How ‘nafeer’ can help Sudan out of its coronavirus crisis

The Sudanese tradition of social mobilisation can also help the government build a new and inclusive governance model.

Sudan health minister Reuters
Sudan's Minister of Health Akram Ali Altom speaks during an interview amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19, in Khartoum, Sudan [Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters]

In many countries around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has not only introduced new problems and dilemmas but also shone a light on existing fault lines, such as criminally below-par workers’ protections and fears of government overreach. Sudan, as a nation in transition facing multiple political, economic and social challenges, has also not been spared from the damaging consequences of this public health crisis, despite the initially relatively slow spread of the disease in the country.

COVID-19 struck Sudan at a particularly difficult time. The country is currently in the middle of a yet another fragile democratic transition and is facing acute economic woes. The new chimeric – part-civilian, part-military – transitional government, which was formed last year following the removal of President Omar al-Bashir’s regime, is increasingly exposed to internal divisions and pressures from the military. Meanwhile, Sudan’s cyclical history always threatens to repeat itself.

Public trust in the state is still low, and many believe the government has been slow to stamp out the vestiges of the old regime and overhaul its destructive public policies. Moreover, the designation of Sudan as a “State Sponsor of Terror” (SST) by the United States, for the former government’s hosting of Carlos the Jackal and Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s, means that 30 years later and under a new government, the country still has no way of accessing the global funds it desperately needs to restart its economy.

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated these existing problems and created new ones.

Before the pandemic, the country’s allies within the region and across the globe appeared willing to help it build the infrastructure it needs to prosper as an independent democracy led by a civilian government. Successive “Friends of Sudan” meetings signalled a significant cash injection to the state’s coffers, with the lion’s share of the money coming from the oil-rich nations of the Gulf.

However, as COVID-19 spread across the globe, devastated economies and brought oil prices to unprecedented lows, it became clear that Sudan would never receive this cash. The IMF and the World Bank released billions in funding for COVID-19 relief, but due to its designation as an SST, Sudan is currently not able to access its share of these funds either.

Responding to the pandemic through ‘nafeer’

Despite these obstacles and challenges, Sudan’s transitional government initially responded to the COVID-19 threat relatively efficiently.

Learning from the experiences of other countries further along in the pandemic’s trajectory, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s government swiftly closed airports and ports and set up quarantine centres for those coming from affected countries. It also started distributing food packages to vulnerable communities and put into motion the planned increase in public sector salaries.

These steps helped build the perception that Sudan finally has a functioning government working to help and protect the Sudanese people.

These efforts, however, proved insufficient to stop the virus from entering the country. As more and more people became infected, Sudan’s government eventually found itself unable to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the country’s already crumbling health system. The civilian component of the government, which has, for the most part, been leading the country’s pandemic response alone, struggled to obtain the necessary personal protection equipment (PPE), test kits and medical breathing devices that Sudanese health workers need to fight the virus.

To tackle these problems, Sudanese people chose to rely upon “nafeer” – a Sudanese social tradition that comes from an Arabic word meaning “a call to mobilise”.

In response to the lack of PPE, for example, volunteers formed the Be Safe initiative to raise funds to enable factories to produce protective clothing and face-guards for medical staff.

Acute shortages of medical breathing devices are also being tackled by local initiatives. Sudan currently has a few hundred ventilators for a population of 43 million. And due to the old regime’s centralised nature, most of these ventilators are in the capital, Khartoum. As a result of many countries restricting the exports of ventilators and breathing regulators, and an acute lack of funds, the Sudanese government is unable to source the devices it needs from abroad.

To tackle this problem, and save lives, a 12,000-strong volunteer initiative, led by engineers, is working to produce both Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machines and ventilators in Sudan. The goal of the initiative is to design breathing machines that can be easily assembled using domestically sourced or 3D-printed parts in hospitals and universities across the country.

Sudanese volunteers in the medical, aid and private sectors are also working in unison to tackle the shortage of testing kits. They are hoping to follow Senegal’s example and produce cheap and easy to use COVID-19 testing kits within Sudan.

At the community level, the government’s food distribution drive for vulnerable families is being run by voluntary neighbourhood resistance committees, created during last year’s revolution. The members of these resistance committees use the invaluable organisational and public service experience they gained during the revolution to make the food distribution initiative efficient and socially meaningful. Resistance committees in neglected urban areas had already been collecting contributions to provide street lighting and other municipal services.

The Sudanese diaspora has also engaged in nafeer by helping Sudan’s efforts to tackle the virus. Even before the spread of COVID-19, in April, Hamdok had launched the Stand for Sudan initiative calling on Sudanese people around the world to support the country’s economy.

Nafeer as a governance model

Nafeer, or crowdsourcing of funds and efforts, has always been a part of Sudanese life – a social safety net – and traditionally, it seeks to assist and complement, rather than replace, the government. But as nafeer activities usually offer solidarity where there are gaps in key government services, they were often met with government hostility in the past. In 2013, for example, the first mass-organised nafeer campaign that was initiated to respond to the devastating floods in the country was heavily monitored, and eventually clamped down on, by al-Bashir’s government.

The transitional government now needs to publicly embrace and support nafeer initiatives. The revolution that brought it to power itself was built upon grassroots solidarity initiatives, and it now needs to urgently recapture this momentum.

The government’s backing of and support for such community mobilisation efforts would help Sudan greatly increase the efficiency of its response to COVID-19 and strengthen its economy.

Sudanese factories are already working to produce PPE, engineers are racing against time to design ventilators, and the diaspora is sending the country thousands of dollars on a daily basis. Nevertheless, Sudan has not yet reached the peak of the pandemic, and the collaboration between the Sudanese people and the government needs to continue with increased pace to prevent COVID-19 from causing further devastation in the country.

It is important to recognise that the transitional government’s power lies not only in the 2018 revolution that brought it to power, but also in the continued support and work of resistance committees, service-providing initiatives, and capacity-mitigating volunteers.

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country increases, the impending global depression encourages even the most prosperous nations to cut their aid budgets, and other crises – from conflict, locust infestations to famine, to yet more annual flooding – loom on the horizon, the Sudanese government needs to fully embrace the nafeer ethos and prioritise it in its policies.

By recognising the importance and efficiency of nafeer mobilisation, identifying and linking up grassroots initiatives and encouraging the Sudanese people to play a direct role in their nation’s response to major crises, the transitional government can not only save thousands of lives but also lay the foundations of a new inclusive, efficient and long-lasting social governance model.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.