|25 Oct 2020
|Written by Arwa Khogali
|South Sudan | Sudan
|Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives: Covid-19
When the Covid-19 crisis struck Sudan it presented another challenge to be immediately addressed. The transitional government has been working to respond to this health emergency and applied social distancing, lockdowns, disinfection of public places and other health measures to help prevent the spread of the virus. Interestingly, Sudan democratic transition was manifested during the Covid-19 response; it assumed its responsibility to protect the needy and vulnerable and mainstreamed the principles of accountability in the implemented activities. The Covid-19 crisis presented an opportunity for initiating a new contract between Sudanese people and their government and laid the foundation for establishing a coherent social protection system in Sudan.
Since the formation of the transitional government in September 2019, it has faced a number of challenges. The foremost was the economic crisis, which started after the secession of South Sudan in 2011 and was exacerbated by short-sighted economic planning and corruption. The transitional government was on its 7th month when the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed on the 13th of March 2020. To date, a total of 13,691 cases have been confirmed in the country, including 836 deaths.
Sudan declared a state of health emergency on the 16th of March and a total lockdown of Khartoum State was applied on the 13th of April 2020. Social distancing was applied, and public gathering was suspended. The Ministry of Health, as well as national and international actors, responded to the health emergency with all possible measures to prevent the spread of the disease and to treat and cater for those affected by the pandemic. Other important efforts were those implemented by the Ministry of Labour and Social Development in coordination with UN agencies, donors, non-governmental organizations and civil society to try to address the socioeconomic impact of the crisis.
A number of activities were implemented to alleviate the consequence of the health preventive measures on the most needy and vulnerable. A considerable percentage of the provided support was directly supported by the public funding allocated by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning. Though, what was interesting to see, is how the democratic transition affected the way the government designed and implemented the response.
The current Covid-19 response laid the foundation for a new social contract between the Sudanese people and their government. The government took the lead role in protecting the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable groups affected by the pandemic and the applied health preventive measures. Support to vulnerable and informal workers and the efforts to unify children studying in boarding schools with their families are some examples.
The lockdown and closing of public places, including markets, affected many families. The government planned to support two groups; the vulnerable households living in the peripheries of Khartoum State and secondly the informal workers and daily wage labourers across the country. To date, more than 700 thousand families were supported throughout Sudan. Beneficiaries were supported with food baskets and cash through bank prepaid cards. The food baskets distributed in the outskirts of Khartoum targeted all resident regardless of their nationality or legal status. Refugees and Illegal Immigrants have equally benefited from this support. For refugees, more than 34,000 households have benefited from the in-kind support. The cash was only provided to informal workers in Khartoum and other states, to date, more than 200 thousand households have benefited from this support.
As Sudan lacks a Social Register, designing support at that scales and during the lockdown presented a real challenge. The government had to work with unconventional partners to get this task done. As the lockdown was already implemented; the government worked with community-based committees to ensure access to all locations. In peripheries where access to market and banking facilities was not possible due to the lockdown, the distribution was conducted door to door and all households received food baskets. More than 500,000 food baskets were distributed to families.
In accessible locations, registration was made with National Identification Numbers and only those working in the informal sector were targeted. As formal sector employees could still benefit from their monthly salaries. Targeted beneficiaries in those locations were supported with bank prepaid cards. The community committees were responsible for identification and registration of the informal sector workers in their neighbourhood. This enabled the government to conduct registration and identification of beneficiaries during the lockdown.
For cash payment, the government introduced an electronic payment system that was used to verify registered households to ensure each individual family receives the support. The system was also used for enrolling beneficiaries and topping up their bank accounts. The data collected during the Covid-19 emergency will be the basis for establishing the Sudan Social Register. All informal workers registered in the system are registered with their national ID numbers and some with a contact number. The next step is for the government to conduct profiling of all registered households, to identify the poor and extremely poor within this group. This will allow the government to expand social protection services to informal workers.
The lockdown necessitated closing all educational facilities, a special group was affected by this measure. Children studying in traditional Boarding Schools (known as Khalwa in Arabic). Children are sent by their parents to study Quran and learn basic literacy and numeracy skills in these schools. They normally stay for some weeks before returning home. Most of these children come from remote villages. The government acted swiftly to ensure all children had returned safely to their villages. The National Council for Child Welfare worked in partnership with the Child Protection Working Group. This working group bring together all government and nongovernmental organizations supporting children. The Working Group helped in securing resources and identifying the locations of these children.
The family reunification project was a large-scale project. Trips were accompanied by social workers and ensured siblings were transported together. More than 10,000 children benefited from this support and were safely reunited with their families. Implementing this activity helped the government collect information on the numbers and locations of these educational facilities. These schools are highly informal and such data was not available in the past. Having this data will enable the government to better support these facilities in the future and ensure quality in term of education and child protection and welfare.
One of the main issues with the Sudan government system was absence of transparency and accountability measures. The democratic transition presented a new reality, the government had to be accountable to its citizen and to all stakeholders including donors, UN agencies, national and international nongovernmental actors, and above all to the general public. During the Covid-19 response, data was collected, regular reports were produced and transparent exchange of information with stakeholders was introduced.
For the cash and in-kind distribution, a complaints and feedback function was introduced to receive complaints and queries from community committees and beneficiaries on the support. Queries on received food items and issues with received cash cards were reported to this line. This system was used to improve the support, give the beneficiaries the opportunity to directly raise their issues. It improved the accountability system in general and gave the recipient more trust and placed more credibility in the system. Having a feedback mechanism is one of the key functions, however, this was only introduced by the government during the Covid-19 response.
Another breakthrough, which might also seem very typical for most countries, was establishing a gender-based violence (GBV) hotline, dedicated to receiving and responding to cases of GBV reported during the lockdown period. This line was used to report and respond to any reported case of GBV.
For the cash distribution, an electronic system was introduced for verifying the registered households. All registered households were verified with the Ministry of Interior, who manages the National Civil Register. The verification was made to ensure the registered ID numbers and associated information were correct. The cash distribution was only distributed to informal workers, all those with access to salaries were not targeted with the cash support.
Once households are verified, they were enrolled into the system and cards were issued to them accordingly. All issued cards were linked to the registered National ID Number and to a phone number where available. Cards were distributed to beneficiaries through the Community Committees. The beneficiaries were then activating their numbers and once activation is completed, the cash was deposited to the activated cards.
Currently, a considerable number of households are registered in the system. The government is planning to verify all registered households. A list of 29 socio-economic indicators will be collected for these registered households, and they will accordingly be profiled according to their poverty status. Those identified as extremely poor will be targeted through social safety net projects. The remaining registered households will still be kept in the system, to enable the government to timely respond to any future crisis. This category will also be targeted through government long term plans aiming to expand social protection services to informal workers, mainly Health Insurance and Social Insurance.
The Covid-19 response faced many challenges. One of the shortcomings was focusing on Khartoum State at the expense of other states. While most of the direct beneficiaries resided in Khartoum State where the total lockdown was implemented, many other people outside Khartoum state were directly affected by the health preventive measure and have not received direct support.
The transitional government was newly formulated, thus it's experience in term of managing and coordinating activities was very limited. Coordinating an activity at the scale of Covid-19 response required extensive experience and having good systems in place, both were yet to be established due to the short period the executive body was in power. The government had to learn while implementing, plan and adapt their plans while executing. The in-kind distribution faced many difficulties during implementation. The activity took much longer than expected and planning the support was susceptible to many changes. It started as a centralised activity to support the whole State of Khartoum (A total of 7 localities; inhibited by more than 8 million people). Later the activity was decentralised to locality administration to speed up the distribution process. Thus, the distribution at each locality was very much dependent on the location and competency of involved staff.
Working with community committees for the cash distribution was a double-edged sword. It allowed response to continue during the lockdown, but also made the government dependant on those committees and their ability to collect needed information. Not all committees had access to same resources and had the same level of experience. Another problem was the connection between the individual committee and their coordination bodies, some committees were well connected to the central bodies and others were not even aware of its existence. As the government was directly disseminating information through the committees' coordination bodies. This made it difficult to reach all committees and accordingly some of the targeted population.
Using the National ID Number presented another challenge, while a considerable number of Sudanese are included in the National Civil Register, its estimated that 25% are not registered in the system. Thus, all eligible households, who have not been registered were by default excluded from this support.
The Covid-19 pandemic was a crisis like no other, it presented many challenges to many countries, and was especially challenging for Sudan due to the economic hardship. However, the democratic political transition enabled the government to respond differently to the crisis and find opportunities for reforming the social protection system and for establishing a new social contract with its citizen.
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