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South Sudan wants to kick out foreign aid workers, even as a devastating famine looms

A plane carrying nutrition supplements brought in by Doctors Without Borders lands in Leer, South Sudan, on July 15, 2014. (Andreea Campeanu/Reuters)

On Tuesday, South Sudanese authorities announced that they are planning to ban foreign workers by Oct. 15 — a move that could also affect foreigners employed by aid agencies. The report comes amid a rapidly deteriorating food security situation in the East African country, which has suffered through months of civil war.

In late July, the U.N. Security Council expressed "grave concern" about the situation and described it as "currently ... the worst [food insecurity situation] in the world." About 50,000 children could die, the United Nations warned, and more than one-third of South Sudan's population is dangerously threatened.

Despite being heavily dependent on foreign aid, the South Sudanese government made the surprising announcement that it would attempt to fill many jobs currently occupied by foreigners with "competent South Sudanese nationals," according to the Agence France-Presse news agency. Foreign aid agencies, hosting the world's largest humanitarian operation, would be strongly affected by the proposed rule.

Tensions between aid agencies and the South Sudanese government have risen for months. Matthew Herrick, a spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development, told The Post in August that the government of South Sudan and the opposition had utterly failed and put millions of people on the brink of famine. Only their commitment to true peace, reconciliation and accountability will end this crisis and give donors access to the affected conflict areas, Herrick said.

Marc Gross, a spokesman for Germany's Welthungerhilfe, among Europe's largest nongovernmental aid agencies, expressed equally grave concern about the South Sudanese plan. "There is no time to debate this question right now. Our employees will continue to deliver aid, no matter which threats are made against us," Gross told The Post on Tuesday. He said his organization and others had faced similar intimidation in a variety of countries before. "However, the severity of the South Sudanese plan has reached a new, previously unknown level," he said.

If the South Sudanese government follows through on the announced ban on foreign workers, it would make it much more difficult to operate in the country in general, let alone the conflict zones where Western aid is needed most.

NGOs usually employ considerable numbers of locals, but foreigners manage the operations. According to the BBC, the governmental order is thought to affect lots of these management positions, as well.

"If this order were to come into effect, it would massively disrupt aid programs across the country," Tariq Riebl, Oxfam's director in South Sudan, told AFP. With about 75 percent of the South Sudanese being unable to read and write, there are doubts about whether locals could replace the foreigners working in the country.

From June to August, at least 400,000 South Sudanese were displaced because of violence and a looming hunger catastrophe. Of that number, 90,000 sought refuge abroad.