Humanitarian Aid Projects, Colonial Legacy and the Experience of the Internally Displaced in Sudan


In the political economy of development, and more specifically second generation of conditionalities imposed by aid donors, human rights and rule of law have come to the forefront and have been promoted as ideals for improving the governance in developing countries. Hence, ideas for improving achieving better governance have become central to aid-donor-recipient relations (Burnell 288).  The rationale underlying promotion of governance programs is that such initiatives will eventually create the institutional structures, and more so mental structures, required for liberation and improved governance in the developing world (Massoud 2011 p.15). In my essay, by examining the consequences of developmental aid in Southern Sudan, I will assess the notion of universal human rights and rule of law institutions, as efforts to improve governance in the global south. I will attempt to outline the “material” and “symbolic” risks or problems that occur as a result of the aid assistance programs in Sudan. I will demonstrate that the role local civil society elites play in developmental projects essentially has a “colonial resemblance” (Massoud 2011, p.18).  Furthermore, I will reflect the procedure in which universal human rights discourse becomes the only appropriate frame for addressing grievances (Abusharaf 130).

As opposed to previous state-centric approaches to development in Sudan, recent process moves the responsibility from state actors of safeguarding human rights to civil society organizations and activists who are meant to train ,and empower ,those who have been internally displaced by civil conflict, to stand up for their rights (Masooud 8). As a result of power imbalances and lack of resources due their status as “temporarily” displaced people they are unlikely to influence public policy in their favour. Thus, this is where the UN, with its human rights awareness workshops, intervenes. The UN agencies outsource the work of building awareness of human rights to local NGOs that conduct these legal awareness workshops (Masooud 8).  The reasoning behind this training is that, knowledge of western ideals including autonomy, rule of law and self-determination will mobilize the poor to push for political reform. While this notion- of empowering minorities to mobilize to fight oppression- may have historically been successful in the North American context, it fails to incorporate the ground realities of life in Africa and overstates the potential of international law to improve governance in the global south (Massoud 2011, p. 25).

Human rights efforts, such as the legal workshops held in Sudan are supported by a variety of international organizations, but principally the agencies of the U.N. They mostly take  place in camps for displaced people or remote villages.  Mark Fathi Massooud, Professor of Politics and Legal Studies at University of California Santa Cruz, who conducted a preliminary inquiry study in Sudan in 2005 by interviewing participants and civil society activists, describes the environment where these workshops take place: “No matter which encampment or squatter area one heads toward, the view is same each time: The world looks brown and covered in dust-there are no trees. It is a place far from everything (including water), a place that no one should visit, let alone live”.  These desert camps were meant to be temporary areas of shelter until the civil war’s end, but many displaced people Massoud met in his study had been there for twenty years or more years as Sudan’s civil conflict dragged on, flattening their villages (Massoud 2011, p. 13). One displaced woman named Najwa who Massoud interviewed said, “When I came here [to the camp], I was nineteen years old… [that was ] sixteen years ago. We are…very miserable. It is a miserable life. We need…a recovery, and then slowly, slowly, slowly…” According to Massoud, after saying this, the women sighed and broke off without finishing her sentence. Thus her response reflects a general sense of despair experienced by the internally displaced victims of war as the prospects of them returning to their homes seem oblique. This essentially reflects the dire political conditions those displaced by war in Sudan experience. It is in such places where the international community has mainly focused its efforts of instilling empowerment and a sense of social justice (Massoud 2011, p. 8).

In many ways, legal awareness workshops put people at risk of physical danger if they choose to exercise their rights (Massoud 2011, p. 23).  Participating, or even simply affiliating with international groups puts internally displaced individuals at high risk of coming under government scrutiny and violence. Masooud states that international aid agencies are usually responsible for these risks as they are unaware of the political context of Sudan which includes high level of government surveillance (Massoud 2011, p. 24). From his study Massoud gathers that paradoxically enough training these internally displaced individuals in Sudan to seek remedies from their government, through rights- based approach exacerbates the existing power imbalance.  The demand for the remedying of rights validates and secures the regime as having the monopoly to grant justice to citizens who lack it. Hence, this perpetuates the marginalization in Sudan as “disabled rights-seekers” (Massoud 2006, p.25).

Furthermore, humanitarian aid initiatives concerning improvements in governance strategies, through the enforcement of law reform, in a post-colonial setting such as Sudan, run the risk of undermining cultural concepts, ideals and practices when pursuing law reform (Pimentel 2010, p. 16). The priority of the international aid community with respect to the rule of law is to create or reform rule of law institutions to ensure universally agreed upon minimum standards of justice are met, however, besides the potential risk of undermining cultural practices, the availability of limited resources should be considered (Pimentel 2010, p. 10).  The list of institutions and personnel needed for governance-development projects are essentially either not available or too costly to afford for the developing world (Burnell 2011, p. 288).

Hence, as a result of limited resources, including institutions, efficient personnel and infrastructure, the prospects of creating competent rule of law institutions in Southern Sudan are low (Pimentel 2010, p.14). Therefore, in an unstable political environment where typical rule of law institutions such as the police and the court system fail to operate adequately, conflict resolution and dispute settlement in local communities is done by tribal leaders under ‘Sudanese customary law’ (Pimentel 2010, p. 14-15).  Tribal authorities, serving the role of judges, adjudicate upon disputes between parties by using customary law principles that have been conveyed to them by their ancestors i.e. the customary legal system exists through oral practice (Pimentel 210, p. 15).  Hence, unlike in the West, customary law or its decisions are not codified in written statutes. Yet, “public confidence in these courts runs significantly higher than any confidence in the statutory courts” (Pimentel 2010, p.14- 15).  This is telling, as it reflects that despite the impulse of the international aid community to improve governance, through human rights workshops and other kinds of law reforms, Sudanese society is content with its unique legal culture that reflects its own customary principles, as indeed “the tribal elders are held in high regard, and their decisions are, for the most part, accepted and followed” (Pimentel 2010, p.15).

Also, the export and imposition of Western aid programs in a post-colonial society such as Sudan may be seen as a reinforcement of its colonial heritage. Hence, governance strategies by bilateral trade organizations and countries may be viewed and experienced as continuing colonial subjection, by the imposition a foreign legal system with the aim of assimilating Africa under Western norms under the guise of development solutions to poverty (Merry 2003, p. 578). This fear of the unfamiliar is not irrational as interventions on African ground under the pretence of foreign aid initiatives have for centuries threatened Africans. These initiatives, historically have served the interests of the powerful by allowing them to expand slavery and other types of human exploitation. Also, international interventions have exacerbated bureaucratic capacity for corruption in Africa by indirect colonial rule, by granting the local elites to rule over diverse areas (Merry 2003, p. 578).

Furthermore, indirect colonial rule or “governance at a distance”, by granting power to local elites, a strategy coopted by the West, remains relevant in today’s globalized setting.  Indeed, as Massoud emphasizes “colonial resemblances to international development are unmistakable” (Massod 2011, p.18).  Elites of civil society coopt human rights discourse to increase their own wealth and standing in Sudan.  They accept profitable contracts to join International NGOs or the UN as part of their “national staff” which provides them higher salaries and resources. Furthermore, to secure international funding, civil society leaders limit the scope of their projects and reports to issues of universal human rights, thus alternative grievances and claims “rooted in labour-based organizing, nonalignment or nationalism” are purposely repressed(Massoud 2011, p.16- 18). This is best expressed in the words of Tofeeq, a civil society activist, “Corruption is not only in the government. It’s in civil society itself. The problem is this: The [foreign] money is going to [Sudanese NGOs], who say [to the donor], ‘I’ll write you a really nice report’. And nothing is happening on the ground”. Thus, essentially these reports by civil society elites consist of what they know the international aid community want to hear (rights-based concerns) and negate specific concerns and needs of those displaced by war in Sudan (Massoud 2011, p. 18)

Therefore, as agents of the western institutions, local elites run a top-down, one way method of communication and implementation of foreign ideals of human rights, as opposed to engaging in two-way communication and reconciling or merging local and transnational discourses (Massoud 2011,p. 18).  Furthermore, imposition of a transnational rights based approach to development appropriates local problems in Sudan into general abstractions. For instance a common grievance, reflecting the state of poverty of those living in Khartoum which would be expressed as “we do not have electricity or running water, and our children play in polluted swearers to keep cool from intense desert heat”, risks becoming something typical one would find in a leading U.S newspaper headline: “our environmental rights are being violated” (Abusharaf  2009, p.130).

Hence, in our globalized universe, where Western media takes the lead of conveying and constructing knowledge, the latter grievance evoking violation of environmental rights would likely evoke a more sympathetic and stimulating response ,as opposed to the first one describing specific problems of those displaced by civil war.  Thus essentially, the discourse of western human rights becomes the only appropriate and legitimate frame for addressing grievances (Abusharaf  2009, p.130).

Humanitarian aid projects appear to be programs intended to improve governance, ensure human rights protection and hold oppressive governments accountable through the enforcement of rule of law institutions. However, as seen in the context of human rights workshops and the possibility of implementing rule of law institutions in Sudan, such initiatives create several material and symbolic risks for those impoverished by poverty. They also risk undermining the authority of a functioning and respected legal culture and institutions, for instance the tribal courts in Sudan, and thus evoking former colonial practices of assimilation (Pimentel 2010, p.15).  Furthermore, development assistance programs largely benefit civil society elites by providing them exposure to achieve a higher standard of living as long as they continue to frame the grievances of civilians in the language of Western Human Rights in their reports. Thus, as the human rights framework has become the only legitimate avenue of expressing grievances, it inevitably has obscured the plight and specific needs of those attempting to recover in a post-conflict environment, such as Sudan (Abusharaf 2009, p.130).

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Works Cited and Consulted

  • Abusharaf, Rogaia Mustafa. Transforming Displaced Women in Sudan: Politics and the Body in a Squatter Settlement. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2009. Print.
  • Burnell, Peter J., Vicky Randall, and Lise Rakner. “Governance and Aid Conditionality in a Globalizing World.” Politics in the Developing World. Third ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 277-95. Print.
  • Engle Merry, Sally. “From Law and Colonialism to Law and Globalization.” Law and Social Inquiry 2 (2003): 569-90. Print.
  • Massoud, Mark F., “Do Victims of War Need International Law? Human Rights Education Programs in Authoritarian Sudan,” Law & Society Review45(1): 1-32 (2011).
  • Massoud, Mark F., “Rights in a Failed State: Internally Displaced Women in Sudan and Their Lawyers,” Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice21: 2-12 (2006).
  • Pimentel, David. “Rule of Law Reform Without Cultural Imperialism? Reinforcing Customary Justice Through Collateral Review in Southern Sudan.” Hague Journal on the Rule of Law1 (2010): 1-28. Print.


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Tariq Saeed Khan has a BA (Hons) in Socio-Legal Studies and Political Science from the University of Waterloo. Currently he is in the second year of LL.B (Hons.) Graduate Entry Route and studying in Pakistan College of Law. Alongside his legal studies he is teaching Sociology to secondary school kids. Sociology is a subject for which he holds a great amount of interest in. He passionately believes in a system of social justice where discriminatory practices are discouraged.


The views expressed by the authors in all the posts do not necessarily reflect those of Pakistan College of Law.
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