YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – While global attention is laser-focused on conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, the US bishops’ overseas development arm quietly is working to ameliorate what may experts regard as the most devastating, and also most forgotten crisis in the world today in Sudan.
“Eight months after fighting erupted, Sudan is facing one of the fastest unfolding crises globally, and the largest displacement crisis in the world,” said Paul Emes, country representative of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Sudan.
CRS is the official overseas development and humanitarian relief program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Sudan’s conflict, which erupted last April so far has led to the displacement of 7.5 million people, according to OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a UN agency that supports humanitarian organizations to respond effectively to the needs of people in crises.
The war is being fought by the two rival factions of the military government of Sudan: the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti.” A power tussle between the two generals, disagreement over a transition to civilian rule, and the integration of the RSF into the army all combined to trigger the conflict, but it is the civilians in the Horn of Africa nation who are paying the price.
Emes said the consequences of the war have been catastrophic.
“According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, nearly 7 million people – almost one in every seven people in the country – have fled their homes since the conflict started in mid-April,” he told Crux.
“Because of this massive displacement, millions of children have been unable to attend school, farmers have had to abandon their crops, and businesses have closed,” Emes said.
According to the World Bank, Sudan’s economy shrunk by 12 percent last year, largely because the conflict has halted production and destroyed human capital and state capacity. It is likely going to get even worse this year, with the International Monetary Fund, IMF projecting that the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will fall by 18.3 percent in 2024.
The UN says that the pace of economic contraction in Sudan more than doubles those of war-ravaged Yemen and Syria, both of which shrunk by 50 percent over the past decade, or about 5 percent a year on average.
But the damage, according to Emes goes beyond the economy.
“The fighting has impacted more than people’s wallets – people can’t access basic health services anymore, so we are seeing an increasing number of disease outbreaks. Beyond the fighting and displacement, the lack of medical supplies, healthcare providers, electricity, and clean water are making it harder for Sudan’s health system to stay afloat,” he told Crux.
According to estimates from the WHO and the nation’s Federal Ministry of Health, 65 percent of people in Sudan do not have access to healthcare, and 70 to 80 percent of hospitals in areas devastated by violence are no longer operational.
As of January 13th, nine states had reported approximately 9,600 suspected cases of cholera, with 264 deaths associated with the disease. There have also been documented outbreaks of other illnesses such as dengue fever, malaria, and measles.
Emes says CRS’s mission in the country is difficult given there are 25 million people in need of humanitarian aid, of which over 14 million are children.
“Despite immense operational challenges, CRS and its partners have continued to provide lifesaving support to women, men, and children affected by the crisis in Darfur,” he said.
Emes said CRS’s focus in 2023 was in the areas of health, nutrition, education, child-protection, and more.
“We are also focused on longer-term support in less volatile areas of Darfur and eastern Sudan,” he said. “This includes promoting peace, working with farmers to begin using sustainable practices, and helping families increase their incomes.”
He said his organization is “committed to uplifting communities in Sudan and is hopeful that, through new opportunities and adaptations to the new context, we can increase our support and address the growing needs of those who have been affected by the conflict. “
Emes explained that the provision of vital aid to vulnerable communities in remote locations has presented numerous difficulties for humanitarian organizations.
“Insecurity has hindered the movement of our staff and transport of supplies,” he said. “Phone, internet, and power outages make it extremely difficult to communicate with our staff and partners in the field.”
“In addition to these challenges, the Sudan INGO forum has called for the urgent release of flexible humanitarian funding and the removal of bureaucratic and administrative roadblocks that make it harder for humanitarian groups such as CRS to do their work,” Emes said.
He said the forum has also made it clear that international humanitarian law must be respected, which includes protecting aid workers and their supplies.
“Despite the challenges and restrictions we may face, CRS is confident in our ability to adapt and deliver lifesaving aid to those who need it most,” Emes said.