This weekend, news outlets have reported that the International Committee of the Red Cross was ordered by the Sudanese government to suspend its activities. This isn’t the first time that an international (or national) organization has had its activities suspended, and it’s worth looking at what we’re talking about when this sort of thing happens and what the implications are.
To begin with, the Sudanese government chooses to stop events and restrict institutions in different ways. When TedX Khartoum was shut down last year, it happened at the last minute and involved National Security turning off power in the room in order to urge people to leave. The Khatim Adlan Center for Enlightenment (a Sudanese NGO devoted to the development of civil society) was closed by an official letter revoking its authorization to work, which was delivered in person by officials who demanded that activities end immediately. In all cases, it’s clear the government can choose more and less confrontational ways of restricting activities, depending on how visible it wants to be as well as where in the government the decision originates.
In the case of the ICRC, the decision came from the Humanitarian Affairs Commission, a government agency focused primarily on “monitoring” and restricting NGO activities. In order to operate in Sudan, all NGOs and societies have to be registered, most of them registered through HAC (although some have had success registering through other government ministries depending on their activities). In order to maintain registration, HAC presents conditions and demands information, usually related to money expenditures, employment records, and plans for future activities. This not only slows down the process of starting and carrying out projects, but also allows the government to stop projects it dislikes through deliberate delays in approvals. HAC’s requirements shift depending on the political environment, and it has been the case that certain activities that used to be acceptable suddenly are unacceptable or suddenly require more bureaucratic oversight.
It looks like the suspension of ICRC’s activities comes from one of those changes in policies. In this case, it seems that HAC is attempting to insist that ICRC work primarily through its national partner, the Sudanese Red Crescent Society (rather than operating independently, as it does now and does in all other countries). This sort of restriction is along the lines of regulations HAC has attempted to impose in the past couple of years, most notably in Kassala, where the government stopped seven international NGOs from operating, eventually allowing some of them to operate exclusively through national partners. While the government justifies this sort of policy as promoting the capacity of national organizations, it also gives the government greater control of both money and activities, allowing HAC to stop or hinder NGO policies that are not to their political advantage while promoting activities that they view as in their interest.
Another thing it’s worth looking at in all of this is when and why organizations, national and international, choose to publicize these restrictions. Not all do, since publicity has both advantages and drawbacks. Many local NGOs choose to keep quiet when their activities are suspended or their events are closed in the hope that they will not be “politicized” and will be able to open again quickly. For this reason, we have no idea how many programs are delayed or events canceled due to government restrictions. When an organization chooses to announce that something was suspended, they are seeking to pressure the government to reevaluate its position due to public outcry. In this case, the hope seems to be that international attention will emphasize that government independence is the norm for the ICRC internationally.
Here’s hoping it works. They do good work in Sudan, and it would be a shame if the government impedes it for too long.