AU needs sharper pencil to rewrite inadequate humanitarian response

The state of Sudan raises questions about the African Union’s readiness to respond authoritatively to humanitarian situations.

The ongoing conflict in Sudan has thrown the spotlight on Africa’s dire humanitarian situation and associated response framework. On 18 May 2023, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) dedicated its 1155th meeting to an open session on humanitarian action in Africa. The Council reiterated its mandate to support and facilitate humanitarian action and support during armed conflicts or natural disasters.

Yet, the limited footprint in Sudan raises questions about the African Union’s (AU) readiness to exercise authority and agency in humanitarian action. Many countries evacuated their nationals grappling with multiple border issues in response to the unfolding humanitarian and political crisis. Key challenges included absence of coordination under a single umbrella and lack of access for humanitarian agencies and displaced persons.

AU humanitarian efforts for the estimated 2.5 million displaced Sudanese people also proved difficult. The AU was notably absent from an international donor conference that saw the European Union, Germany, United States, Qatar, and others pledge nearly US$1.5 billion for relief efforts in Sudan and neighbouring countries directly impacted by the humanitarian crises.  

Despite longstanding efforts to prepare for humanitarian response on the continent, the AU’s coordination and support for countries in crises have been lacklustre. The situation is deteriorating in countries such as Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Burkina Faso. Why then are Africa’s humanitarian efforts not being felt after years of intent?

Minimal humanitarian footprint

The AU humanitarian response footprint has been negligible, if not absent. Some experts told PSC Report that the dormancy of the AU’s humanitarian agency has gravely affected its ability to provide humanitarian support in crises. This is surprising given that Africa has taken so long to make recognisable inroads in responses, despite being a major epicentre of global humanitarian trends and emergencies.

AU humanitarian efforts for the estimated 2.5 million displaced Sudanese people proved a challenge

The statute for the African humanitarian agency was adopted during the 36th AU Assembly ordinary session in February 2023, but the entity is yet to be operational. The Council has asked the AU Commission to expedite its implementation and ensure it effectively discharges its mandate.

Limited political will and resultant meagre resources have constrained the uptake of robust decisions to enact the agency. In 2010, for example, the executive council recommended that member states increase the AU budget for humanitarian action from 2% to 4%, given the magnitude of humanitarian needs and the limited funds available. More than a decade later, no progress on increased funding has been made.

Currently, AU humanitarian efforts depend on the 2% drawn from member state contributions to the main AU Commission budget and funding received through the AU Special Emergency Assistance Fund. This inadequacy has constrained the organisation and increased dependence on external funding, which is contrary to the African solutions to African challenges mantra.

Does the AU need an agency to act?

Recent evacuation efforts in Sudan demonstrate that as much as the AU humanitarian agency is a prerequisite for robust action, the efforts of African states in Sudan were low-hanging fruit. The AU could have projected presence by coordinating the collective action of its member states. Doing that would have levelled out the uneven capacities of countries that needed to evacuate citizens.

The AU’s coordination and support for countries in crises have been lacklustre

Without a continentally coordinated process, the lack of capacity of smaller states was evident in their reliance on their larger neighbours to bring their citizens to safety. Sources reveal that evacuation through certain Sudan neighbours was accompanied by a sudden spike in the price of visas and other obstacles that could have been avoided through an AU-led coordination mechanism. Coordinated evacuation would have reinforced AU relevance among African citizens and with non-African partners equally concerned about the crisis.

The PSC’s pursuit of peace and security cannot be realised without addressing the humanitarian situation. Where capacity is lacking, partnerships with other entities may achieve stability. In 2019, for example, the AU signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the Rwandan government to set up an emergency transit mechanism.

This facilitated the evacuation of refugees and asylum seekers from Libya, assisting with the short-term management of an emergency, even if its sustainability and the AU’s ownership raised questions. Although imperfect, it is a model that the AU could have explored for Sudan and other similar situations across the continent.

Way forward

With Africa’s urgent humanitarian needs, new structures and frameworks are insufficient. Frameworks must be implemented, and the will and readiness to respond to crises must be evident. It is crucial that the AU foster proper and well-coordinated institutional engagement and collaboration between security and humanitarian actors. This includes establishing clear strategies and implementation guidelines, enhancing skills and expertise, and securing sustainable funding for efficient humanitarian agencies and PSC responses to emergencies.

The AU should appoint a high-level political champion for humanitarian issues

Additionally, the AU must consider how the agency fits into global agencies and frameworks addressing African humanitarian issues. Coordination, synergy and harmonisation are needed between the agency and these international entities to prevent duplication, enhance cooperation and leverage the resources and expertise available in global networks. Thus, the agency will benefit from the experiences and expertise of established international actors while contributing to the effectiveness of responses on the continent.

The AU should also appoint a high-level political champion for humanitarian issues. They would seek commitment and political will from member states in implementing existing instruments and frameworks and drive contributions to the AU Special Emergency Assistance Fund. The role would ensure sustained attention and prioritisation of continental humanitarian concerns. Through these measures and by fostering collaboration, coordination and sustained financing, the AU can better address the needs of African populations needing relief.

Image: © AFP

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