Sudan flag on cracked wall background.
Sudan flag on cracked wall background.

Sudan faces unprecedented hunger – it’s time for the UK to step up

It is fast approaching the one-year anniversary of the start of the brutal conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) which has plunged Sudan into what UN officials are calling “one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history”.

Over 25 million people – nearly half the population of Sudan – require urgent assistance to survive, and people are already dying of starvation in parts of the country. Yet, the international community’s response has so far failed to match the horror and severity of the situation. It is not too late to avert further death and suffering for the Sudanese people, but time is running out. An upcoming high-level pledging conference on 15 April in Paris presents a crucial opportunity for policymakers and donors – including the UK government – to step up.

Famine warnings have, so far, been ignored

An estimated 18 million people are currently facing severe levels of food insecurity (IPC 3 or above). On 20 March, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) warned of a risk of famine in parts of West Darfur, Khartoum, and areas in Greater Darfur. A combination of factors including the expansion of conflict into key agricultural areas, the deteriorating humanitarian access environment, and serious funding shortfalls, are pushing people closer to starvation.

80% of the country’s population relies on agriculture for income – a sector devastated by the conflict. Many farmers have either had to flee their farms or been unable to buy seeds. As a result, they’re unable to cultivate crops, leading to an increased dependence on local markets for essential staple foods.

Whilst markets are active and stocked in many parts of the country, rising prices means people are not able to afford food and essential items. As people’s purchasing power continues to decline, the stability of local markets and the survival of communities are at risk. Meanwhile, hampered by serious access constraints and high operational costs, ‘in-kind’ assistance (food, basic goods) cannot reach people in need rapidly enough and at the scale required to prevent a potential famine.

Cash assistance – a lifeline that needs scaling up

So far, the potential of cash has been largely overlooked and under-utilised in the Sudan response – due, in part, to incorrect assumptions around market functionality. However, evidence shows that markets are still active and stocked in many parts of the country.* Some initiatives – such as the Cash Consortium of Sudan – have managed to reach people in need with much-needed cash assistance, yet the lack of dedicated funding to cash programming has limited the reach and impact of those interventions.

Cash can reach people where in-kind assistance cannot. It’s often faster, more cost-effective, and supports local markets. Prioritising cash programming, especially through consortia, can enable a rapid scale-up of the response and prevent extreme hunger among the worst-affected populations.

What urgently needs to happen

Ahead of the upcoming pledging conference, the UK government should take urgent and bold action to help bring an end to violence against civilians, ensure the delivery of principled humanitarian assistance, and provide sufficient funding for an immediate scale-up of the humanitarian response.

In particular, the UK government should:

  1. Immediately scale up funding in Sudan to allow humanitarian actors to reach more people in desperate need, prevent additional loss of lives, and avert famine. As of March, a mere 5% of funds required by the 2024 Humanitarian Response Plan for Sudan have been allocated, with important gaps across all sectors including food, health, nutrition, water, shelter, and protection. Despite access constraints, NGOs are responding and increased funding will have a significant impact.
  2. Urgently allocate additional funding to cash operations at scale, in particular multi-purpose cash, in areas where markets are functioning. This is essential to address urgent humanitarian needs now and keep local markets afloat during and beyond the crisis. As a champion of cash, the UK government should uphold their Grand Bargain commitments and wherever possible prioritise funding to cash-based programming.
  3. Heed famine warnings and urgently lead a coordinated and complementary response that addresses urgent needs whilst building resilience. Even while responding to urgent needs, the UK government should look to build the future resilience of food systems in Sudan. This includes supporting and strengthening functional markets and food systems where they exist and continuing support to local agricultural production, especially ahead of the next planting and harvest seasons.
  4. Coordinate with all relevant actors for a peaceful, inclusive and sustainable political resolution to the conflict. As the penholder on Sudan at the UN Security Council, and historic track record of engagement, the UK has a strong role to play diplomatically. Their leading role in tabling a recent Security Council Resolution calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities was welcome, however, we urge the UK government to continue to push for its implementation.
  5. Use all diplomatic tools at their disposal to urge parties to the conflict to respect International Humanitarian Law (IHL), including the obligation to allow and facilitate free and unfettered humanitarian access and to ensure the protection of civilians. Whilst we welcome the UK’s recent calls for all parties to allow for unhindered humanitarian access, we strongly urge the UK to keep up this pressure. Specifically, the UK government should monitor and systematically denounce arbitrary denials of access and obtain specific guarantees of unhindered humanitarian access to affected populations, including through all feasible cross-border and cross-line routes.

As the situation continues to deteriorate in Sudan, there is no time to waste for global leaders to end the silence surrounding this crisis and the risk of widespread famine and prevent some of the worst outcomes for millions of people.

Read more here in Mercy Corps’ latest policy brief: Sudan’s Hunger Catastrophe: Ending The Silence.

* Market functionality and the supply of key food and non-food items has been indicated by market assessments and data from IMPACT’s Joint Market Monitoring Initiative (JMMI), IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), and WFP’s food security analysis (VAM).

Mercy Corps in Sudan: Since 2004, Mercy Corps has worked in Sudan to support hundreds of thousands of vulnerable communities, displaced households, and refugees from nearby countries. Mercy Corps is delivering assistance in 7 of Sudan’s 18 states – in 2023, we reached 70,000 individuals with assistance.