On the frontline in Sudan's South and East Darfur
Going the distance to continue advocating for child rights, no matter where they are
Antony Spalton, UNICEF Sudan’s Chief of Field Office (CFO) for South and East Darfur, continues to be driven by the vision of a better future for all children – no matter the challenges or emergencies.
It was the rich culture, diversity of people and geography, and the critical needs on the ground that first attracted Antony to move to Sudan. Before that, he had worked for over 30 years for UNICEF, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs, taking him around the world to reach some of the most isolated children.
As a CFO in Sudan, Antony juggles many responsibilities. Fortunately, he leads a devoted and hard-working team who stop at nothing to ensure the most vulnerable children and families have access to their basic rights. This includes responding to disease outbreaks including COVID-19, strengthening child protection systems for the more than 500,000 internally displaced people and working to get children, especially girls, to attend and remain in school. With a recent peace deal agreed for much of Sudan, the team is also supporting the role of women and young people in peacebuilding.
While far away from his family and dealing with the stress that can come with the job, Antony makes sure to take care of his mental health and wellbeing. During the weekends, some of his favourite pass-times include having tea or coffee with his colleagues or local people, jogging or hiking, as well as reading.
We spoke to Antony about how he has always been an activist and advocate for justice from a young age. Here is more of his fascinating journey.
What attracted you to the field of humanitarian work?
Growing up engaged in the activism of the 1980’s such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, as well as watching images of war and famine on television, I guess I was questioning the injustice of it all. It’s perhaps because of this that I see myself as part humanitarian and part development worker. Yes, we must meet urgent humanitarian needs such as disease outbreaks, but we must also support development - teacher training for example. Moreover, it’s now more important than ever to tackle some of the underlying drivers of crisis including climate change.
What made you want to work in Sudan specifically?
I have just completed one year in Sudan. Before that I hadn’t visited Sudan. I did, however, have many Sudanese friends. While I was drawn to Sudan by the considerable needs of the people, the rich culture as well as the diversity of the people and geography, also attracted me. Moreover, I knew something about Sudanese hospitality; some of my best times are having sweet tea and coffee under the shade of a tree.
Describe your experience as Chief Field Office, South and East Darfur.
I am fortunate to lead a great team most of whom are Sudanese. Not only are they technical experts in their respective fields but they have an intimate knowledge of Darfur and of the challenges that women and children face. Many of the team have worked with UNICEF either in Darfur or other regions of Sudan, for more than 15 years. As CFO, however, I do want to see a greater representation of women in the team!
Our work in South and East Darfur is to support the government, local authorities, civil society and communities, to uphold and realise the rights of all girls and boys. This means we strive to work with the most vulnerable people in all Localities, including refugees from Central African Republic (CAR), street children in Nyala or internally displaced people deep in South and East Jebel Marra.
In 2019 for example, UNICEF worked with its partners in South Darfur whereby 68 communities were declared as Open Defecation Free (ODF). This means an additional 835,429 people are now accessing sanitation facilities. Similarly, we can be proud of our work in East Darfur where 25,232 girls and boys were reached with education materials and 9,655 vulnerable and traumatized children received psychosocial support.
What are some of the challenges?
Inevitably we face challenges in our work. The rainy season, for example, while needed to replenish water sources and support agricultural production, can, as we have seen in 2020 especially in the East of Sudan, spell devastating floods for many. In the worst case this may mean loss of life or damage to homes, but it can also lead to a lack of access to health and nutrition supplies.
Young people are clearly affected by a myriad of issues. My priorities are threefold: how can we help the government and people themselves to capitalize on the peace process and to tackle underlying issues that, unless addressed, could threaten that peace; second, how to better sustain the precious gains for girls and boys that have been made, and third: how to continue to reach all girls and boys no matter where they are.
Describe the memories and achievements that have stuck most in your mind
I have worked for over 30 years in humanitarian and development work. Whether in mountainous northern Afghanistan, the jungles of eastern Cambodia or indeed here in the west of Sudan, reaching the most isolated, and often the most at-risk girls and boys, is the most satisfying part of my job.
Most recently, the UNICEF team and I were able to reach – travelling by camel and donkey over three days – remote villages in South Jebel Marra. These areas have not been accessed by humanitarian and development agencies for at least 10 years. Such missions, while at times physically demanding are also deeply rewarding both in terms of the initial help we can bring and the warm reception we receive from the people themselves. Importantly, such missions demonstrate a willingness of government and opposition groups to put aside their differences to meet humanitarian needs. This I believe bodes well in terms of delivering on the recent peace deal.
How do you maintain your mental health and wellbeing?
The health and well-being of UNICEF staff is important not only to do the jobs we do, but for our own families and communities. Being far from my family in Canada isn’t easy but the internet has made communication vastly easier since I embarked on this work many years ago! To ensure I too take a break from work, I jog and read a lot. My weekend routine also sometimes includes tea or coffee in the Souk (often with stall holders and other generous people). I also discipline myself to learn several words of Arabic each day.
How would you ‘reimagine’ a better Sudan for children and young people?
I recently met a 16-year old boy called Makhtoum. He lives with his family in a camp for the internally displaced. Like many boys and girls, he has aspirations for himself and a vision for the future of Sudan. As a high achiever at school, he is determined to study medicine at university – and I believe it’s quite likely that he will – and to use his skills for the benefit of the people of Sudan.
Makhtoum is certainly not alone in imagining a country where girls and boys increasingly enjoy all their rights. This means not only attending school and possibly university but living in a country where gender-based violence is a thing of past, and clean water is readily available. Additionally, a place where, one day in the near future, and thanks to the likes of Makhtoum, quality health services are accessible to all!