Not much happens in Jamjang, a dusty South Sudanese town perched on the country’s northern border, that doesn’t revolve around Ajuong Thok, its satellite refugee camp. The humanitarian agencies that service the camp provide the only real source of employment, turning Jamjang into a company town in which the agencies’ walled compounds stand in stark contrast to the residents’ wattle-and-daub huts. In September 2021, I was on my third trip to the town, after a decade of working as a conflict researcher in Sudan and South Sudan—sometimes for humanitarian organizations, but more often doing work that critiqued them. As I walked through Jamjang, I talked to young people who voiced disquiet about the humanitarians’ hiring practices. “They don’t employ locals,” one young man told me. “They don’t even advertise here.” Six months earlier, in April, a group of young men—some employed by the agencies, others not—had scaled the walls of the International Rescue Committee compound and started to attack the staff. The UN mission in South Sudan, which has a mandate to protect civilians, found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to defend humanitarians from the very people it was supposed to help.
The youth of Jamjang were not alone. In 2020 and 2021, South Sudan was convulsed by protests against the agencies. In town after town, young people demonstrated against humanitarian hiring practices and labor policy, burning down NGO assets and forcing staff to relocate. The protesters demanded jobs for locals and a say in humanitarian policymaking, normally decided by donors in far-off capitals. In places like Jamjang, government jobs stopped paying meaningful salaries some years ago, and in the absence of a private sector, every young person dreams of working for an NGO.
With more than 90 percent of South Sudan’s youth without formal employment, the competition for positions is fierce. At the airstrip, waiting for my flight back to Juba, South Sudan’s capital, I spoke with a few lucky enough to land a job. The national staff of the humanitarian agencies constitute the closest thing South Sudan has to a waged middle class, and they mark their status accordingly: only the newest shoes and the tightest jeans adorn young men employed to do human resources for Save the Children. Like heirloom jewelry, these jobs are kept in the family, with hiring overwhelmingly dominated by kinship connections. One young man explained to me that he had worked as a teacher after finishing school but was never paid, and so had gone to work as a laborer in Sudan. That gave him enough money to survive but not enough to build a life. With his NGO salary, he could support his extended family.
That the humanitarian agencies dominated the economy in Jamjang was not a welcome story for the aid workers whom I spoke to back in Juba. They abhorred the protests and thought that the South Sudanese were deeply ungrateful. The aid workers tended to think of themselves as angels from elsewhere, flying in to help the needy. Their waged employees—the logistics officers, but also the security guards who protected their compounds and the drivers who ferried them around the refugee camps—were simply a necessary expense. For the young people I had interviewed in Jamjang, it was those wages, rather than the services the humanitarians provided, that were key. “It’s not human rights workshops that we need,” one young man told me, “it’s jobs.” The labor conditions of those jobs were atrocious. The humanitarians might hope to be on the right side of history, but their union-averse hiring practices wouldn’t pass muster in most of Europe. The Sudanese refugees living in Ajuong Thok were offered only short-term contracts and were paid far lower rates than the local staff, who were in turn blocked from the top humanitarian jobs, which were destined for internationals, many of whom had only recently arrived in South Sudan. In the topsy-turvy world of humanitarianism, only the ignorant are allowed to be in charge: local staff with knowledge of the countries in which they work are barred from promotion to high-ranking positions. The protests across South Sudan were a labor strike against these conditions.
Humanitarians rarely comment on the sector’s sordid political economy, at least in public. Their vision of what they do is much grander: humanitarians alleviate suffering and help the needy. “Soldiers kill, we save lives,” the head of one agency told me this summer in Juba. While there is a lot of variation in a sector that includes enormous UN bureaucracies like the World Food Programme (WFP), along with local activist organizations and religious groups, its overall worldview is founded on four principles, three of which were adopted by the UN in 1991, with a fourth added in 2004. The holy principles are as follows:
- Humanity. Humanitarians must prevent and alleviate suffering wherever it might be found, giving priority to the most urgent cases.
- Impartiality. Aid must be provided solely on the basis of need, without discrimination between groups.
- Neutrality. Humanitarians should not take sides in hostilities.
- Independence. Humanitarians should not have political, economic, military, or other nonhumanitarian objectives.
This is the angel’s creed. It leaves much unsaid. Most notably, these principles give no guidance as to how to understand the humanitarian agencies’ entrenched economic dominance in places like Jamjang. “Humanitarianism,” an agency head told me in August of this year as we sat by the pool in Juba, drinking espressos in the early morning cool, “is supposed to be for emergencies. We come when there is a crisis, and we leave after saving lives. We aren’t supposed to be there forever.”
In places like South Sudan, the emergency has become permanent. Year after year, conflict and flooding have meant that the humanitarians have come to stay and are now a fixed part of the country’s political economy. Juba is one star in a global firmament, alongside Mogadishu, Sa’ana, and Kabul, in which careers are made and the starving supposedly saved. Humanitarian funding reached a record $47 billion last year, even as needs spiraled and NGOs competed anxiously for donor cash. The Western humanitarian system now formally employs some 630,000 people, according to a 2020 estimate. The system has become a gargantuan bureaucracy, replete with best practice guides for how to run refugee camps, impenetrable rules about donor funding, and an aristocracy of “expats” in places like Juba, who alternate days spent staring at spreadsheets with nights drinking gin and tonics in a white-washed world impossibly far from South Sudan’s reality.
For such expats, humanitarianism is a successful business, despite the sector’s abysmal track record. Twelve years after South Sudan declared independence in 2011, with billions spent by the humanitarian sector, South Sudan is poorer, more violent, and more dependent on emergency assistance than ever. One cannot blame everything on the NGOs: war, flooding, and a kleptocratic government have all taken their toll. Nevertheless, when I was in South Sudan this past August, even the most committed humanitarians I spoke to were clear that the system was broken. Rather than create long-term strategies, the humanitarian agencies live year-by-year, spending money according to the priorities of donors in the West instead of those of the South Sudanese people. These emergency plans made by the NGOs amount to Band-Aids on an open wound. It’s a fundamentally antidemocratic system that ultimately perpetuates the emergency, to the benefit of Juba’s humanitarians but to the detriment of the country. “They are here to profit from people’s poverty,” one veteran conflict analyst told me, disgusted by the humanitarian system, “they should all just go home.”
In the Market for Saviors
The history of humanitarianism tends to the hagiographic. Getting food and medicine to the starving and sick seems like a self-evident good, and humanitarians’ accounts of their own work tend to be short on politics and long on ethics. Hidden within this moral economy, however, there is a real political economy, and saving people has proved less important than controlling them.
The poverty of the Global South was an opportunity for Western NGOs, who could then step in and provide services in the absence of the government.
This is not the story humanitarians like to tell. Foremost among their patron saints is Henry Dunant, a businessman from Geneva who came across the battle of Solferino in 1859 and got to work helping the wounded. His widely circulated book, A Memory of Solferino, is at once a memoir and a policy prescription. It was crucial to the formation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the creation of the Geneva Conventions. Amid horrific descriptions of the wounded, Dunant notes his concern that so many “weak and ignorant women” were in charge of what he saw as a chaotic relief effort lacking capable men ready to take charge. From the beginning, humanitarianism was paternalistic.
Nevertheless, Dunant’s book launched, or so the hagiography goes, a global humanitarian movement. Obviously, helping the needy did not begin in the nineteenth century, and the term humanitarianism precedes Dunant. After the Enlightenment, humanitarianism was the name given to campaigns for children’s rights and the end of the slave trade. What is crucial to the history of the humanitarian industry is not compassion per se but how international organizations based in the West turned into vehicles for moral sentiments.
The interwar period saw the spread of such organizations beyond Europe’s borders. One of the first foreign sites for Western humanitarianism was the Near East, as Davide Rodogno shows in Night on Earth: A History of International Humanitarianism in the Near East, 1918–1930. There, organizations like the American Relief Administration (ARA), headed by Herbert Hoover, and Save the Children set about the work of emergency assistance and postwar reconstruction. These organizations’ goals extended beyond simply providing emergency relief. They imagined the reconstruction of the Near East on Western terms, and worked hand-in-hand with colonial administrators from the Allied powers that had taken control of former German and Turkish territories after World War I. For the United States, humanitarianism would prove to be politics by other means. For the ARA—much more so than for the guardedly neutral ICRC—food aid was a way of working against the Bolshevik threat: hunger was thought to be the soil from which communism would grow. It was the West who would save others, and in doing so, determine the terms under which they would be saved.
While Western humanitarianism focused on Europe in the interwar period, its concerns became global after the end of World War II. Increasingly, humanitarian relief took place under the auspices of the UN. While agencies such as the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which was designed to deal with the aftermath of the war, were soon dismantled, they provided the model for new emergency programs, such as the WFP (1961) and the UN Disaster Relief Office (1971). Part of a rapid expansion of humanitarianism that took place against the backdrop of the Cold War, these programs were politicized from the outset. After the end of World War II, Hoover reprised his position as director of humanitarian aid at the Famine Emergency Committee. The world was starving, but American agriculture was producing a surplus. By 1949, Congress had agreed to provide emergency food aid from America’s agricultural reserves. Between 1945 and 1983, CARE, a major humanitarian agency, delivered nearly $2.8 billion in food aid to more than sixty-five countries, with much of it coming from the American Food for Peace program. While food aid benefited American farmers, it came with a political price tag for its recipients. Politicians in the Global South understood that strategic loyalty during the Cold War was the price to be paid for American grain. The list of the main recipients of U.S. assistance in Africa—Sudan, Zaire, Kenya, Somalia—during the Cold War is a list of loyal American client states. As Henry Kissinger remarked in 1976, disaster relief had become a major instrument of U.S. foreign policy, cloaked in the angelic language of saving lives.
Humanitarianism during the Cold War cannot however be reduced to a mask for U.S. imperialism. The late 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of organizations such as the Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, which attempted to overcome Cold War Manicheanism by practicing a global, activist moralism that spoke out about human rights abuses. Some organizations in this period refused the emerging UN consensus on humanitarian neutrality and worked in a revolutionary tradition of solidarity and self-reliance, which drew from the work of Paulo Freire and liberation theology.
Such organizations remained on the margins of the humanitarian sector as it grew exponentially during the 1980s. “We don’t do development” is a mantra I have often heard from humanitarians, who insist that emergency relief is not the same as schemes to transform a country’s economy. Nevertheless, the history of development aid and that of humanitarianism must be told in tandem. In the 1970s, buoyed by rising oil prices, the World Bank and other financial institutions loaned money to countries in the Global South to fight poverty. The financial downturn that followed the 1979 oil crisis created a situation in which many countries could no longer pay the debts they had incurred. Donor states and international financial institutions made debt relief and further loan provision conditional on countries like Sudan cutting public services and privatizing state-owned industries. The poverty of the Global South was an opportunity for Western NGOs, who could then step in and provide services in the absence of the government. Donors were all too happy with NGO expansion—government in the Global South was weakened, and Western control was strengthened.
In the 1990s, there was real enthusiasm for a humanitarianism no longer shackled to Cold War divides which could finally be the morally unblemished agent of change it had always claimed it was. The aid industry exploded, with funds to NGOs increasing from $2 billion in 1991 to over $5 billion in 2001. In much of the Global South, the Cold War had been replaced by new wars, seemingly unending and apolitical. Instead of defeating communism, America sought to stabilize failing states, and humanitarianism was just the ticket.
During the war on terror, the political consequences of stabilization were made manifest. Humanitarian interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere became the left hand of a more militarized imperialism. While U.S. special forces went house to house hunting for insurgents, humanitarian agencies undermined state ministries and effectively established themselves as governments, answerable to D.C. rather than to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. This imposition was justified by the assumption that the interests of the humanitarian agencies and those of the people they assisted were consonant. Paternalism proved to be an alibi for military occupation.
While the humanitarian sector is now enormously diverse, just three donors (the United States, Germany, and the European Union) accounted for nearly two-thirds of all international assistance from public sources in 2022. Meanwhile, the United States provides half of all the funding for global food emergencies—much of which is purchased from American farmers, to their continued approval. Donor funding overwhelmingly goes to eighteen large organizations, which constitute what the British Overseas Development Institute described as a “humanitarian oligopoly” in testimony to the UK parliament. These organizations tend to subcontract to other, smaller NGOs, while retaining the right to determine policy. The major aid organizations and the donor countries that support them are unified in their tendency to hide politics and power under a mask of beneficence. Difficult decisions about labor policy and economic strategy in Jamjang, Kabul, and Addis Ababa are made by a bureaucracy that talks only of saving lives.
Blinded By Humanity
Humanitarian turnover is swift. In Juba, each flight from Nairobi brings a new cohort of idealists, and there are precious few humanitarians who remember Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), an assistance mission that was carried out during the civil war that ravaged the country in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Those who do remember OLS speak nostalgically about a morally purer humanitarianism, less constrained by cumbersome bureaucracies. In A Bed for the Night, his canonical critique of the sector, David Rieff claimed that humanitarianism had lost sight of its goals and allowed itself to be hijacked by Western powers. In 2003, Hugo Slim, a doyen of the humanitarian world, replied to Rieff in a lecture he gave in Geneva:
Asking if humanitarianism is politicized is like asking any number of other self-evident questions. Does it rain in England? Is Holland flat? Is the Pope a Catholic? Humanitarianism is always politicized somehow. It is a political project in a political world.
The question posed by Slim’s response is simple: If humanitarianism is political, what are its politics? The angel’s creed has humanity as its first principle: humanitarians must work to alleviate suffering, giving priority to the most needy. It hasn’t quite worked out like that in Sudan and South Sudan. In Sudan, a war that began in April has, as of September 2023, displaced five million people, many of whom have fled to neighboring countries. In August, I met some of the newly displaced in Maban County, a remote region of South Sudan. They were huddled in a reception center that looked like a large mess hall. Children played next to containers of water collected from a nearby borehole, in front of a handwritten sign that asked the international community for assistance. The refugees I spoke to were urbanites from Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. They spoke nervously about their career plans. One doctor, whom I will call Fatima, asked me whether I thought she might find a job that caters to her specialization in nephrology. I struggled to tell her that the nearest hospital didn’t even have any painkillers. If the earnest young professionals assembled in the reception center were to stay in Maban, they would have no job prospects. That night, one humanitarian told me: “We can’t give people careers. We just address basic needs. And the truth is, we don’t do that very well.”
The humanitarians were appalled. Employment decisions were made by the aid agencies, not the refugees.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 9.4 million people in South Sudan will need humanitarian assistance in 2023, some 76 percent of the population. More than 60 percent of the country is grappling with acute food insecurity. A 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan requested $1.7 billion, but as of September, the plan is only 46 percent funded. In South Sudan, the WFP is facing a shortfall of $400 million and has been forced to make drastic cuts in its provision of food aid. One of the tools the agency uses to differentiate between levels of food insecurity is the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). IPC1 is minimal food insecurity, IPC3 is crisis, and IPC5 is famine. Given the shortfall, one WFP staffer wrote to me, all areas in IPC3 will have their rations cut. “People in IPC3 are starving,” the staffer stated. “Anywhere else in the world they would be prioritized for assistance. It’s only in South Sudan where we refer to IPC3 as the relatively better off.”
Except it’s not just in South Sudan. WFP is also battling acute budget shortfalls in Somalia and Ethiopia, both countries threatened by serious hunger, and has also had to cut operations in Afghanistan, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the principle of “humanity,” the sector should prioritize assisting the most vulnerable. Those in countries like South Sudan and Somalia clearly qualify. In reality, humanitarian spending doesn’t follow a moral geography of need but a political cartography determined by donors, which maps onto American priorities. Accordingly, one country that has not been starved of resources is Ukraine, which received 7.8 percent of all overseas aid in 2022 and $3.9 billion in humanitarian aid from the United States alone from January 2022 to May 2023, enough to cover the WFP budget gap for the entire Horn of Africa. Last year, I spoke to friends in Ukraine working for humanitarian agencies who were struggling to spend all the money that donors had made available while their organizations simultaneously ramped up operations to take advantage of the cash. One told me: “In Moldova, we are providing meat, cheese, and nappies . . . to subsidize middle-class lives because we have so much fucking money.” Meanwhile, in Maban, Fatima will soon be transported to a remote refugee camp. Then her rations will be cut.
At another camp in Maban, I met a group of Sudanese refugees who, a week earlier, had walked out of a reception center in protest and demanded to meet the local county commissioner. At the reception center, which was run by a humanitarian agency, they had hot meals, and there was phone service—crucial for people trying to keep in touch with loved ones back home, trapped in a war zone. The humanitarians had told the refugees they had to move to a new camp, far from town, out of cell phone range. The refugees were refusing to go. A good life for them would be to move to Juba, or another regional capital, where they could work and actually use their skills. “I just want to make a life for myself,” a young man called Haider told me, his eyes gleaming as he recounted the English books he was reading to prepare himself for his new existence. I later received an email from one of protesters, written like the world’s most depressing experimental poem:
I am writing this message to let you know that , we are Refugees in
Maba county “Gendrassa”.
Since we have been here we are suffering and looking for better life such as: good education, health, food and safe place.
But all this are not exist here because organizations and government
(UNHCR) & ( CRF)
instead of provide enough services and dealing with us ,
they gave nothing and even they stop anyone who want to move from this place without permission
These frustrations were why the protesters wanted to talk to the commissioner, who instead deployed police officers to shoot at the refugees and beat them back down the road. The humanitarians were worried. Camp management handbooks dictated that the refugees must be moved out of the reception center, and so the humanitarians intimated that if the refugees refused to go, the commissioner would step back in.
Refugees represent a valuable income stream, and South Sudanese states compete for camps like American cities vying for a new Amazon headquarters.
What does a human being need? From the humanitarian perspective, it’s a roof overhead, enough to eat, and basic medical services. The second principle of the angel’s creed holds that needs should be addressed without discrimination between groups—discrimination between needs, however, is a commonplace activity. All too often, providing basic needs to people has resulted in the humanitarian sector preventing refugees from achieving a more holistic version of a flourishing life, one in which they are not reduced to mere survival.
In June 1985, as Alex de Waal recounts in a review essay for the European Journal of Sociology, aid workers in Sudan who had set up camps for refugees from northern Ethiopia were surprised when the refugees refused rations. The refugees’ leader insisted that it would be equitable if employment opportunities in the camp were rotated between its inhabitants so everyone had access to cash. The humanitarians were appalled. Employment decisions were made by the aid agencies, not the refugees. The standoff escalated when a group of refugees decided to return to Ethiopia. They argued that the rains were falling, and if they didn’t return to farm and nourish the earth, they would forever lose the capacity to sustain themselves at home. The aid workers couldn’t understand why the refugees would refuse rations and didn’t want them to leave. The refugees staged a hunger strike in protest before eventually leaving the camps to return to Ethiopia.
Tensions between humanitarian agencies that only provide basic services and refugees who want to live more meaningful lives are intensified when the emergency situations that humanitarians are supposed to address become permanent. The first Sudanese refugees arrived in Maban in 2011, fleeing the resumption of civil war back home. The first children born in the Maban refugee camps are now twelve. Education is provided only until high school level; the only jobs available are the scant opportunities with NGOs, and the refugees are not allowed to leave the camps. Even if they have been living in South Sudan for a decade, they have no hope of citizenship. They are still fed, albeit with reduced rations, and have shelter, but they have no possibility of building a good life.
Everyone Takes a Side
That the refugees in Maban are not allowed to move to Juba or other regional capitals is due to a South Sudanese government policy to which the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, acquiesces. Keeping the refugees in the camps makes economic sense for both parties. Refugees represent a valuable income stream, and South Sudanese states compete for camps like American cities vying for a new Amazon headquarters. In Maban, 10 percent of all humanitarian funding must be spent on the host community, appeasing the county commissioner’s constituents. Camps bring jobs to places like Jamjang and Maban, and the local administration can tax refugee markets. The camps make sense for the UNHCR too. Every refugee means another dollar that can be solicited from donors, many of which go to pay the agency’s bloated administration. While a refugee security guard in Maban makes $100 a month—a security guard from the local community, in contrast, makes $600 to $800—a mid-ranking UN administrator can make up to $10,000.
“If we leave, people will die.” He was right.
According to the third principle of the angel’s creed, humanitarians must remain neutral in conflicts like the civil war that ravaged South Sudan from 2013 through 2018. Such neutrality had been an ostrich-like way of refusing to acknowledge how the humanitarian sector has benefited a government bent on killing its own citizens. As South Sudan’s government launched one brutal military campaign after another, displacing millions of people and leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths, it derived part of its income from the humanitarian sector. Taxes on humanitarian salaries go to a government whose security forces torture dissidents and rape women. To move food aid, the sector uses trucking companies connected to the government. One commander I spoke to in 2021 described his profitable side business in creating prét-a-pôrter compounds, which he rented out to big aid organizations for $10,000 a month. Then there are the checkpoints, one every ten miles in South Sudan. At each stop, humanitarian agencies pay fees to security forces, funding the very soldiers killing the South Sudanese citizens whose lives the humanitarians are trying to save.
Even if the government didn’t profit from the sector, the humanitarians would nonetheless play a useful role for the regime in Juba. Since 2013 and the beginning of the civil war, the government has almost entirely withdrawn from the provision of wages and services in South Sudan. The ranks of gleaming new Toyotas assembled outside the Pyramid Hotel in Juba suggests this is not about a lack of funds. Instead, the government has long understood that if it abandons its people, the humanitarians will step in and attend to the permanent emergency, acting as a palliative for a population ready to revolt. If millions of dollars of humanitarian aid go into the pockets of the politicians killing their own people, it can’t be helped—lives are being saved, after all.
The day before I left Maban, I watched as a UNHCR vehicle, looking like an American school bus, drove up a red murram road to a set of newly tarpaulined dwellings. Crowds of children ran to greet the bus while a group of Sudanese men sat on a hillock in the distance, their eyes glassy. The protesters I had spoken to the day before had agreed to leave the reception center and move to a new camp. As the arrivals poured off the bus, a Christian organization called Samaritan’s Purse handed out packets of high-calorie biscuits as rewards for the refugees who had agreed to leave the reception center. Maban’s entire humanitarian community seemed to be in attendance, and there was a festive air, as if it were a housewarming party. Some of the refugees didn’t see it that way. A young couple stood outside their shack, the grass inside not yet flattened, and looked out at the vast expanse of bush surrounding them. “We are killing our future,” the woman said, struggling to come to terms with life in a remote area, without work or the possibility of acting politically. A young man told me how he left Khartoum with a friend. In Kosti, near the South Sudanese border, he had volunteered to go ahead and report back on conditions in Maban. “What did you tell him?” I asked. He grimaced. “There is no phone signal here.”
The angels from elsewhere bring with them, hidden under their wings, the power politics of far-off capitals.
Later that night, the humanitarians celebrated the refugees moving into the new camp. They would have food, at least for a while, and the reception center had been emptied, ready for new arrivals. The refugees had been reduced to inputs into a spreadsheet which had been balanced; they became figures moved into a new column, zeroing out the reception center. Politics does not get its own column—humanitarians should not have political objectives, according to the fourth principle of the angel’s creed, nor ones economic or military. In practice, this means that they shouldn’t have a relationship with political organizations in the places they work other than the government. To have no politics is a politics of its own. Most of the refugees in Maban are loyal to one or another faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N), which from 2011–2019 fought against the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, though one of these factions subsequently joined the government. The humanitarians refuse to have any contact with the SPLA-N, and so the camps in Maban have a double life. On the surface, they are run by the humanitarians, and their business is providing food and shelter. In reality, it is the SPLA-N that holds sway in the camps and redirects food aid to supply fighters across the border, who are also recruited in Maban. At least, when the humanitarians come around, one SPLA-N commander chuckled to me, we put the guns away. Rather than support a liberation struggle, the humanitarians decided to refuse to see the camp’s inhabitants as anything but data.
The NGOs are also willfully blind to their own political and economic footprint, which sees them dominate places like Jamjang and Maban. Equally invisible to the humanitarian sector are the broader political goals it serves: barracking refugees so they cannot come to Europe and soaking up not just excess American grain but the excess feelings of the world’s wealthy, who donate to charities and despair over the plight of the poor, as if they had nothing to do with it. The plight of the poor, however, is inextricably linked to the behavior of the Global North. Just as in the 1980s, the Global South is today facing a mounting debt crisis, with soaring commodity prices and climate-change-induced calamity imperiling states’ capacities to repay their loans. Twenty-five countries now spend more than a fifth of state revenue servicing their debts. As the world’s poorest states struggle to provide services, it is the humanitarians who will, once again, step in, but only on the terms of the donor countries.
Every time I visit South Sudan, the angels’ response to my criticisms never varies. “What would you have us do?” asked one exasperated aid worker as we sat drinking cold beers one night by the bank of the Nile. “If we leave, people will die.” He was right. A decade of government withdrawal from the provision of services, enabled by the humanitarian presence, and campaigns of government violence, partly paid for from humanitarian resources, had created a situation in which some people in the camps in Maban would probably starve if it were not for the aid agencies. The only solution the humanitarians can envision is to continue with this dystopic system.
The system might break this year. While humanitarian funding hit a record of $47 billion in 2023, that was $20 billion less than the UN had asked for, as the world struggles with violent conflicts and economic fragility. The shortfall in funding means agencies are cutting services across the globe, even as countries like South Sudan are becoming ever more dependent on emergency aid. The angels will have to leave, and the catastrophic proposition posed by the aid worker in Juba is now going to be tested.
Early signs, though, suggest that the weakening of the humanitarian sector might not simply leave victims unable to provide for themselves. On April 15 of this year, Khartoum echoed with the sound of gunfire as the military junta that had ruled Sudan since an October 2021 coup split apart and began to fight[*]. My friends hunkered down on the ground floors of their apartment blocks, waiting for the aerial bombardments to subside. Fighters from the Rapid Support Forces—one of the belligerent parties—began going house to house, looting supplies and assaulting civilians. The humanitarian agencies present in the capital plotted their escape. After a month of fighting, there was effectively no humanitarian presence left in the country.
There were, however, the resistance committees. During the 2019 revolution that overthrew Bashir, communities across Sudan had organized themselves into local nonhierarchical groups that led protests and arranged mutual aid. When the war began, they swung into action. As the humanitarians fled and the state turned on its own people, the resistance committees organized food and water. They coordinated a vast network that shared information on which streets were secure and which had just been bombed.
As the war dragged on, the resistance committees created “emergency rooms” that organized relief in Khartoum. In September 2023, I met one of their supporters—an old friend—in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. He told me that they had just restored water and power to Bahri, an area of Khartoum. Rather than wasting away in camps in Maban, the doctors and engineers of the emergency rooms were shaping Sudan. My friend is one of their outward facing members, responsible for dealing with humanitarians. At the beginning of the conflict in April, the aid agencies, then trying to establish a foothold in Sudan, thought the emergency rooms too political and avoided them, following the angel’s creed’s commitment to neutrality. Now, with donor funds that needed to be spent, some NGOs were exploring the possibility of working with Sudanese activists on the ground. “What I enjoy,” my friend told me, “is saying no to the humanitarians.” He told me the story of an NGO that had one hundred tarpaulins it wanted distributed. Absolutely not, my friend replied: By what criteria would I decide who deserved a tarpaulin, and who did not? A hundred tarpaulins is not a meaningful number to distribute in Khartoum. But, the NGO protested, our donor wants these delivered. My friend smiled. Only in the humanitarian world does it seem absurd that the Sudanese people should be able to determine their own priorities.
In this world, there has been much talk of localization. The so-called Grand Bargain, initiated in 2016 and signed up to by the major donor nations and the main international aid organizations, committed to achieve, by 2020, 25 percent of all globally aggregated funding going to local and national organizations. When 2020 rolled around, however, only 3.1 percent of funds had been invested in such a fashion. In Juba, national organizations complain of impenetrable bureaucratic obstacles to funding and endless donor requirements that mean that time and again, it is the large aid agencies that receive the money. Even if the Grand Bargain actually played out, local and national organizations would still find themselves beholden to the priorities of donor capitals rather than to the people actually affected by disasters.
As Hugo Slim suggested in his response to David Rieff, humanitarianism is a political project in a political world, albeit one that conceals the exercise of power under the mask of charity. The emergency rooms suggest another path, of communities working together, responsible for their own institutions and their own mutual aid. Though forbidden by the angel’s creed, solidarity, rather than neutrality, is the principal value of such struggles, and their politics are those of the people involved in them, rather than those of the donor countries. Such solidarity does not have to be local and small-scale; there is nothing to stop the WFP finding common cause with the people of Khartoum or Jamjang and allowing the communities actually affected by catastrophe to determine their own political priorities. Nothing, that is, except the interests of the donor countries, which remain wedded to a form of imperialist paternalism. The angels from elsewhere bring with them, hidden under their wings, the power politics of far-off capitals. This is the angel’s creed, and at present, it consigns the humanitarians to hell.
[*] Correction: The print version of this story incorrectly dates the recent military coup as occurring in 2022. It occurred in October 2021.