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Lost in translation: The interaction between international humanitarian aid and South Sudanese accountability systems

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Executive Summary

There is a disconnect between local, South Sudanese conceptions of accountability and the international, formalised Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) framework. While the word ‘accountability’ has no direct equivalent in most South Sudanese languages, it is fundamental as a concept to social and political relations in the country. In South Sudan, ‘accountability’ is based on reciprocity, in which an individual or group provides support to another, in the expectation that the recipient will reciprocate their support at a later date. Failure to do so results in some form of sanction, either immediately or at a later date. Aid accountability mechanisms on the other hand, focus on power exercised through hierarchies; recognising, and at times actively seeking to challenge, existing power inequalities which can perpetuate the exclusion, or preferential treatment of individuals based on ethnicity, class, gender or other factors.

These two systems co-exist and share a fundamental principle of being answerable to others. However, understanding how, when and where they connect, or do not connect, and accounting for this within programming, is critical for improving the effectiveness of aid interventions in South Sudan. The AAP mechanisms need to better recognize and incorporate local understandings of accountability based on reciprocity, not just hierarchies, if they are to improve the way that communities can engage with aid in a meaningful and consistent way. In South Sudan, aid actors’ accountability to South Sudanese people remains tenuous. Instead, they are often more answerable to their donors or internal hierarchies. Moreover, South Sudanese people’s perceptions of aid, including their view of the accountability of aid actors, have not been well understood. A Factsheet released by the REACH Initiative in September 2019 illustrates that South Sudanese people’s perceptions of the relevance and fairness of aid vary significantly across the country.

This study helps to remedy this disconnect by enhancing our understanding of accountability within South Sudan’s social and governance systems, by focusing on accountability systems within the Murle and Lou Nuer communities. The research found that accountability systems are highly fluid in South Sudan. The role of chiefs or traditional authorities within these systems, particularly in rural areas around mobilizing or demobilizing young men, has been weakened due to war and social changes. However, chiefs are not the only local accountability actors in the Nuer and Murle systems, and some of these other actors have been more successful in holding young men accountable for their actions. Shaming practices, often led by women, have played an important role in holding young men to account. For example, amongst the Murle, groups of rural women known as kaberaze, have been able to hold age-set fighters to account over the impact of violence or conflict, and in some cases, have succeeded in discouraging groups from engaging in violence.

What is critical for the aid community, however, is the feeling of disenfranchisement of many rural communities, particularly youth, from the “urban-based” state or aid structures. Many Murle youth in rural communities do not feel represented by government structures which they associate with administrative towns. Similarly, rural Nuer youth do not necessarily identify with urban-based youth associations who work closely with local authorities and aid agencies. Towns are regarded as the preserve of government and the international aid system, where aid actors are coordinated and integrated under the umbrella of the UN mission. As a result, and in spite of the resources that they bring, aid actors and the international ‘accountability’ system are seen as alien by many rural Nuer and Murle, especially young men.

The process of adapting the international aid accountability system to the South Sudanese context will be challenging. Fundamentally, despite concerted efforts by the aid community, downward accountability to affected populations remains subordinated to the upward accountability of agencies to their HQ and donors even when country and field-based aid actors are themselves seeking to shift this power balance. The aid community in South Sudan needs to do a better job of making its accountability system and processes more accessible to, and understandable by, the South Sudanese on their own terms. Aid actors need to better understand, and incorporate where appropriate, local methods of accountability by recognizing and valuing local actors’ role in effective accountability systems on their own terms. Without this, rural South Sudanese’s ability to meaningfully engage with aid accountability systems or influence the delivery of assistance to their communities will remain limited. This will not only undermine the capacity of the aid community to provide quality assistance to communities, but also their credibility in eyes of South Sudanese to promote peace.


  1. Invest in more sustained and systematic dialogue with rural communities, particularly young men, mediated by local civil society groups or other local actors trusted by these communities. The disconnect between urban-based/national decision-making and rural communities is a significant concern. It is a barrier to improving downwards accountability and hinders productive dialogues to support peace. These relationships must be improved as a priority.

  2. Interactions and negotiations need to be done at community level in a way that is regular, more formalized, open and inclusive, rather than ad hoc and behind closed doors. Regular forums are needed where local, state and international actors come together to define objectives, intended beneficiaries of assistance, and how communities can hold aid actors to account. While making decisions in Juba can be easier and faster, this can effectively cut out communities.

  3. Donors and agencies must understand, and where appropriate, work within South Sudanese systems, rather than ignoring or overriding them. The aid community needs to acknowledge that for many South Sudanese these local systems of accountability are legitimate, respected and understood, and that it is the international system that is alien and unintelligible.

  4. A ‘national’ approach to AAP is not appropriate, AAP mechanisms will need to be contextualized to reflect the practices of specific communities. Accountability systems are context specific and cannot simply be replicated across the entire country, there is no one size fits all.

  5. More research is needed on women’s groups and movements, and how they use gender norms to their advantage to hold individuals to account and prevent or end conflict. Moreover, aid organisations should enhance their institutional knowledge of the role of women´s groups and movements. Women’s roles in holding young men to account and encouraging or ending conflict and, such as the kaberaze, are not well understood.

  6. Agencies should document and report on joint decisions with communities, not simply consultation. Accountability is not simply consultation but involves communication, feedback and joint decision making in the relationship between aid actors and members of local communities.