Middle East

An Interview with William Carter, Sudan Country Director for the Norwegian Refugee Council

The war in Sudan that began in April 2023 has led to a reckoning among humanitarian aid organizations.

Volunteers cook food for free distribution in Omdurman, Sudan, Feb. 5, 2024. Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via Getty Images.

As international organizations have struggled to alleviate the diverse, complex crises facing people across the country, locally led initiatives and mutual aid organizations have sprung up at the grassroots level. To speak about humanitarian work in Sudan, Nisrin Elamin, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, and Deen Sharp, MER editor and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, spoke with William Carter, the Country Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). In their conversation, which took place in December 2023, they discussed the work of the NRC in Sudan, the wide-ranging challenges facing different parts of the country and the need for an updated relationship between the international aid regime and the numerous locally led relief efforts. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Deen Sharp: Can you provide some background information on the Norwegian Refugee Council, its work in Sudan and your own role?

Will Carter: The Norwegian Refugee Council is an independent NGO working in about 40 countries, mostly for people affected by armed conflicts, refugees, internally displaced people and, in some areas, people that cannot flee at all. We returned to Sudan in 2020 after the civilian-led revolution [having been expelled along with 12 other international NGOs working in Darfur in 2009]. Our initial aim was to help provide solutions for displaced people, mostly in Darfur. But different refugee emergencies from Ethiopia and South Sudan required us to focus on emergency response.

Then, in December 2020, the end of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) led to what is called a “civilian protection crisis.” People, especially displaced people, were targeted in brutal violence. This was followed by the military coup in Sudan in 2021. The coup radically changed the political and donor landscape, with donors less inclined to provide support given the leadership. It also raised ethical dilemmas and complexities for us and how we were positioned in relation to government authorities and the UN system, increasing the security and political risks of our operations. The current conflict, which began in April of 2023, has resulted in us shifting to an emergency response. We now have about 300 Sudanese colleagues and 30 international staff in Sudan, funded mostly from different European governments, USAID and some UN agencies.

Nisrin Elamin: Could you reflect on your last visit to Sudan and give us some grounded insights from your visits to Darfur and Madani?

Will: When the war broke out in April 2023, I happened to be outside the country. To reenter Sudan, we had to fly into South Sudan and drive up across the border into White Nile State where we’d moved our country office. I spent the first few months working there, from early May 2023. We then set up new offices in Madani, Gedaref and finally in Port Sudan. The White Nile office was initially focused primarily on refugee response, as there was a huge internal displacement crisis coming from Khartoum. We had to push past the shock of the fact that banking stopped working, telecommunication stopped working, we were out of fuel. At the same time, the numbers were overwhelming: within a few weeks the number of displaced people rose from a few hundred thousand to a few million. We were concerned at how overcrowded conditions were and that the rainy season was about to start. The terrain was already becoming waterlogged. The refugee numbers were overwhelming, and the living standards were low.

Then, we saw the locally-led, unregistered relief efforts. In the past, we had tried to work with formally registered local NGOs, but many of them had also been affected by the conflict in Khartoum. We ended up working largely with these unregistered groups that had initially sprung to action to run local shelters, evacuation initiatives and other critical services. We saw that we could assist by making sure they could continue and slightly improve their operations. We persuaded the local Humanitarian Aid Commission in White Nile to allow us to give them grants. In Gedaref State, there was a more restrictive environment in the beginning. There was clearly some local and federal politicking, which was not to the advantage of local relief efforts.

We ended up working largely with these unregistered groups that had initially sprung to action to run local shelters, evacuation initiatives and other critical services.

In late September 2023, I went to eastern Chad, where there was also a huge refugee situation as people fled from killings in parts of Darfur. A campaign described by authorities as ethnic cleansing had killed thousands of people in Darfur over a number of days. While many people had fled into Chad, some stayed in Darfur, but the places where we were providing services in Darfur were being burned down to the ground. It was clear that massacres had happened and only half of the racist graffiti on the walls had been scrubbed off by the time we had returned. Some neighborhoods were completely abandoned, but there were whole neighborhoods of people who didn’t or couldn’t leave (some who had been displaced before). There were war widows, who had been abused and were now pregnant, people with family members who had a disability, older people and couples that didn’t see the point of going to a refugee camp and of course children who had seen violence. They were people in very vulnerable conditions who also did not have much to eat as the food systems aren’t working there. There are no supplies getting to Darfur from Port Sudan.

So how do we respond to these multiple crises: the protection of civilians crisis, food security crisis, failing state in eastern Sudan and completely failed state in Darfur? Even if there’s a ceasefire or peace agreement, banks won’t reopen properly in West Darfur, people won’t get paid anytime soon and the social fabric will not be easily repaired. I should also say, the crises in these places are distinct. In eastern Sudan there is staggering internal and urban displacement and all the deprivations and disease that comes with that, while in Darfur there is clearly serious ethnic violence, probably genocidal violence against, Black African Darfurians, a civilian protection crisis and a probable famine. At the same time, there is clear local goodwill in action. People are still trying to get hot meals to survivors, people are still finding shelter solutions and people are trying to attend to the leftover communities in Darfur. We needed a different humanitarian approach that worked with these local efforts.

Nisrin: Could you speak more about what local efforts look like on the ground and how you partnered with people?

Will: Before we set up our response, communities were already pulling out beds and starting communal kitchens. For every collective shelter, there were also hundreds of homes hosting three or four families each. We heard stories of ambulance services, evacuation systems and other diverse community-led efforts. That was eye-opening. Usually, we have these images of displacement crises as savannahs of UN tents in huge camps. In some ways, these are more manageable, and we kind of know what we’re dealing with. But in the case of Sudan since last year, it was an urban displacement crisis and communities had pulled together: for example, 20-something year-olds running collective shelters for 200 people, including for disabled children, pregnant women and people with medical complications. It is a huge stress on these community organizers and something that they hadn’t been trained in or supported to do. Our team looked for ways to give these local initiatives some resources and to offer support. In White Nile, we were focused mostly on the displacement emergency, so we identified those running collective shelters and tried to figure out ways to help them. It was really just seeing who was already there and trying to give them some funds and find other ways to support them if we could.

Deen: How did these locally led relief efforts (and NRC’s support for them) sit with the established political authorities?

Will: At the beginning, the community response was celebrated by local governors. But we soon realized that there was a political aspect and there were growing issues with official and conservative local authorities, as some of the community initiative members came from resistance committee backgrounds [the neighborhood resistance committees that had mobilized politically across Sudan during the 2018–2019 uprising]. I arrived in Gedaref State to find the governor (wali) visiting an emergency response-run collective shelter with TV cameras and handshakes. But a week or two later, when we tried to give grants to them, different authorities said, “Actually, this is not how we want this to go. The municipal authorities will be taking over. So, thank you, but no thanks.” We fought with those authorities for a month or so, but ultimately we couldn’t overturn the way that the formal authorities wanted to play this. So, we decided to change the approach.

In the northern states there are almost no international NGOs, including us, and people had almost no assistance. We have tried to help remotely, but we are not winning great favors with federal authorities. They are still cautious of this approach because they like regulating things. But I feel, at this point in Sudan, if there are people on the frontlines trying to help people, then we are going to have to take the risk of upsetting the federal authorities and continue helping them as much as we can. That was part of the premise for the Sudan Humanitarian Crisis Conference in Cairo in November 2023, which focused on locally led relief efforts.

Nisrin: Can you talk more about the Cairo conference and what it meant to center grassroots organizers from neighborhood resistance committees and emergency response rooms [community-led initiatives that provide rapid assistance]. This hadn’t been the case with other forums. For example, the October 2023 Sudanese civil society talks in Addis Ababa might have included hand-picked representatives from the resistance committees, but it really centered civilian elites. How did centering these groups change the dynamic of the event? What were the tangible outcomes? And were there outcomes that would hold international NGOs and UN agencies accountable?

Will: The Cairo conference came about because a Sudanese civil society organization, Fikra for Studies and Development, had pushed for a conference convening local responders and the international community. The conference was led by an organizing committee of multiple Sudanese civil society organizations. It was based on the premise that the international system is not working as it should be to help people in Sudan, and we often don’t see much support for locally led action. It brought together over 400 people, mostly from locally led efforts: I think over 100 from inside Sudan, some of the Sudanese civil society who had sought refuge in Cairo and some who could travel. It also brought international organizations, embassies, international NGOs and UN agencies. The organizing committee specifically requested not to have the participation of either of the warring parties—the Sudanese armed forces-led government or the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). They intended to have a follow up meeting with the warring parties separately afterwards to communicate the recommendations from the conference.

Graphic for the Sudan Humanitarian Crisis Conference in Cairo, November, 2023.

The expressed goals of the conference were to enable frontline responders to help set the humanitarian agenda and outline their needs. But there was also a value in helping people network: having frontline responders from one part of the country meet frontline responders from a different part; having people from embassies—even ambassadors—meet directly with people coming from the frontlines; and having a space where we could actually interact with people in formal discussions and on the sidelines to know what can be done, what is being done, what we can build on and what makes sense on the ground. The conference also helped to raise the profile of what was happening in Sudan.

Sudan is a very neglected humanitarian crisis in terms of media coverage, political and diplomatic attention and funding. There exists within Sudan feelings of desperation and feelings within the international community that this is an impossible crisis to work in. Donors may think: Well, if responders don’t even have access there, why give another few hundred million dollars of humanitarian aid to Sudan for it to go nowhere or get captured by military elites? The Cairo conference was a message to say, actually, there is a huge amount of work being done in some of the worst parts of the country. There’s a conversation happening right now about how to capitalize on this and help scale it up, improve it and strengthen it. And there is clearly a different way for local responders and international efforts to work better together.

Nisrin: If you had the ability to change things in the humanitarian realm, what would you do?

Will: I think the situation in Sudan is the final nail in the coffin for an outdated international humanitarian system. It just clearly isn’t working in Sudan, not on the scale that it needs to be, not in the places it needs to be and not with the approaches it needs to have. But there’s a very vibrant, locally led response going on, more so than I have seen in other conflict contexts. I think the challenge ahead of us is whether and how institutions, operations and donors will adjust to this in the face of a system which is very rigid and does not necessarily reward taking risks. This is a pivotal point, not just for Sudan, but for an international humanitarian system to reform how it relates to, and ideally supports, locally led relief and mutual aid. Some of the worst things in history are happening or about to happen in Sudan, things that the whole international system was supposed to prevent—famine, genocide, state collapse—but we are seeing a weak and muted response in spite of the hard efforts of everyday people and everyday heroes in different parts of Sudan. To me, the Cairo conference was helpful for raising the profile of the local responders, but it’s also a bit like a starting pistol. Now it should be a race to who can be the best supporter of local responders and who can help transform the system to embrace these efforts. Of course, we still need international efforts, solidarity and organizations. We can’t just leave it to local responders to take all the risk and work as volunteers forever. That’s also not a great solution in the grand scheme of things. But it’s an abject failure if we continue to ignore local responders, if we do not fund them substantially and if we do not enable them in different ways. We have not done our job unless we help local people do the work that we are trying to do ourselves.


This article appears in MER issue 310 “The Struggle for Sudan.”


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