First Person

One of the most challenging places to be a humanitarian

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Oxfam aid workers in Mingkaman, South Sudan, oversee the distribution of food to displaced people like Martha Nyandit, pictured, a mother of six. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

It’s not easy providing aid on the ground in South Sudan. But “it’s the only way to get the work done.”

South Sudan is one of the most challenging and dangerous places to be a humanitarian aid worker. This month alone, five aid workers were killed, apparently targeted because of their ethnic identity.

In honor of World Humanitarian Day today, Peter Struijf, Oxfam’s Programme Manager for Jonglei, writes about the challenges of delivering aid in rural South Sudan and the crucial role played by the local staffers.

Humanitarians in many parts of the world face challenging conditions, but it is my honest view that there are few places as difficult as the field sites in a country like South Sudan. Certainly the humanitarian work that is being done by my Oxfam colleagues, the vast majority of them local nationals, is extraordinary: the conditions under which they work, the security risks they face.

Oxfam has been present in what is now South Sudan since 1983, providing humanitarian aid to people affected by conflict, drought and floods, as well as long-term development support to vulnerable communities. Over this time, we’ve helped more than 500,000 people and we are committed to sustained assistance during this crisis. Since the conflict in South Sudan started in December 2013, 1.5 million people have been forced from their homes, over 10,000 people have died and 4 million people face emergency and crisis levels of hunger.

I have spent the past three months working in Lankien and Waat in Jonglei province. This is one of the world’s most inaccessible and undeveloped places, yet communities here have willingly accepted large numbers of displaced people seeking refuge from violence. During the wet season, roads are impassable and the only way to get in or out is by helicopter. The Oxfam team works and sleeps in tents, and going anywhere requires walking through deep mud.

Despite the difficult environment, Oxfam’s target is to help an additional 50,000 people with clean water, sanitation, and hygiene promotion over the next months. Thirty thousand people have already benefited from distributions of food and 20,000 have received seeds and fishing kits.

We have staff here who have families living in other countries, such as Ethiopia, or Uganda. They do not know, in some cases, how their families are doing. They have limited ability to communicate with them, they have difficulties even sending some of their salary to support their families, and yet every day they are committed to showing up for the work that we do here.

I admire the people who have chosen to do this for their communities, for their country. Yes, they also do it for their own families as a career, but there are many easier options. They have chosen to be here and walk through mud and rain and stand at a drop zone when the World Food Programme planes drop supplies from the air, dealing with crowds and sometimes threats and everything that comes with the work we are trying to do.

There are very few places in the world where Oxfam will ask staff to walk for twelve hours through mud and rain, in an area which is considered safe but where there are a lot of men with guns around. Oxfam asks us to do this here because it is the only way that we can get the work done.

I think today, World Humanitarian Day, is the right time to say thank you and to recognize the kind of personal sacrifices, the kind of difficulties, and the kind of risks that people face in humanitarian work in a context like this, especially our national staff.

I would also like to pay tribute to the resilience of the communities here. What has struck me in South Sudan is the ability of people to live through incredibly hard times and live under conditions which people in most parts of the world would consider extremely difficult.

Ordinary people are the victims of these manmade disasters, these political problems, these conflicts that seem to go on and on and have no end in sight. How much longer will the people in this country have to live with such uncertainty about their security and the future of their children?

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