the evil government against the defenseless rebels.

I even saw a recent editorial by the founder of the Enough project blaming the recent inter-tribal conflicts in the South on the Northern government. The problem with this simplistic view is that it limits the options of western governments if you convince enough of the public that one side is evil and the other is the side of the angels.

* What motivates you or led to your choice to work in Sudan?

An Ethiopian refugee who had spent time in Sudan once said that if you put 100 of the world’s nicest people in a room, 99 of them would be Sudanese. I couldn’t agree more. The first time I went to Sudan, a few years ago, I was extremely nervous. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, anti-western sentiment was high in Muslim countries. I expected to experience this but everyone I met was warm and welcoming. I also find the country fascinating—the cultures, the geography, the politics.

* What worries you?

I worry about not being able to meet commitments to the people we provide services for because of security concerns. With multiple kidnappings of aid workers this year, I worry about colleagues in insecure areas. I worry about the peace holding (see the answer to the next question).

This isn’t a worry but I find that one of the most difficult things about this type of work is always having to say goodbye to people. Very few people want to live long-term in a country that is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Most people stick around for a year or less.

* Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future of Sudan?

I’m extremely pessimistic in the short term. We’ll see how the country reacts to two major events over the next year or so. The presidential election is scheduled to occur this coming April. The voter registration period recently ended, but I know very few people who registered. Some just wanted to stay under the radar. I’ve heard others say that registration implies acceptance that the process will be legitimate, which many doubt. Not registering is a form of protest. Many Southerners could care less about the presidential election because they are simply biding time until the second event: the referendum in which they get to vote whether or not to secede from Sudan. Protests are already beginning about the legitimacy of that process.

Most Southerners support succession. But will the vote be legitimate? Even if it is, will both parties accept the result? Even if they do, does the South have the resources to survive as a state? What’s to stop the southern tribes from fighting each other – over 2,000 have died in tribal clashes this past year. I’ve had Southerners tell me that the only thing preventing them from fighting each other is their desire to hold it together until after the referendum.

That being said, I do have optimism for the long term primarily because of the sheer volume of talented, intelligent, engaged people in Sudan. To be clear, I am referring to the Sudanese and not the expats. I’m particularly impressed by the women in this country. Many of my role models are the smart, sassy, fiercely independent Sudanese women working in the Ministry of Health, teaching in universities, and running nonprofit organizations. I think that may surprise some people when they hear that northern Sudan is governed by Islamic law. Wearing a hijab does not make one subservient.

* What do you do for fun over there? Do you have such a thing?

I think that in order to stay sane, you have to have fun outlets. I read a lot. I think the Kindle is the greatest invention of the 21st century. I hated the idea of ebooks. But when you have very limited luggage allowances, especially on internal UN flights (which we use to get to field sites), a device that weighs 10.2 ounces, can hold up to 1,000 books, and can last for over a week without recharging, is heaven-sent.

Northern Sudan is under Islamic law, which means no alcohol and no nightlife. We spend a lot of time at coffee shops. A group of North American friends decided to introduce our Eastern hemisphere friends to potlucks, which we hold once or twice a month. The embassies occasionally host events.

I love NPR podcasts. Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me is the highlight of my week. If anyone knows a way to download (not stream) Morning Edition or All Things Considered, please let me know.

I also watch a lot of DVDs. It’s not unusual to work 10-12 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week. It’s nice to pop in a DVD and fall asleep 10 minutes later. Regardless of nationality, the most popular DVDs here seem to be West Wing and The Wire.

* Can you tell us a good story about your work?

When people think of aid work, I think the most common images are of people constructing schools or latrines, drilling wells, distributing food, or delivering health care. But just because you build a latrine does not mean that someone will use it. The most difficult part of aid work is getting the community to believe in what you are doing and to take ownership of the projects. I worked for an organization that was building latrines as part of a larger project—but no one used latrines in the community. As a result, the water was contaminated and people were getting sick. During community meetings to introduce the project, community members told our staff that it was taboo to go to the bathroom in “house”. If you do, you will be considered a wizard and your daughters will never marry.

You may find that amusing but these people truly believe that, which is why our community mobilizers are key to our program success.

* What is the one thing you’d want readers to understand about your work, or aid work in general?

People want jobs, not handouts. While there are certain situations when a handout is the only choice (conflicts, natural disasters), I believe that global poverty needs to be addressed in a broader economic context. For example, as long as developed countries continue to subsidize agriculture (typically large agriculture corporations, not the small family farm), African farmers will never be able to earn enough to support their families and will continue to rely on handouts.

* What can we do to help?

I know the easy answer to this question is to give money to charity x. However, I believe that the best thing one can do is to take time to educate oneself. To understand the complexities of the underlying causes of conflicts or poverty and to demand the same of your government representatives.

For aid in general, here are three books that with very different perspectives on aid: The End of Poverty by Jeffery Sachs, The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier, and Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo.


I really appreciate our friend taking the time to write such detailed responses. If you have a follow-up question for her, feel free to post it in the comments and she’ll respond as internet access allows.

(Remember that this is an anonymous interview and she can’t comment on anything political.)

Editor’s Note: Chris Guillebeau is a writer and world traveler. He publishes the Art of Nonconformity blog at ChrisGuillebeau.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisguillebeau.

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