Out of Africa

International | After spending $60 million over the last decade to help southern Sudan, World Vision pulled out in a dispute with rebels who control some of the most desperate areas. The leavetaking left some human-rights activists asking: Is the organization more interested in political "neutrality" than helping those who are suffering at the hands of an Islamic government?

Issue: "Mad Dash," Dec. 16, 2000

The plight of the truly poor Christians in southern Sudan has pierced consciences around the world. Persecuted for their faith by a radical Islamic dictatorship, sometimes captured and sold into slavery, or bombed and strafed, the Christians of southern Sudan have persevered, and many international relief organizations have stayed with them. Some are staying no more. Earlier this year the relief organization World Vision pulled out of southern Sudan in a dispute with the region's largest rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The break in relations came after World Vision declined to sign an agreement with the SPLA allowing the organization to continue work in areas under rebel control. That decision left World Vision, with over $700 million in annual revenue one of America's largest recipients of charitable contributions, at odds with a liberation force that is trying to protect Sudan's Christians. It also left World Vision at odds with over 40 international organizations-including church-based and Christian relief groups-and 30 Sudanese groups that signed on with the SPLA. World Vision is one of only five groups choosing to remain outside that framework, called a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). World Vision is the only U.S. organization among them. Asked about the decision, World Vision president Richard Stearns told WORLD: The MOU "violates internationally recognized codes of conduct for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and would prevent World Vision from providing disaster relief in a neutral and professional manner." The emphasis on neutrality is echoed in World Vision press statements, among its overseas affiliates, and in closed-door sessions with Sudan policymakers in Washington, D.C. That emphasis, coming from the organization that also calls itself "the largest, privately funded Christian humanitarian aid agency in the world," has eroded confidence in the SPLA and put groups that chose to remain in southern Sudan on the defensive. "The pullout drew the line in the sand, and the ones that stayed were proved as pro-rebel groups, whether they were or not, because of the way World Vision and the others, who were in a minority, pulled out," said Nina Shea, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "Now the Sudan government is targeting those relief groups. The bombing campaign commenced right away, and it affected those who stayed. They continue to be bombed." Right after World Vision pulled out, Sudan government bombs fell on a compound run by Samaritan's Purse, one of the groups that stayed. The attack killed two people and injured more than a dozen. Sudan government forces continue to bomb project sites for Samaritan's Purse and other organizations that signed the agreement. Forces dropped 250 bombs on relief sites and civilians in July alone, and just last month government forces dumped 23 bombs on Nimule and a hospital run by Norwegian People's Aid, another MOU signatory. In the wake of starvation and bombing, questions arose. What is the role of governmental and nongovernmental aid, and has World Vision remained consistent with its "neutrality" stand as it has taken controversial positions on both? Is "neutrality" justified in the current situation? To begin answering those questions, it's important to understand that relief in Sudan is a complicated business. Sudan itself is a rough environment: Desert in the north runs to Nile swampland in the south. The country bakes to over 100 degrees in every season, with unpredictable sandstorms plaguing the north while floods isolate the south during rainy season. The political landscape is also rough. The 17-year-long civil war between Muslim/Arab north and Christian/African south has displaced 4 million people inside Sudan's borders; some 400,000 live outside Sudan. Nearly 2 million people have died. In order to make relief operations possible in the midst of war and widespread famine, the UN in 1989 set up Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), a three-part arrangement among the UN, the Islamic government, and the SPLA. In theory, organizations working within this system could benefit from UN security and logistical support. Meanwhile, the two combatants could be triangulated against a powerful middle, at least when it came to relief work, to help more civilians survive. But the system has not worked that way. The Sudan government uses its leverage in OLS to hamper relief flights into parts of southern Sudan. Government bombers flout the security arrangement as they successfully and routinely target civilian sites, including schools, hospitals, and even relief planes parked at airstrips. OLS has evolved into a club, with larger organizations accustomed to working with the UN gaining access over smaller, nimbler groups, often church-based, that may be doing better community relations on the ground. Recently, more organizations have opted to work outside the OLS system, encouraged by lawmakers and human-rights activists who see the system as a tool of the Islamic regime. They want to see more federal dollars devoted to non-OLS work. The State Department already contributes to the OLS budget, as does the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which this year budgeted $94 million for humanitarian programs in Sudan. Their preference for OLS groups over non-OLS groups leaves many parts of southern Sudan cut off from help ("Blue Nile blackout," WORLD, June 10 ). Congress tried to correct that bias with legislation specifying the sending of food aid to rebel-held areas. But some OLS groups, including World Vision, have lobbied successfully against the legislation. According to World Vision president Richard Stearns, "World Vision opposes congressional and administration efforts to deliver food aid and non-lethal aid, such as trucks, gasoline, and tents, to Sudanese rebels in the south." Last December, World Vision and seven other U.S.-based organizations sent a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright protesting aid to rebel-held areas. The organizations said such assistance "could damage the reputations of American nongovernmental agencies" and "restrict their access to populations in dire need." Aid to rebel-held areas is designed to do the opposite, but there is concern about retaliation by Khartoum against organizations that provide help. Those leading the congressional drive to fund food aid for the south oppose both a pro-Khartoum stance and neutrality. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) points out that, in addition to fighting a war against its own citizens, the radical Islamic government is known to harbor terrorist activity and is under both U.S. and international sanctions. "We should be much bolder and say that the government in Khartoum means us harm, and it expresses it in many ways," Sen. Brownback said. Funds to rebel-held territories, he argued, would "feed starving people standing for democracy in the Sudan who want nothing more than to live in peace, free from slavery, civilian bombing, government-manufactured famine, and the worst forms of religious persecution." Despite the disaffection between World Vision and southern Sudan supporters, World Vision officials point out that they have not left the region altogether. For the past several months World Vision has been flying in non-food supplies to contested and Khartoum-controlled areas. Cargo planes distribute items like mosquito nets, cooking pots, and water containers. According to Mr. Stearns, World Vision wants to expand its work in the area. To do that, it is using money from European governments, including a $382,000 contract with the European Community Humanitarian Organization (a group that opposed the MOU) and a $900,000 grant from the British government. "The militias overseeing areas where World Vision currently works in southern Sudan have not demanded that our staff sign any agreements compromising the integrity of World Vision's humanitarian assistance," Mr. Stearns reported. Those militias include forces of Lam Akol, a government commander and the Islamic regime's minister of transportation; and Riek Machar, head of the Sudan People's Democratic Front, a government-allied group. Sudan expert Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College who is writing a book on the oilfield region of Upper Nile, described the nearby area where World Vision has taken up relief activity as "a brutal landscape." Government forces, together with the government-allied militias, have been clearing land for oil exploration and extraction. They are also erasing villages and farms in order to bid up, gold-rush style, large-tract concessions for future drilling. Mr. Reeves estimates that 100,000 people have been displaced throughout the region by oil-related fighting and brutality. Amnesty International condemned human-rights violations by the militias and government forces in western Upper Nile, citing "extrajudicial executions, rape, forced displacement and abduction" in a recent report. In particular, humanitarian groups have documented Mr. Machar's fighting tactics: slaughtering cattle, burning villages, and killing civilians. Mr. Machar is an unsteady figure who was a member of the SPLA 10 years ago, but defected to the other side and became a commander for the government. He abandoned his government post to direct his forces from a house in Nairobi owned by the Khartoum government, even though he continues to issue press reports that sound favorable to the rebels. Asked about its connections to Mr. Machar, Mr. Guiton said, "World Vision is not working with Machar but in territories held by his troops." Other aid workers say that is a distinction without a difference. Dan Eiffe is Sudan director for Norwegian People's Aid and encountered Machar forces further south in Bor County. He said working in Machar territory "puts World Vision actually supporting the government under the extreme pretense that they are pulling out of southern Sudan." World Vision's Mr. Guiton told WORLD it is unlikely that World Vision will return to SPLA-held areas where it once worked. Mr. Stearns is more optimistic. He commented, "We are hopeful that we will reach an agreement with SPLA soon and be able to return to those areas in the south under its authority." He indicated that World Vision is involved in current negotiations to revise the MOU. Mr. Wondu of the SPLA said that is not true. "It would be unfair to those who signed it in the first place to revise it. We would be contradicting ourselves," he said. Experts say contradictions abound in the World Vision Sudan saga, and communication with the organization has been difficult. Mr. Stearns refused to be interviewed by WORLD, but agreed to provide written answers to questions submitted in writing. Mindful of World Vision's longstanding record of service in other crises and disasters, some human-rights activists are puzzled by World Vision's recent actions. "We are struggling with Sudan policy, and there is a growing coalition of churches and human-rights groups trying to press strenuously for a U.S. policy on Sudan to stop the genocidal policy in Khartoum," said Nina Shea of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom. "For World Vision to pick up the tent and go home just when we are seeing some changes-to be on the verge of turning this around and World Vision decides the war cannot be won? It undermines the hope that is finally there for the south." Mr. Wondu is ready to credit the fallout with teaching his side a lesson. "I really think that we must accept some of the blame," he told WORLD. "We have been in control of large areas of southern Sudan for years. When I go there I get very unhappy by our people's persistent need for food. They are looking up in the air for food instead of looking down on the ground. This is good shock therapy for us." "There are bad guys among the rebels, but there is no moral equivalence here," said Paul Marshall of Freedom House, author of the recently published Religious Freedom in the World. "What World Vision has said has tended to cast the south in worse light than it should be." Eric Reeves, the Smith College professor, concluded, "With Khartoum engaged in genocidal warfare to get at the SPLA, then the SPLA is in a very difficult position. They are operating under duress and feel abandoned in general."

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…