OCHA’s operation in Sudan is the biggest in the world – Interview with Ramesh Rajasingham, Chief, UNOCHA Sudan

OCHA’s operation in Sudan is the biggest in the world - Interview with Ramesh Rajasingham, Chief, UNOCHA SudanQ: Could you tell us something about yourself?
I have been in Sudan for a little more than two years. Prior to this, since 1990 I worked with OCHA, UNICEF or humanitarian agencies in various countries. I spent a few years in Afghanistan immediately after the Soviets left, in Iran, in Bosnia and, just before coming here, I spent seven years in New York, so I have experience of both the field and headquarters.
My background is development economics, but I have been working in the humanitarian field for the whole of my UN career.
Q: What is OCHA doing in Sudan?
OCHA’s operation in Sudan is the biggest in the world. We employ over 200 persons in North and South Sudan of which more than fifty are international staff. Sudan is the biggest country in Africa. It is so vast that it could really encompass ten different countries.
We undertake field-based co-ordination of humanitarian activities in all domains. To do this are also in the “deep-field”, which means that we go into isolated and difficult places where you find very few other agencies. We also oversee co-ordination activities by facilitating them here in Khartoum and Juba. We used to have a large office in Nairobi providing support to South Sudan – this has now moved to Juba.
We support the Humanitarian Co-ordinator, who is also the Deputy Representative of the Secretary-General. In real terms, this requires that we are present in twenty different locations in the country. In each location we have one or two expatriate staff. In Darfur we have more of them working in the offices. The field staff is OCHA’s backbone – they are amazing people doing great work in very difficult environments.
Our role is to bring NGOs and UN agencies together for interagency assessments, to identify the needs and co-ordinate a response to these needs in the critical sectors.
We are also responsible for making sure that humanitarian workers have access to vulnerable persons. This is essential in Sudan and especially in Darfur because the security situation and sometimes restrictive operational constraints, etc., may impede our access. We are responsible for the negotiations that ensure that access.
In addition we have a critical role in advocating for the protection of the rights of vulnerable persons. If we hear about abuses going on in the field, we raise the issue either with relevant UN officers, local and national authorities – to get the appropriate action taken.
On of OCHA’s key responsibilities is the preparation of the annual UN Work-Plan for all the agencies – a document that is primarily humanitarian. Making sure that all sectors receive adequate response, trying to identify gaps and cracks that might otherwise go unseen, prioiritizing the use of the limited resources at hand, advocating for overlooked issues etc. It is a huge amount of work. That is what co-ordination is really about. It is about speaking to people, making sure that we are all working towards accomplishing the same vision, facilitating access, facilitating communication. Communication is very important. If there is no or weak communication, coordination will lose its effectiveness.
We are essentially gatherers of information; that is one of our important tasks. With that information we can provide better co-ordination.
Q: For some time the press has been saying less about the situation in Darfur. Are you afraid that people will forget about the crisis that is going on there?
It is true that interest had declined. But recently there has been much more about Darfur in the international press, as the situation has been getting worse. The security situation has deteriorated. I was here at the beginning of 2004 when the crisis really erupted. For a period we did see a marked improvement in the situation – but recently have been significant reversals. There are not so many problems with the massive displacement of people, but certainly in terms of security of civilians – primarily the displaced – we are very concerned. More so than in 2005.
OCHA’s operation in Sudan is the biggest in the world - Interview with Ramesh Rajasingham, Chief, UNOCHA SudanQ: People say that there are no roads in Darfur—that there is nothing. So how do you obtain information?
Darfur actually has better roads than South Sudan. South Sudan has no roads. The problem in Darfur is insecurity. People do not want to travel on these roads since there are bandits, attacks, hijackings, kidnappings—all sorts of security concerns.
With our people in the field, communication is mainly verbal over the telephone and through e-mails done constantly through the day – and often through the night as well. They always keeping us up to date, so we have a very good picture of the needs of vulnerable groups, the risks and the threats they face, the protection abuses on the population and the delivery of assistance to cater to the needs of the vulnerable. This is because we have a strong presence and professionals in the field.
Q: What does OCHA do in Northern Sudan?
In fact, we consider Darfur to be part of the North. We are also present in Khartoum where, for example, there are enormous numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs). They are spread about—some live in camps, others in squatter areas, some are mixed in with the local population. There has not been a complete registration of them so we do not know the specific number, but we have a rough idea of how many they are—about 2 million. They are the mainly southerners who came here during the almost 20 year civil war between the SPLM and the government in Khartoum.
So Khartoum is a place where we have been involved in highlighting the needs of the IDPs. Last year there were a series of demolitions of some of the squatter areas where the IDPs were living. Their shelters and houses were destroyed. They lost whatever meagre means they had to survive. Some lost their lives. Others were moved physically, by truck, to areas far away from roads and communications, which meant that they lost their jobs.
The Government moved them because it said that they are re-planning the town—rezoning. In any city such planning takes place, but it should be done in such a way that people are compensated and their ability to continue their livelihoods is not affected.
Q: What does OCHA do in the camps?
First, we identify the displaced persons whom the authorities plan to move. Then we go and negotiate with the Government—the Governor of Khartoum state – and at the same time arranged for assessments of areas to which they plan to move the IDPs and others. These persons have to be moved to places where they have access to water, health services, livelihoods, etc. It is a very serious issue if such moves make families who were managing to support themselves into humanitarian cases because they have lost their livelihoods and access to services. So that’s the negotiation procedure but it is not an easy task.
We have managed to prevent some of these forced movements with some success, but we have also had some failures. There have been people who have actually been moved to the desert, and in the summertime in Khartoum the temperature can average 45?C, sometimes going up to even 50°C.
Together with the other agencies, where we have resources, we provide them with shelter, and make sure that they have access to water, health services, education for the children, etc. Our main service, however, is to make sure that they are not moved to places where they do not have access to these services—where they are unable to look after themselves.
We are not responsible for looking after the population—that is the task of the government. People should have the means to look after themselves. Our job is to make sure that the government accepts this responsibility and then carries it out.
Q: How do you cope with seeing all the suffering among the people?
It is difficult. I think empathy is very important. This is not a 9-to-5 job. Here, everybody is working long hours, at least twelve hours a day. Some staff members work even longer, and often on our weekends. On Thursday and Friday (which is our Saturday and Sunday) you will find many in the office working. The consequences are stress, fatigue, exasperation – however, empathy helps us to understand the desperate plight of vulnerable Sudanese and carry us through knowing that if we manage to help even one family we can make a small difference.
Q: What do think will happen in the coming months? Is OCHA going to reduce or increase its presence here? What are your feelings about the whole situation?
In Darfur, I must say the prognosis is not very good. The situation has deteriorated over the last couple of months. We were more optimistic in the middle of 2005 than we are today.
For the rest of the country, we have to look at it situation by situation. Remember, Sudan is as big as ten different countries.
In Eastern Sudan, for instance, there has been some violence recently. This resulted in more insecurity contributing to a potential for a larger crisis. Hopefully, this will be peacefully and effectively resolved.
In South Sudan there has been progress after the Peace Agreement. There is optimism; people are free to move around, there is more security. Optimism is a positive sign as it helps people to start long-term planning and to have a vision about their future. Some IDPs are returning home—not in great numbers because the situation there remains tense. South Sudan is not like Khartoum. They do not have anything—there is no water, a very poor health situation, no schooling. You may have the worst indicators in the whole of Africa. So people have to consider the situation when they move back home with their families.
And then you have situations like Abyei, which is a transition area. It is a unique situation within the CPA. There has been a Commission to look at the border of Abyei, and we await a decree to decide which part belongs to the South and which part to the North. The report of the Commission is under review right now.
In Abyei there is no local authority so the situation is shaky. You still have armed militia walking around with weapons. If there is no local authority you do not have anybody to work or cooperate with. We cannot undertake programming and bring some relief to the region.
Q: Do you personally remain optimistic?
For the immediate future and with respect to South Sudan I remain optimistic. For Darfur we will have to wait and see – but certainly the Sudanese parties have it in their power to come to agreement. Obviously, we can only hope and to continue to pray that this becomes a reality – assisting the vulnerable where we can throughout this period. The problem is that the belligerents may continue the status quo, but at the end of the day the people who are suffering the most are the civilians. We have to make sure that there is a strong political agreement; otherwise you will have 3 million vulnerable people in Darfur who will continue to suffer. We do not want the situation in Darfur to be like the situation in South Sudan where IDPs have existed for more than twenty years—the war between the North and the South started there in 1983. These people must have the possibility of returning home in security and safety.
Q: If you have a message for the international community, what would it be?
I would say today—Darfur first. You have to make sure that there is an agreement, as there are far too many people who have lost everything. In the camps there are mainly women and children. Every time they go out to fetch firewood, they risk their lives through being raped or abused. You cannot expect young women and mothers to continue to suffer in this way. I think that sufficient pressure should be placed on the different parties to reach an agreement and to sign it.
After that, we must help in the building of Sudanese society, infrastructure, systems and capacities to ensure that the risk of armed conflict in Sudan is minimised. Human Rights – although a clich? – is a sine qua non for this to happen. No population or regions should be marginalized. Eastern Sudan is among the poorest areas in Africa – it should be and is a priority for support. If people feel marginalized, the risk that they take up arms increases.
I know that your readership includes a lot of UN staff, and if there is something I would like to stress it is this: We join the UN because of the cause more than the job. This is probably more evident here in the field when you are closer to those you are trying to help than at headquarters. Here the staff work and live in difficult conditions in the middle of the bush, sleeping in tents. There are mosquitoes; snakes, no electricity, problems with water etc. They stay there for six or twelve months at a time.
This is the best way to understand the mission and the values of the United Nations. I would urge people working in the headquarters to spend some time working in the field to see more of what the UN is all about.
There is a very deep, rewarding feeling to be working here.
MF Khartoum Jan 2006