by Kirsty Hearn
The Sudanese diaspora, residing predominantly in the United States, United Kingdom and the Gulf region, have reacted to the unfolding conflict in Sudan in recent weeks in a collaborative, decisive and timely manner. Their humanitarian response and contributions have led the way in providing assistance and relief to civilians across Sudan, supporting the crucial work of civil society actors to alleviate suffering and save lives, sharing information across social media platforms for displaced persons, and advocating for international attention to be placed on the worsening humanitarian situation in Sudan.
Sudan has long faced critical challenges, including the impact of climate change on lives and livelihoods, ongoing conflict in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile state, recent political turmoil, severe economic instability, the Covid-19 pandemic and as a major host of refugees. Since 15th April 2023, Sudan has experienced violent conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and a paramilitary group called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), with unimaginable ramifications for civilians caught in the midst of urban warfare and civil unrest. As of June 1st, the civilian death toll in Khartoum reached 883 while over 5500 civilians have been injured. More than 5000 have been killed in El Geneina in West Darfur and about 8000 injured, although these are likely underestimates given the challenges civilians face seeking emergency care and reporting deaths. There are reports of increasing criminality, communications breakdowns, severe water, food and fuel shortages and the devastation of homes, hospitals, factories and embassies due to fighting in densely populated urban settings. Fewer than 20 percent of health facilities remain functional in Khartoum. This has been accompanied by a mass evacuation of residents from Khartoum and their displacement internally and to neighbouring states while assault and Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) continues to rise. These challenges are compounded by soaring prices, disease outbreaks, forced immobility, pre-existing malnutrition and acute food-insecurity. Repeated high-level calls for a ceasefire have so far failed, with no reliable humanitarian corridor to permit doctors to safely attend to patients in hospitals or access aid distribution. OCHA just released their Revised Humanitarian Response Plan for 2023 which accounts for a 57 per cent increase in urgent humanitarian needs forecasted for the next six months, moving the number of people in need of basic humanitarian assistance in Sudan from 15.8 million to 24.7 million.
The presence of large, institutionalised humanitarian organisations is a longstanding reality in Sudan, represented by UN organisations, as well as governmental and International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) including Care International, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Islamic Relief. In addition to the long-standing humanitarian challenges Sudan faces, the volatile socio-economic and political context since 2019 has undermined the capacity of relief agencies and organisations to respond to the ongoing needs of communities in Sudan, with implications for rising internal displacement. Since the conflict broke out on 15th April, several humanitarian aid workers have been killed while the offices of UN and other organizations have been targeted and looted, leading to the widespread suspension of most humanitarian aid operations. With humanitarian capacity compromised, there could not be a worse time for UN and other agencies to suspend their operations in Sudan. The immediate evacuation of UN international staff members has meant Sudanese national UN employees continue operations at great risk to their own lives. In such a critical and unpredictable context, who is taking the immediate and decisive action to respond to the pressing humanitarian needs of the Sudanese population?
Filling in the gaps: the significance of diaspora humanitarian actors
A key feature of Sudan is its strong, grass-roots civil society networks, supported by diverse and active diaspora who commonly mobilise support for their local partners in Sudan. Attention to local civil society and diaspora humanitarian activities has been growing since the advent of the revolution in 2018 (although diaspora engagement has been a feature of the history of Sudan). In particular, diaspora humanitarian actors are key providers of relief and assistance in contexts of protracted crisis and displacement, coordinating vital support oftentimes before the onset of institutional humanitarian response, and remaining long after aid agencies have left. Sudan has faced protracted, overlapping and cyclical crises and displacement and the Sudanese diaspora have been a vital yet largely invisible source of spiritual and material relief and assistance at both the individual, community and organisational levels. Their efforts span the humanitarian-development-peacebuilding spectrum, unimpeded by set mandates and timeframes as with institutionalised humanitarian response. Importantly, the way in which diasporas respond, commonly transcends siloed understandings of humanitarian response, development and peacebuilding. This approach is significant as researchers and policymakers seek to engage with new approaches to increasingly protracted crisis and displacement worldwide, including momentum to localise and decentralize aid, known as the ‘localisation agenda’.
Diaspora research in the Gulf
In 2021, as a PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham and with a longstanding personal connection to Sudan, I embarked upon a research study examining Sudanese diaspora humanitarian response to crisis and displacement in Sudan. Between December and April 2023, I began conducting interviews with diaspora actors in the Gulf region, to understand how the diverse Sudanese diaspora mobilise humanitarian support, in collaboration with local community organizations, to crises and displacement in Sudan. Exploring diaspora responses from the Gulf region is important because it is one of the most common and often first destinations for Sudanese diaspora migration, and its geographical and cultural proximity to Sudan make it an important context for Sudanese diaspora activities, yet almost no data exists about this phenomenon. Limits placed on official civic organisation, philanthropy and resource mobilisation in the Gulf countries make it an important focus of research for diaspora activities which remain unseen and informal despite their growing scale. Interview participants from the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia so far have suggested that current remittance sending to Sudan far surpasses current estimates, especially when informal transfers are considered. Sudanese people in Sudan are dependent in large part on remittances from the Sudanese diaspora in the Gulf region, commonly channeled through kinship ties. Interviewees also detailed the pragmatic, timely and dedicated contributions, which include resource mobilization by medics and other diaspora professionals using annual leave and personal funds to deliver inter alia life-saving medical treatment and knowledge exchange supporting longer-term voluntary humanitarian responses. According to the words of one interviewee, the diaspora efforts are ‘plugging holes’ in Sudan’s growing humanitarian and development needs. Moreover, Sudan was decoupled from global financial systems for several decades due to US sanctions imposed between 2004 and 2021, and as a result the Gulf region has become an increasingly important ‘staging post’ for remittances to Sudan sent by diaspora based in Europe and North America.
Research in the midst of crisis
The advent of violent conflict in Khartoum and the Darfur region has added a new and timely dimension to my research analyses, effectively showcasing the immediacy and agility with which diaspora and community actors organise and mobilise support despite obstacles. Since April 15th, the Sudanese diaspora have been actively helping through remittance-sending and information sharing. Yet with banking apps down and many banks destroyed, the diaspora has struggled to channel money into the country for loved ones and to support community initiatives. Alternative modes of support among the diaspora have taken the form of advice and information sharing using social media platforms to link families with loved ones, to access food or shelter and information-sharing on conditions in Sudan, levels of risk, and how to evacuate. Diasporas have been heavily involved in fundraising as well as advocacy initiatives online and in their countries of settlement, running campaigns to stop the war and in defense of human rights. Yet while active Sudanese diaspora communities are ready and willing to help, they lack the means and access to engage with the established infrastructure of large-scale aid agencies, limiting their potential for impact.
Diaspora and collaboration
A key issue emerging from my interview conversations back in March 2023 concerned the relationship of the diaspora actors with the UN and other institutional humanitarian actors in Sudan, citing the lack of relationship or dialogue between the UN and civil society/diaspora groups. From the perspective of one diaspora member, the UN is seen as ‘a closed group who are independent from the Sudanese’, with no public sector involvement in humanitarian spaces. Concern ‘with the sustainability of UN commitment’ in Sudan was also evident. Multiple diaspora interviewees were aware of the lack of opportunity for the civil society organizations and grassroots initiatives that they funded from outside Sudan, to collaborate and engage with larger humanitarian missions in Sudan. It was felt that collaboration could contribute towards more sustainable and adaptable responses, a feature underpinning many diaspora initiatives. Equally, interviews with members of institutional humanitarian organizations cited no official relationship with diaspora actors, with political and administrative concerns over how this relationship could be built.
Following the unfolding crisis over the past month, and the initial cessation of UN activities and evacuation of UN staff, there has been a total collapse of large-scale humanitarian response including aid distribution, to what is now a very critical situation across Khartoum and the Darfur states as well as for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Although international aid actors are now, one month on, attempting to reestablish some presence and find channels to deliver aid – MSF have just delivered 28 metric tons to Port Sudan – there remain challenges in negotiating safe passage and humanitarian corridors between the fighting parties, and there are justified questions over the tenability of getting aid from Port Sudan to Khartoum and beyond. One key challenge lies in a lack of coordination between international and local/national actors and what is at least perceived as an absence of volition on the part of UN agencies with regard to using their presence in Sudan to support the Sudanese who are working on the ground in this critical time. While the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) and some other INGOs such as the Norwegian Refugee Council are offering support to community initiatives and networks in Sudan, ‘this is not the default setting for most UN agencies and INGOs’. Local organizations including grassroots organizations and resistance committees, supported by diaspora professionals, are already actively engaged and well positioned within communities to respond to humanitarian needs if there was momentum towards decentralizing and localizing humanitarian response. This localisation and decentralization refers to the shifting of humanitarian planning power from institutions in the Global North to affected communities in the Global South, through the handing over of decision-making capacities, funding allocation and program implementation to local actors.
Implementing what we already know
The responses of diaspora actors and the community initiatives they support deserve recognition as valid humanitarian acts. Through their collaboration with local Sudanese efforts and their ensuing knowledge of supporting local level response, the diaspora could be consulted on how to move forward, what is needed and where and how to deliver aid most effectively. Cash based assistance through banking apps, which the diaspora are already spearheading using remittances, can effectively and rapidly support communities and organizations to purchase necessary goods particularly in areas where humanitarian aid cannot reach them, which is the case for certain areas of Khartoum currently.
The value of research into diaspora humanitarian responses, in its contribution to a wider evidence base, is multifold. It can increase the visibility of diaspora efforts as they relate to the international humanitarian eco-system. Research can also improve understandings of how diasporas can be better supported in their humanitarian responses, particularly at the onset of crisis, to improve communication, strategy and operational efficacy to bridge and compliment the efforts of other humanitarian and development actors. The Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA) states that humanitarian action should be “as local as possible” and local responders should get “greater support [for their] leadership, delivery and capacity” (Grand Bargain 2.0). Yet the commitment to implementation has been slow. As emerging evidence here and elsewhere indicates, Sudanese civil society and the Sudanese diaspora crucially support affected populations to help themselves. This local community-led crisis response is not a new idea and evidence of its effectiveness has been documented, and is in fact in tandem with the priorities of localization, but its implementation in the Sudanese context requires the tangible – and timely – support of the wider humanitarian ecosystem, if the unprecedented humanitarian needs in Sudan are to be addressed.