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Humanitarian Access in Darfur Revisited

The headline in a dispatch from Radio Dabanga obliges us to ask about the issue of international humanitarian access in Sudan, one that has been little discussed since the preliminary (January 2017) and permanent (October 2017) lifting of U.S. economic sanctions by the Obama and Trump administrations respectively:

MPs call for “declaration of famine” in North Darfur | Radio Dabanga, February 11, 2018 | EL FASHER

[The dispatch in its entirety appears below]

In January 2017 the Obama administration laid out its justification for the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions on the Khartoum regime, one of the only sources of leverage remaining to the international community. Various highly inaccurate claims were made, most dismayingly by Obama administration UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who asserted in her last press conference that there had been a “sea change of improvement” in humanitarian access in Sudan, which of necessity meant Darfur as well as the Two Areas (South Kordofan and Blue Nile). The Trump administration accepted this characterization with its decision to lift sanctions permanently. It was at the time, and remains, a gross inaccurate and destructive characterization of humanitarian access in Sudan, and not merely in Darfur.

To be sure, the tendentiousness and inaccuracy of Power’s claim was matched elsewhere: Charge d’Affaires Steven Koutsis, still the senior U.S. diplomat in Khartoum and evidently angling for a position as ambassador, declared in response to those expressing grave concern about Khartoum’s long record of repression, violent suppression of political dissent, religious intolerance, its abysmal human rights record, and its continuing deployment of brutal militia forces in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan:

“None of these other issues were the point of sanctions, and none of these other issues, therefore, should be linked to the lifting of sanctions.” (Agence France-Presse (El Daien, East Darfur | June 24, 2017)

This was of course deeply false. The 1997 sanctions imposed by President Clinton began with the following preface:

But lying and disingenuousness had long been hallmarks of the Obama administration Sudan policy, a fact that became incontrovertible with the claim by former Obama administration Special Envoy for the Sudans Princeton Lyman:

“We [the Obama administration] do not want to see the ouster of the [Khartoum] regime, nor regime change. We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures.” (Interview with Asharq al-Awsat, December 3, 2011 | )

But for the moment we should focus not on Obama administration dishonesty and bad faith but on what lies behind the Radio Dabanga headline: “MPs call for ‘declaration of famine’ in North Darfur.” And the question forces itself: if there is legitimate cause for concern about “famine” in North Darfur, how can humanitarian access be adequate? Are we to assume that international relief efforts are so without capacity that they cannot mitigate the acute food shortages and unaffordable prices for food that are referred to in the dispatch? Or should be assume that denial of access—by myriad methods that the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime has perfected over the past fifteen years of conflict—continues, and that if there has been a reduction in capacity, it is precisely because of this denial and obstructionism, coupled with Khartoum-sanctioned insecurity in much or North Darfur (and elsewhere in Darfur)?

Donor fatigue and the sheer duration of conflict and humanitarian need in Darfur explain a good deal; but there is also a highly developed humanitarian network, at least it were allowed to be utilized. On the basis of my own conversations with humanitarian workers in and back from Darfur, there is simply no way to conclude that if humanitarian operations were allowed to work unimpeded we would be seeing the levels of malnutrition reported in North Darfur.

Insecurity grows, of course, in part because of the massive drawdown of the UN/African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which was renewed for a year by the UN Security Council in June 2017, but only after acceding to Khartoum’s demands for this drawdown: 44% of military personnel and 30% of police personnel are being withdrawn. But the main reason North Darfur remains so insecure, both for civilians and humanitarians, is the free rein given to the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)—now Khartoum’s primary militia force and officially incorporated into the armed forces (though not subject to the command authority of the regular Sudan Armed Forces/SAF). Other organized militia forces, as well as only loosely organized groups of armed Arab herdsmen, also contribute to intolerable levels of insecurity.

But this is ultimately Khartoum’s responsibility, and the regime’s failure to control either its militia or regular forces is a deliberate means of making humanitarian access—even where it is not denied outright or by bureaucratic means—impossible.

Recent History of Malnutrition in Darfur

Certainly we have long known that food insecurity and severe malnutrition are critical issues in North Darfur. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reported (September 5, 2014) on a leaked malnutrition assessment produced by the UN’s children organization, UNICEF (the document has never been officially released by UNICEF because of fear of Khartoum’s response). The data presented were and are shocking, utterly shocking, and I will largely let them speak for themselves, urging readers to bear in mind the headline of today from Radio Dabanga:

[The report was evidently prepared in 2013 or 2014; the date on the document Kristof has posted is 9 June 2014 and has as its title: “Malnutrition Defined”]

Sudan has very high numbers of malnourished children; malnutrition exists in both acute and chronic form:


Acute (wasting) Chronic (stunting)



• Global Acute Malnutrition [GAM]

Arm muscle wasted to a circumference < 11.5cm

A graph is presented at this point, bisected by the World Health Organization emergency threshold for acute malnutrition: > =15 percent

[The report indicates in a subsequent section that this threshold figure drops to a 10 percent threshold in areas of armed conflict such as Darfur; particular results for North Darfur include—ER]

• Acute malnutrition rates for children in Sudan among the highest in the world:

North Darfur: 28 percent acute malnutrition among children

South Darfur: 18 percent acute malnutrition among children

East Darfur: 15 percent acute malnutrition among children

South Darfur: 13 percent acute malnutrition among children

West Darfur: 8 percent acute malnutrition among children

Source: S3m Survey, 2013

• Chronic malnutrition among children is widespread and pervasive

A second graph reports the following figures for chronic malnutrition among children in Sudan:

North Darfur: 35 percent

Central Darfur: 45 percent

East Darfur: 40 percent

West Darfur: 35 percent

South Darfur: 26 percent

The report indicates that the World Health Organization cutoff point for “high” prevalence of chronic malnutrition is 30 percent, and for “very high” prevalence > = 40 percent.

Source: S3m Survey, 2013

• A third chart indicates:

“% of under-fives moderately or severely wasted in the 10 most affected countries”

[Sudan ranked 4th from the bottom in this category in 2010—ER]:

Wasting prevalence for country population under five:

Moderate or severe wasting: 16 percent

Severe wasting: 5 percent

[Emphasis added here: two percent is the “emergency” threshold for Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) among children; in developing countries, even in hospital settings, some 20 – 30 percent of all children suffering from SAM die—ER]


These are the shocking data we should bear in mind in assessing today’s Radio Dabanga dispatch:

MPs call for “declaration of famine” in North Darfur | Radio Dabanga, February 11, 2018 | EL FASHER

Members of the North Darfur Parliament have urged the local government to declare famine in the state. They criticised the authorities for their silence about the deteriorating living conditions and the growing corruption in the region.

About 1,000 people died from hunger and tuberculosis in El Hara and Ein Bassar, north of Jebel Meidob, during the past few months, MP Mahasin Abakar told reporters in the North Darfur capital of El Fasher last week. She explained that in addition to bread, most people in El Malha locality cannot afford to buy sorghum any more, as the price of the native staple food reached SDG 2,000 ($110 [Central Bank of Sudan exchange rate) per 100 kg. According to MP Hari Khamees Arbab schoolchildren in a number of localities go to the valleys in the morning to eat wild berries for breakfast.

Food gap

The MPs held a press conference on Thursday after discussing statements of the North Darfur Minister of Finance, Mohamed Yahya Hamid on the economic crisis and the measures taken by the Ministry to support the poorest in the state. They called on the North Darfur government to immediately intervene to face the threat of famine in a number of localities, and take action to stop the corruption concerning the distribution of food. In particular people in the northern and eastern parts of the state are hit by a food gap, they said. They further mentioned the shortage of electricity and fuel, and a significant decrease in services.

Suleiman Mukhtar, MP for El Taweisha constituency, pointed to the poor sorghum and millet harvests in the areas of Koraya Laban, Um Katkut and Jabir. He told the press in El Fasher they had notified the state government already in September that the agricultural season failed because of the poor rainfall. MP Ali El Siddig stressed the rapid decrease in services in North Darfur, especially water and electricity. He accused the North Darfur government of being “too weak and too late to tackle the current economic crisis and ease the burden of living for the Sudanese.”


The MPs further complained about the considerable manipulation and corruption by employees of the state Ministry of Social Affairs and members of the committees distributing relief goods. This means that most of the poor are not supported by the Ministry, they said. Most of the sugar is sold on the black market. The measures taken by the state government to ease the burden of living is “only ink on paper,” they commented. They called on the Ministry of Finance to control the prices of the basic commodities on the markets.

Price hikes

In early January, the Sudanese government implemented new austerity measures. In addition to increased levies and taxes imposed on traders and citizens, the customs rate of the US Dollar was raised from SDG 6.7 to SDG 18. The prices of the main consumer goods immediately doubled or even tripled. As the government completely cut its wheat subsidies, the price of flour increased with 233 per cent. Bakeries began to sell smaller loaves of bread for double the price.

The rapid plummeting of the Sudanese Pound on the Khartoum parallel forex market continues. The US Dollar rate on the black market increased from SDG 28 (January 3) to SDG 42 (February 4).

Agricultural season

In December last year, members of Sudan’s federal Parliament warned for a food gap in the country. Poor rainfall in El Gedaref, Blue Nile, Darfur, and Kordofan states that year caused poor sorghum and millet harvests. In addition, 25 per cent of the country’s strategic crop stocks were damaged last year because of poor storage techniques. MP Mahmoud Abdeljabar called for a stop on the export of strategic sorghum stocks, as “Consumers will not be able to afford the food prices. “A sack of millet costs SDG 1,200 and is expected to amount to SDG 1,500 in the coming months,” he said. [All emphases in bold have been added–ER]


Additional country-wide data from UNICEF concerning children in Sudan, now further imperiled by the economic catastrophe—including massive increases in food prices—that has descended on Sudan because of the NIF/NCP’s gross mismanagement of the economy and equally gross self-enrichment:

Number of wasted children, 2011 (moderate and severe): 817,000

Source: UNICEF Global Nutrition Database, 2012, based on MICS, DHS, and other national surveys 2007 – 2011 (except for India)]

• The next graph shows Sudan as far “off track for meeting the MDG1 target”

[The first phase of the Millennium Development Goals has as its Target 1.C: “Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger”—ER]

The MDG1 benchmark is 10 percent; various surveys included in the report show Sudan at 32 percent, 33 percent, 43 percent, 35 percent, and 35 percent;

• The next chart represents:

“Total number [of] malnourished [children]”

Total number malnourished children over a year = prevalence x incidence

Prevalence = measure at a single point in time

Incidence = expected new cases over a year (2.6 percent incidence rate)

2013 S3M prevalence = 773,438 children x 2.6 (incidence rate) =

Total malnourished annually: 2,010,939

Moderate: 1,455,735

Severe: 555, 203

Global total: 2,010,939

[The rest of the UNICEF document is given over to “The Strategic Response Plan,” which has only one statistic of significance for present purposes—ER]

(c) 2018 SUDAN Research, Analysis, and Advocacy

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