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Rift Valley Institute

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COVID-19 in the Horn of Africa: How can aid help mobile populations cope with restrictions on movement?


This blog was written by Freddie Carver and is a product of the X-Border Local Research Network, a component of DFID’s Cross- Border Conflict—Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) programme, funded by UKaid from the UK government. The programme carries out research work to better understand the causes and impacts of conflict in border areas and their international dimensions. It supports more effective policymaking and development programming and builds the skills of local partners.


Aid providers in the Horn of Africa have always struggled to adapt their systems and models to the simple fact that people move from place to place. Delivering aid in remote areas normally involves establishing long supply chains that rely on populations being in places where they can be relatively easily ‘accessed’. The refugee and IDP camps of the region, many of which were constructed as temporary locations for the provision of food or shelter, are an obvious symbol of this tendency.

But, the idea of populations being fixed in one place works against the intrinsic mobility in their lives; from pastoralist groups moving with their animals to grasslands for grazing, to seasonal farm labourers moving annually for work. Movement is often a survival strategy that helps people to seek refuge from conflict, food shortages or the coercive control of the state. Borders are also central to these strategies. Recent research by the Rift Valley Institute has shown the importance of the social capital created by the transnational networks that operate across borders, and how borderland populations use it as a critical component of their livelihood strategies.

Political actors have been alive to these contradictions for years, and the aid community has long experience of how aid can be used to push populations towards, or away from, particular places in support of political agendas. The COVID-19 response opens up a new front in these longstanding tensions, one that needs urgent consideration if aid delivery is not to be implicated in long-term harm.

The impact of COVID-19 on movement

In South Sudan and its neighbours, reducing the circulation of people has been a major pillar of the COVID-19 response. In countries where communities share small living spaces, social distancing becomes a virtual impossibility. Therefore, for public health authorities, the key response is to keep communities fixed in place. In common with COVID-19 affected countries around the world, the decision to lock down comes with complex consequences for these communities. Three key issues arise in the South Sudan context:  

     1. Restriction of cross-border movements

Small-scale cross-border flows of goods and resources are often critical for the livelihoods of populations living in border areas. For example, in RVI’s work in Akobo, on the border between South Sudan and Ethiopia, it was noted that members of the Nuer-speaking community living either side of the border would regularly cross to conduct business, access resources and visit family and kin. RVI’s work in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, on the border with South Darfur, has shown similar patterns of cross-border movement. In both cases, local authorities seek to control and profit from these movements.

While these borders cannot, and have not been, fully shut down, attempts by national authorities to regulate movement across them as part of its pandemic response have enabled local agents of the state to increase their presence and control over economic activity. The targets of state authorities tend to be the most lucrative, or easily controlled parts of this cross-border economy. For example, in Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal this includes goods like cement and fuel, while on the Ethiopia border the focus has been on the river trade that supplies small towns like Akobo with everyday necessities. The increased involvement of the authorities in regulating, and in some cases manipulating, these flows, reduces the autonomy of local populations and shifts power balances even further.

Aid programmes in these areas have also come under pressure from national authorities during the pandemic. For example, in Gambella—on the Ethiopian side of the border with South Sudan—the government announced the closure of registration centres for refugees, which provide access to the goods and services available in refugee camps, to reduce the flow of people across the border. Although these goods and services are primarily intended for people displaced from South Sudan, there is evidence that they are as important to the Nuer-speaking population on the Ethiopian side of the border—particularly at times of economic hardship. The closures have therefore increased economic pressure on populations either side of the border.

     2. Disruption of remittance networks

Long-standing traditions of community mobility have created transnational networks of support that are critical to household economies in South Sudan. This includes remittance networks, which have both physical and digital components (in the form of money transfer companies). While distant territories such as the US, Canada and Australia are critical nodes in these networks, just as important—perhaps more so—are the individuals or families that have travelled to urban centres such as Juba, or over the borders into Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia, and who circulate the cash that they earn back to their places of origin. In South Sudan, the digital remittance system is far less developed than, for example, in Somalia, so the ability for individuals or transfer agents to move in, out of and across the country is very important.

At the moment, these channels are under threat from COVID-19. This is the case for two reasons: first, if people cannot move easily across borders, or through South Sudan more generally, they cannot bring money back to their families. Second, the economic effects of the lockdown on, for example, boda-boda drivers (motorbike taxis) and tea stalls in Juba or Uganda, or on the daily income of those of South Sudanese origin in Australia or the US, mean that people will have less spare cash to send or take back to their families, who often rely on these external injections into their household budget to make ends meet.

Previous research on the transnational networks of Nuer-speaking peoples shows that a crisis in one population centre can ripple outwards to effect populations elsewhere. For example, during the December 2013 violence at the start of South Sudan’s civil war—when many Nuer living in Juba were killed—populations as far afield as Melbourne and Minnesota suffered due to the increased financial demands from relatives in South Sudan, as well as the psychological impact of observing traumatic events from a distance. Similar dynamics may play out during the current pandemic.

     3. Effect on pre-existing politics and conflicts

The response to COVID-19 also adds to the political toolkit of local and national authorities at a time of intense fragility across South Sudan. Coming after the signing of the ‘revitalized’ peace deal (R-ARCSS) between the government and opposition coalition, President Kiir’s new unity government is seeking to reassert its authority across the country. Key positions of authority at state level and below are still being appointed, and political actors at local levels are therefore seeking to increase their leverage and influence through the mobilization of local populations to pursue their agendas through force. Any new tools they are given by the COVID-19 response—for example, the ability to impose local lockdowns on particular communities, or to utilise security forces to monitor or enforce particular entry or exit points from their areas—are likely to be deployed in the service of these wider political objectives.

There is one issue on which the COVID-19 crisis may be used to encourage greater circulation of people, adding a new dynamic to the tensions around the Protection of Civilian (POC) camps across the country. The UN has long seen these camps as unsustainable and is uncomfortable with the complex politics that shrouds these highly visible, and expensive symbols of the civil war. The risks that such high-density settlements create for the rapid spread of COVID-19 provides a further justification for seeking their dispersal. For example, in May David Shearer, the head of UNMISS, said that they ‘very strongly encouraged people in the POCs to return home’. However, the sense of insecurity felt by these populations—which keeps them in the POCs—must be acknowledged, and their physical safety should not be de-prioritised in the face of the pandemic response. This is especially true given the scarcity of quality health services available in potential locations of return.

What should humanitarian actors be doing?

Humanitarian actors in South Sudan, and the Horn of Africa more broadly, know that the resources they provide are always at risk of manipulation or misdirection by politicians seeking to pursue their own agendas. The response to COVID-19 has opened up new fronts in this battle. Mitigating these risks requires strong analysis, close monitoring of local political dynamics and the ability to understand the links between so-called intercommunal conflicts and national politics. All of these tasks will be hampered by COVID-19. With travel between the capital and more remote locations more difficult than ever, there is a risk that Juba-based teams lose the ability to keep in touch with realities on the ground.

While seasonal rains will act as a natural constraint on mobility for a few months—providing all actors in South Sudan with a degree of space to reflect—the end of the rains will act as a trigger for movement across the country and it will be critical to have clear plans and policies in place before then. Above all, there is a need to recognise the importance of mobility as a pillar of individual and community resilience. Aid agencies must seek to understand the specifics of how the communities they work with use mobility in their everyday lives, and work with community leaders and local authorities to enable as safe and dignified passage as possible within public health guidelines.

Given the risk that political elites will seek to exert greater control over communities, the ability of aid agencies to monitor and communicate dynamics around mobility and lockdown in key locations could act as an important mitigating factor. The work that organisations such as IOM and REACH do to monitor movements across, in and out of the country becomes even more important. Analysis of this data could potentially be used as part of a strategy of more nuanced and targeted movement restrictions. Aid agencies can also play a role in promoting a more transparent debate about options for those currently living in the POCs. The donor and diplomatic community will have a critical role in creating space for discussion of the political implications of lockdown and aid.

Agencies will face particular challenges in tracking local dynamics as their own ability to move is constrained, both within the country and across borders. Creative thinking is required to enhance information gathering from particularly sensitive areas, and to ensure that there is good information sharing between locations connected by movement channels. For example, the interdependency of Nuer communities along the Ethiopia-South Sudan border speaks to a need for regular and detailed information sharing between humanitarian actors on both sides, which does not currently take place.

The humanitarian community should also explore new ways to engage with the global support networks that the communities they seek to help are part of. While there is an existing body of research on diaspora humanitarianism, current thinking risks focusing on attempts to reshape these transnational support networks into a vehicle for international aid funding, rather than trying to understand them on their own terms. At a time when accessing remote locations is more expensive and challenging than ever, aid agencies should look for opportunity in these networks—reinforcing positive effects by working in multiple locations at once.

Rather than seeing diaspora communities simply as an extension of their places of origin, aid actors should seek to develop new kinds of partnerships that help to build trust, tackle the issues that they face in their new homes, and support their efforts to strengthen social capital across their transnational networks. This will require new programming modalities, with resources that can be spent in multiple countries, by organisations with a wide range of expertise.


The aid community has talked a lot over the last decade about dealing with complexity, but translating this into action has proved harder. The basic framework of aid delivery remains too rooted in an analysis of the world predicated on states, capitals and permanent settlements. This is not how the world works. People move, they connect and use these connections to create networks that are resilient to the systems around them. Aid actors must increase their understanding of these strategies. This will help prevent their efforts becoming part of existing systems of control and maximise choice and opportunity for the populations they support.

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