After South Sudan sharply raised fees for foreign workers at the beginning of the month, the UN stepped in to plead for an exemption for aid workers. The East African country is facing a devastating famine and one-third of the population depends on foreign aid for basic nourishment. Burdened with such fees, some aid organizations may not be able to continue operations.
"I've never heard of such a drastic increase," Elizabeth Deng, Amnesty International's South Sudan researcher, told DW. "The fee is clearly exorbitant, and it could violate the government's obligation to work with aid groups."
A 'right' to hike fees?
The South Sudan Ministry of Labor, which proposed the hike, has argued that it is not unusual. "Any country in the world has a right to impose work permits on foreigners," said government spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny in a statement. "If you can't pay $10,000, then you hire a local person instead."
The ministry has raised "casual worker" visa fees from $100 (93 euros) to $1,000; "blue collar" visa fees from $150 to $2,000; and "professional" visa fees from $300 to $10,000.
Fee unusually high
Work permit fees are certainly a global norm. But rates around the world rarely top $1,000. In Europe, temporary work visas range from 60 euros ($65) in Germany to 230 euros in Great Britain. In the US, a temporary work permit comes with a $190 fee, comparable to the fee in China.
Many South Sudanese depend on foreign aid for survival
In some African countries where foreign aid makes up a large part of the economy, the price of a work permit can be higher. Employees of NGOs can expect to pay $1,500 for a work permit in Uganda.
Kenya is one of the most popular destinations for foreign aid workers in Africa, and it is also one of the most expensive. Employees of NGOs who are not Kenyan citizens must acquire the most expensive class of work permit, which costs $1,900 per year.
Aid groups under pressure
Kenya has put other forms of pressure on foreign aid workers to leave the country. In June 2016, Kenya's NGOs Board, a government body, issued a memorandum that claimed there was "a growing trend of career expatriates who have made a habit out of hopping from one organization to another in exploitation of [Kenya's regulations]." It declared that it would not issue work permits to foreign NGOs unless they could prove that the job would eventually be turned over to a Kenyan.
Dr. Ishbel McWha-Hermann, a professor at the University of Edinburgh who studies fairness within the international aid sector, cautioned against comparing the situation in Kenya or Uganda with that of South Sudan.
McWha-Hermann's research showed that in Uganda, like in Kenya, the pool of skilled aid workers is competing with expatriate aid workers for jobs and wages and is losing out. The result is a "dual-salary system" where expatriate aid workers earn on average twice as much as their native colleagues.
"In the long term, it undermines the work of providing aid to the country," she said.
A different case
South Sudan is in a very different situation from Kenya. Embroiled in a civil war and a deteriorating famine  situation, the East African country is more dependent on foreign aid than its southern neighbor.
"Putting pressure on NGOs to hire more local workers is not a bad thing in general," said McWha-Hermann. "But in an emergency situation, you don't want too much bureaucracy to get in the way of helping those who desperately need it."
For Elizabeth Deng of Amnesty, South Sudan's latest move was motivated by a number of reasons not at play in Kenya. The fee hike, as the Ministry of Labor admitted, is meant to fill a budget deficit at the expense of foreign companies. Deng notes that the fee hike applies to the private sector as well, and, with the recent loss of oil revenue in South Sudan, the government is looking toward taxation as a source of revenue.
Deng also suspects that the South Sudanese government is "reluctant to have observers document what's going on" in the country, and impeding the work of NGOs would slow the flow of information. South Sudan cabinet minister Martin Lomuro recently told the AP that he believed "most of the [humanitarian] agencies are here to spy on the government."
Deng says that South Sudan is a "hostile environment for aid workers in general" with instances of government soldiers looting humanitarian goods and arresting NGO employees.
"The fees are part of a general failure to respect humanitarian workers," said Deng.
Hoping for compromise
The increase in permit fees took effect this month, but fees are not due to be paid until the end of the month. Several NGOs have declined to speak with the media, leaving room for the government to backtrack on its plan. The UN is in talks with South Sudan to have aid workers exempt from the fee hike and is awaiting a response.
Deng is hopeful that no aid worker will see the fee increase cut so deep into their paycheck. "Reasonable minds may prevail," she said.
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