Features

Understanding MOUs

International

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

Wrangling continues over the Memorandum of Understanding, which was designed to bring nongovernmental relief to southern Sudan. Project director Wolfgang Jamann of World Vision Germany said his organization observed the U.S. congressional debate, and, along with other European organizations, opposed the MOU. The groups that pulled out of lengthy negotiations did so after the European Community Humanitarian Organization, the government agency that funds most overseas economic development for the European Union, said it would not fund relief groups that signed the MOU. ECHO cut off funding to all areas of southern Sudan under SPLA control.

Roger Winter, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, is among those who criticized the funding cut-off: "The MOU squabble was a very political initiative spearheaded by a few NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], which many others then followed like lemmings in a twisted version of NGO solidarity, rather than solidarity with the conflict's victims."

This gets complicated, so to understand that squabble, it's necessary to understand how MOUs work. Signing an MOU is normal business for many international aid organizations. Others involved in Sudan have signed MOUs in war-torn locales like Somalia and Kosovo. Atlanta-based CARE International signed an MOU with the Islamic regime in Khartoum to work in government territory outside the capital. (CARE initially pulled out of southern Sudan, but changed its mind and signed the MOU.) Such agreements spell out how relief groups will coordinate, say, a water project or immunization program with local counterparts, and how de facto authorities in turn will protect and further those programs.

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The SPLA, for its part, wanted an agreement in order to "regularize operations" and "promote cooperation" between the rebel movement and the humanitarian groups, according to MOU documents. For years human-rights advocates have told SPLA chairman John Garang that to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the world, the SPLA must go beyond occupying territory militarily to establishing civil structures of government.

To do that, the rebel movement hoped to set up the MOU as a framework for relief groups, which perform civil functions in many parts of southern Sudan. But World Vision president Richard Stearns said that the agreement could place World Vision staff, equipment, and relief aid under the control of the SPLA, and the organization "might appear to be aligning itself with the SPLA, thereby compromising our neutrality and noncombatant status."

One week before a March 1 deadline to sign the MOU, World Vision began pulling staff from projects in southern Sudan, some of which had been in operation for over 10 years. At that time, the organization was in the midst of promoting its "30-Hour Famine" fundraising drive in the United States, featuring Sudan along with 10 other crisis spots. No changes were made to the 30-Hour Famine campaign. (The organization did issue a March 1 press release announcing the interruption of services.)

So as not to stop "life-saving work," World Vision announced that it was leaving behind "sufficient food ... to cover the emergency needs" of some hungry southern Sudanese. World Vision left over 500 metric tons of food, storing thousands of bags of sorghum and lentils inside temporary warehouses in the Sudanese towns of Tonj, Thiet, Marial-Lou, and Warrap. But the organization prohibited local authorities from distributing any food without written approval from the offices of World Vision Sudan-offices that are in Nairobi, 1,000 miles away and accessible by radio contact only. Sudanese rebels agreed to World Vision's stipulations.

But World Vision did not return to the area or make contact with the designated food guardians for two months. When World Vision showed up in May, both lentils and sorghum were gone. So were construction materials stored along with the grain. Local workers said they bowed to community pressure to distribute the food to the hungry, including over 40,000 displaced people, beginning one week after World Vision pulled out. The secondary school once aided by World Vision, and other area businesses and homes, used the construction materials. International humanitarian workers in the area say the rebels allocated the food to those in need, but they acknowledge that the allocation proceeded without proper bookkeeping or authorization.

That put World Vision in a bookkeeping bind. While World Vision had legal title to the food, it originated with the U.S. Agency for International Development under a food distribution contract with the government put in motion before World Vision pulled out. Further complicating ownership, after World Vision's pullout-but before the organization discovered the food was missing-the desk workers back in Nairobi arranged to turn over the food to the United Nations World Food Program. World Vision Sudan Program Director Philippe Guiton wants the Sudanese rebels to pay back his organization for those losses-$110,811.30 in lentils and $204,290.84 in sorghum.

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