The war has imposed gut-wrenching choices on the Sudanese people.

People board a minibus as they evacuate southern Khartoum, on May 14, 2023. Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images.

Since the fighting broke out, millions have fled the capital city to different states within Sudan. Over 1.5 million have escaped the country altogether. Their patterns of movement reflect socio-economic disparities, as those hailing from less wealthy segments of society remained in Greater Khartoum.

The cityscape quickly became a site of contestation, with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) dominating Khartoum and significant parts of Khartoum North, while the SAF maintained control of Karrari locality (north west Omdurman). City dwellers in Greater Khartoum had to cope with fierce fighting between the two armies.

Those who fled to other states of Sudan were confronted with expensive rents, a limited labor market and a compromised agricultural season. The states were overwhelmed with staggering numbers of internally displaced persons, hosted in overcrowded mosques and rundown schools that had been forced to close due to the war. People also faced a deliberately weakened public sector, a legacy of the Islamist state’s policies (1989–2019). For example, the over-centralization of medical services and their frenzied privatization in Khartoum has impacted their availability and capacity across the rest of the country.[1]

Following the outbreak of conflict, I remained in the country for eight months. During this time, I observed how the adverse humanitarian situation mediated peoples’ experiences of the war and its economies of life and death, poverty and wealth. In the current context, humanitarian activity is profoundly intertwined with the two state structures that have emerged in the country. They are led, respectively, by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF)—with headquarters in Port Sudan—and the RSF in the areas under its control: all of Darfur, excluding North Darfur, and Gezira state.


The Governmental Legacies of Aid and Humanitarianism


The privatization of social services under the Islamist state created space for international and local humanitarian interventions to proliferate.

International and local NGOs and UN agencies targeted aid toward alleviating acute crises, such as malnutrition, and offered small-scale income generation efforts. In contrast, non-crisis-driven development aid was largely prohibited by international development donors, in an attempt to put pressure on the authoritarian regime.[2]

The Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) was established in 1985, initially, as a response to the drought of the mid 1980s to manage and organize humanitarian work within Sudan in conjunction with the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs. With the arrival of the Islamists to power in 1989, all aid was mediated through the HAC. The unit was nestled in its own separate building, becoming part of the National Intelligence Service of the Ministry of the Interior and not, as might be expected, the Ministry of Social Development.

The Islamist state used the HAC to place humanitarian activity under the auspices of the intelligence services…

The Islamist state used the HAC to place humanitarian activity under the auspices of the intelligence services, allowing the state to control civil society activity that could otherwise undermine its grasp on power. Humanitarian work was politicized.

The HAC applied draconian and obstructive measures, designed to advance the political ideology of the state. Aid provision became a secondary goal. For example, it enacted surveillance on the activities of local and international humanitarian organizations and oversaw their access to local populations. In March 2009, it arbitrarily suspended the work of 13 international NGOs and three national ones.

After almost 30 years in power, the Islamist regime under Omar Al-Bashir was overturned by a peaceful revolution on April 11, 2019. At first, the SAF and the RSF supported the revolutionary breakthrough. Their reluctance to relinquish power, however, quickly became clear. On June 3, both parties alongside security services violently dispersed the sit-in in front of the army headquarters, where protesters were demanding full civilian rule (madaniya), resulting in a massacre of revolutionaries. In the aftermath of this traumatic event, the civilian-led Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) (a disparate alliance of political parties and civil society bodies based among Sudan’s elite) agreed to a compromise, bringing about their uneasy partnership with the SAF and the RSF


Leveraging Aid for Power


As the war between the SAF and RSF has progressed, each party has manipulated aid in different parts of the country to enhance its position within a bifurcated state structure. Moreover, the HAC continues to control access to much aid outside the capital city.

On August 13, 2023, the commander of the RSF, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (commonly known as Hemedti) established the Sudan Agency for Relief and Humanitarian Operations (SARHO) to facilitate humanitarian relief within areas held by his forces. His aim was to eventually rehabilitate productive sectors, like agriculture, in order to minimize dependency on humanitarian assistance.

SARHO evokes the past modus operandi of HAC and its efforts to use humanitarian aid to control and neutralize democratic and civilian opponents to the Islamist regime. For example, the RSF allowed Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to operate within Al Ban Jadeed hospital in Sharg El Nil (Khartoum North) in October 2023. But they have interfered with the free movement of youth members of the Emergency Response Rooms—grassroots offshoots of the revolutionary resistance committees formed as a response to the war—that were delivering medication and food aid to families within different parts of Khartoum. Through the institutional edifice of SARHO, the RSF also challenges the integrity of the single state under the hegemony of the SAF

During my time in the country, a demographic shift had taken place in Sudan due to the flight of people en masse. Affluent areas such as Manshia (a neighborhood in Khartoum) were, by August, inhabited by people from poorer areas of the city. The RSF provided food aid and medical care to these vulnerable groups as well as to the small number of wealthier families that had not fled. In other lower middle-class and working-class zones, the RSF provided diesel to mosques to mitigate the extensive power cuts which compromised the water supply that relies on electrical pumps. The RSF’s efforts to gain popular support echo earlier episodes, for example, when it provided free transport in Khartoum within a month of participating in the June 3rd sit-in massacre.

In Khartoum, the RSF’s tactics alternated between seeking to gain popular approval and instilling fear through the use of violence.
In Khartoum, the RSF’s tactics alternated between seeking to gain popular approval and instilling fear through the use of violence. They exercised their ability to intercept people on the streets arbitrarily, especially young men. In mosque sermons, imams vociferously condemned the excesses of Israel in Gaza, while refraining from uttering a single word condemning the RSF troops’ destruction, theft of civilian property and failure to prevent looting sprees. RSF commanders did, at times, direct RSF military police to condemn and control looting and theft by both RSF troops and civilian urban gangs. But looted goods continued to feed markets, which came to be known as Dagalo markets as a tribute to RSF leader, Hemedti.

Meanwhile, the widely legitimized state government, now controlled by SAF leader General Abdel Fatah Burhan, moved to Port Sudan, the capital of Red Sea state. By August social media posts accused the SAF of tolerating corruption in the distribution of medical and food aid in the city on the part of Islamists. Accusations proliferated that aid arriving in the city was not being distributed but instead was being sold in local markets.

The fact that the Minister of Finance, Jibreel Ibrahim, was a self-declared Islamist within the Justice and Equality Movement drew attention to government humanitarian practices. In October, a photo-shopped image depicting Ibrahim smiling and rubbing his hands while receiving aid circulated on social media. The image was accompanied by the caption, “Aid coming to the Sudanese people in God’s hands, the magician Jibreel.”

The HAC had been dismantled by the transitional government, following the 2018–2019 revolution. But former Islamist HAC operatives regained their government posts after the October 2021 coup by the SAF and the RSF. After the outbreak of war, I joined volunteers making food for internally displaced persons in Dongola, the capital of Northern State. In May, a member of the Sudanese Red Crescent warned us not to engage in any political discussions supporting the revolution. The Northern State was under Islamist control by this time, and state officials now providing aid were partisans of the National Congress Party: the Islamist party in power until 2019.

While it took international organizations time to start operating after the war broke out, those that eventually started working by October were subject to the approval of HAC in the states where it maintained a presence. In Port Sudan, the HAC obstructed the work of international aid practitioners and local organizations by denying them direct access to beneficiaries or confiscating material aid with no justification. In an effort to delegitimize the RSF as a political alternative, the HAC has made access to vulnerable populations in areas it operates conditional on organizations withholding aid from the areas of Darfur under RSF control.


Scrutinizing International Humanitarian Action 


During a symposium convened by Bergen University in October 2023, one of the panels addressed the challenges to humanitarian aid in Sudan. Among the speakers was Dr. Sarah Abdel Jalil, a pediatrician practicing in Britain. Discussing the medical care provided at Al Buluk children’s hospital in Thawra harra 4 (Karrari locality) by local doctors, Jalil warned that the $2 million response, driven by diaspora initiatives, was not sustainable or adequate to deal with the already fragile Sudanese health infrastructure. She highlighted the increased need to support states that had not yet been affected by active fighting by providing digital access and solar energy. Though she commended the coordinated response by UNICEF, she argued that widespread delays to aid delivery by the international humanitarian community constituted an infringement on human rights.

Also in this issue: Rethinking International Aid in Sudan—An Interview with William Carter of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
When it comes to international humanitarian aid, the general perception in Sudan is that the country has been abandoned. But as of November 2023, the Norwegian Refugee Council was operating in Darfur, MSF in Khartoum, the UNDP in Port Sudan and UNICEF in Port Sudan, Kassala and Gadaref. The problem is not so much their absence but their ability to confront a range of issues, including social tensions, obstructive local political agendas, logistical challenges on the ground for aid delivery and donor agendas.

In August, for example, a friend in Kosti told me that the situation in the city was dire even though a number of international NGOs were present. Support from local and international organizations for internally displaced people arriving from Khartoum was severely lacking, and tensions were running high due to perceptions by some Sudanese citizens that South Sudanese refugees were receiving better medical care.

In September, I conducted an interview with a seasoned international humanitarian practitioner, Ivan Deret, head of operations for the French NGO Triangle Generation Humanitaire (TGH), which has been working for almost 20 years in Darfur, South Kordofan, Gedaref and the suburbs of Khartoum. Deret reported that the scope of their current work had been severely impacted by the violence. TGH was unable to offer the technical support to field staff that would meet the formal standards of their donors. He suggested certain donor standards, such as time-consuming audits, were anachronistic in the current context, but the humanitarian sector has nonetheless been forced to operate within strict limits.

Back in Bergen, meanwhile, the Norwegian diplomatic representative defended his country’s right to choose the sectors it would support: “Of course we are going to insist on certain priorities because it is our money.” At the time, Norwegian humanitarian diplomacy favored funding sectors involving “women and youth.” Moreover, while the international humanitarian community widely identified the HAC as obstructive in the past, during the current war some international NGOs have failed to readily fund aid initiatives, like the delivery of medicines and food by Emergency Response Rooms now operating within Khartoum, because they were not registered through the HAC.

As these examples and others show, the control of aid at both the local and international level makes disparities within the Sudanese landscape tangible. It determines which subjects should benefit from aid and how quickly. In the context of war, such determinations bolster authoritarian forms of power. Both of the warring parties have used aid to quash the revolutionary ambitions of Sudanese citizens and to keep international actors at bay.


[Azza Ahmed Abdel Aziz holds a PhD from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS.]


Read the previous article.
Read the next article.
This article appears in MER issue 310 “The Struggle for Sudan.”



[1] Edward Thomas, “The Future of Sudan’s Shattered Health System,” Peace of Sudan, October 1, 2023.

[2] Jeremy Loveless, Displaced Populations in Khartoum: a study of social and economic conditions (Coppenhagen: Save the Children, 1999)

How to cite this article:

Azza Abdel Aziz "Leveraging Humanitarian Aid in Wartime Sudan," Middle East Report 310 (Spring 2024).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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