Diversion and humanitarian assistance in South Sudan

[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

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Nyang Jawu Nyanpiu is one of more than 1,000 households that received food items such as sorghum, beans, cooking oil and salt in South Sudan’s Rubkona, Pariang and Bentiu counties.

Nyanpiu, who is in her early 70s, lost her family members during conflict in her home village and fled to the Pariang camp IDPs where her only surviving son died of an unknown illness. (MCC Photo/Patrict Mulu)

The positive and negative impacts of humanitarian assistance can be viewed through two primary lenses: first, the direct impact from the transfer of aid in meeting basic human needs; and second, the ethical message conveyed in the provision of assistance. In this article, I examine a key factor that humanitarian agencies in conflict settings that plan food assistance interventions must consider, namely, diversion. My discussion of diversion builds on MCC’s experience in supporting food assistance projects implemented by a South Sudanese church relief organization among famine-affected internally displaced peoples in the part of South Sudan formerly known as Unity State (in 2015, the South Sudanese government divided Unity State into the three new states of Ruweng, Northern Liech and Southern Liech).

Diversion in humanitarian assistance refers to actions that, by altering the intended distribution of relief items, results in humanitarian assistance being reduced, not reaching or being delayed in reaching intended beneficiaries, or being used for something other than its intended purpose. One type of diversion involves actions by political officials or by armed groups (such as the police, the military or non-state actors) to intercept and divert humanitarian assistance away from the intended beneficiaries. Another type of diversion, however, happens when project participants themselves use humanitarian assistance they receive for something other than the planned-for purpose. Selling food assistance is a classic example of such diversion. Another type of diversion happens when beneficiaries share assistance they receive with family, friends and neighbors. My focus in this article will be on this latter type of diversion of humanitarian assistance by project participants.

A concrete example will help clarify the issues at stake in diversion. In December 2018, staff with the Episcopal Church for South Sudan-South Sudanese Development and Relief Agency (ECSS-SUDRA) conducted a survey of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in the former Unity State who had received food assistance through a project implemented by ECSS-SUDRA with support from MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB). The survey revealed that the supported beneficiaries had shared, sold and diverted part of the food they had received through the project, rather than keeping all of it for their household food needs (the intended purpose).

When ECSS-SUDRA staff asked why this diversion had happened, beneficiaries gave multiple responses. For many, diverting food assistance they had received represented a way to help relatives and friends who had newly arrived and settled in the camp. Conflict often separates members of extended and even nuclear families from one another. In contrast, stability and food in times of need bring family members together. Food aid recipients therefore sought to share this assistance with their extended relatives who also experienced need. Not only that, but the ECSS-SUDRA survey found that some food aid recipients also shared a portion of their food aid with newly arrived IDPs, both with IDPs coming from their home communities and with returnees from distant internal displacement camps and refugee settlements.

Ubuntu is an ancient African worldview based on the primary values of humanness, caring, sharing, respect and compassion, values that help ensure happiness and well-being within family and community: within this worldview, sharing one’s resources with family, friends and neighbors is a cultural imperative.

Another cause of diversion by beneficiaries was that some items in the distributed food parcels were not readily usable in the form provided. So, for example, beneficiaries reported that they lacked money to have the sorghum that came in the food package ground into flour: they therefore sold the sorghum for cash. Recipients who sold items from the food package reported doing so in order to meet other priority needs, such as the purchase of soap or meat or for covering medical expenses.

Still other recipients viewed the food assistance as an opportunity to start a business. In some cases, recipients sold food assistance to access startup capital. Others who already had access to some capital used those funds to grind the sorghum they received into flour for baking bread that they then sold, increasing household income.

The types of diversions described above are common when humanitarian agencies distribute food assistance in conflict situations. Humanitarian agencies like MCC might sometimes unreflectively assume that food is the primary, or even sole, need of IDPs and other vulnerable groups, yet such peoples, who may have no regular sources of income, have other basic needs, including health, hygiene and education. Diversion in these instances represents a creative attempt by beneficiaries to meet multiple needs through food aid which had originally been intended to meet only basic nutritional and diet diversity needs.

When the number of people who end up benefiting from humanitarian assistance surpasses the originally planned scope of the project, one reasonably deduces that diversion by beneficiaries has occurred. So, for example, ECSS-SUDRA found through its survey that the household sizes reported at the end of the project varied from what was originally projected, resulting in the project reaching more households than anticipated in the initial plan. Households expanded as IDPs welcomed members of their extended families. Also, the number of overall beneficiaries of the project expanded as recipients shared and consumed food aid with their friends and relatives.

Humanitarian agencies like MCC and ECSS-SUDRA seek to ensure that the amount of food aid distributed is appropriate and effective for the size of the households receiving the assistance. Yet, in bantu contexts like the areas where ECSS-SUDRA operate, people hold strongly to the communal value of ubuntu. Ubuntu is an ancient African worldview based on the primary values of humanness, caring, sharing, respect and compassion, values that help ensure happiness and well-being within family and community: within this worldview, sharing one’s resources with family, friends and neighbors is a cultural imperative. Ubuntu calls on people to show basic respect and compassion for others, based on a recognition of how people are defined by communal relations: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” One’s neighbor’s survival is a precondition of one’s own survival: sharing the food one has, including food assistance one has received, is a duty. One is not separate from family members who have also had to run away from their homes and villages, nor is one separate from friends and neighbors, including new neighbors in an IDP camp. Ubuntu calls people to extend food and brotherly embrace. While humanitarian assistance project plans may give clear instructions about beneficiary selection, the communal value of ubuntu disrupts these plans through its spirit of sharing.

There are several steps that can be taken to minimize negative types of diversion in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. These include improved planning, needs assessments, regular monitoring, integration of priority needs into holistic assistance packages, provision of assistance that can have long-term benefits and empowerment of and coordination with local actors to prevent duplication of support. Yet, as the ECSS-SUDRA experience in South Sudan shows, not all forms of diversion by beneficiaries are harmful. Indeed, when recipients of food aid share those resources with extended families and social networks, they extend the benefit of food assistance and help foster social cohesion, even if these benefits were not part of the original project planning.

Amos Okello is MCC representative for South Sudan and Sudan.

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, South Sudan.