Hunger and Human Dignity

The politics of hunger courts in South Sudan

Hosted by LSE’s Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa

LSE Principal Investigator: Naomi Pendle
Co-investigator: Jok Madut Jok
Researcher: Abraham Diing Akoi
Researcher: Awien Mou
Researcher: Ngot Mou
Researcher: Julia Luka Joseph 

This project will support policymakers and practitioners to respond to famine in South Sudan and beyond.

Dr Naomi Pendle



Hundreds of millions of people remain chronically hungry and famines persist worldwide. Extreme hunger does not only threaten life, but it can also remove human dignity from the living and the dead. Vibrant ethnographic work has shown how people living through hunger support each other. However, almost no attention has been paid to the use of legal norms and institutions in times of extreme hunger.  Scholarship and policy, therefore, has ignored the potential for legal norms to shape the relationship between hunger, social responsibility and dignity.

This research explores these questions through a study of South Sudanese hunger courts – chiefs’ courts that redistribute food to the hungriest people. Using historical, ethnographic and quantitative methods across four sites in South Sudan, our dominantly South Sudanese team will explore the socio-legal construction of norms of welfare and dignity, as well as social hierarchies and inequities. 



Naomi Pendle

Dr Naomi Pendle focuses on public authority, extreme hunger, patterns of violence and local governance in South Sudan. Naomi has conducted ethnographic research in South Sudan since 2009.



Abraham Diing Akoi

Abraham Diing Akoi began his formal education in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya before graduating with an LSE Masters in Development Studies. He remains part of the PfAL network.

Research interests: return and displacement, public authority


Ngot Mou

Ngot is an experienced qualitative researcher who has worked on a range of studies on the histories and logics of public authority in South Sudan. He also has experience in oil field environmental remediations and has previously worked in the NGO sector in South Sudan.



Aims and objectives

This research project will: 

1. Produce rigorous and interdisciplinary research to enhance our understanding of human dignity during crises, paying attention to the role played by courts in governing hunger and human dignity.

Notions of human dignity are part of normative and cosmological frameworks that are remade, contested and naturalised over time. Humanitarians, academics and policymakers have failed to give attention to the way that laws, courts and other legal mechanisms shape these social and cosmological norms even during a crisis, and the role that local courts can have in protecting or undermining human welfare and dignity. Plus, extreme hunger is almost always a result of armed conflicts and political decisions. Yet, families of the hungry are often held responsible. It is unclear how socio-legal norms shape the attributing of accountability and shame for hunger. Our research will draw understandings of these dynamics from ordinary people and from daily experiences of courts in South Sudan.

2. Produce research that sheds light on how people survived the 2017 famines.

In 2017, the UN declared famines in four countries including South Sudan. While this has been well covered in media reporting and high-level policy discussions, there is a vacuum of ethnographic work that helps us understand the lived and everyday experiences of this famine and the way that hunger was governed at this time. While we know that people died, we have a lack of understanding about how people managed to survive, and if and how they were able to preserve human dignity.

3. Support policy makers and practitioners to respond in South Sudan and beyond.

South Sudan was the first place where famine was declared in 2017 and still, in 2021, South Sudanese are again facing severe, and in some places famine-level, hunger. 1.8 million people are severely food insecure, with as many as 11,000 people at famine-levels now and 31,000 people projected to be at famine-levels of food insecurity from April 2021. Areas of particular concern include clusters of people in Tonj North County (Warrap State), Pibor County (Pibor Administrative Area), Aweil South (Northern Bahr el Ghazal) and Akobo County (Jonglei State). A focus on influencing humanitarian policy and practice is embedded in this project from the outset, and outputs will include policy briefings and memos to ensure the timely dissemination of information.

4. Promote collaborative scholarship.

A significant aim of this project is to ensure that outputs are collaboratively authored, and that all researchers participate in the design, implementation and analysis of the project outcomes. This will not only help the quality of the analysis and outcomes but will also build on ongoing support through the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa and CPAID, through the Safety of Strangers project, to support to early career South Sudanese scholars.

Findings and reports


A central part of the project will be a series of collaborative ethnographies across four sites in South Sudan, including Warrap State, Unity State and Jonglei State. These ethnographic observations will take place during the hungriest months of the year in 2021 and 2022. Drawing on established methods in legal anthropology, court cases will be observed and the parties of the cases, as well as the chiefs, will be interviewed about the cases. Efforts will be made to ensure the speedy communication of court findings to humanitarians in Juba when this information might be useful for their analysis and planning of humanitarian assistance.

The research will also include archival research and the collection of oral histories to explore how law has been used to govern hunger and dignity since the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium government in the early 20th century. The research will focus on authorities’ anxieties as well as powers. The South Sudan National Archive includes various files relating to famine and piles of untranslated, uncatalogued court books in Dinka from the 1950s that include cases related to hunger. We will access and translate relevant files.

The research team also has access to the data from four of the nationwide surveys conducted by the World Food Programme that included questions about courts and hunger. Data analysts will interrogate these sources.



The Bridge Network is a non-governmental research based organisation founded and run by young South Sudanese early career researchers, comprising different ethnic and social backgrounds from South Sudan's three regions.


British Academy

The research project is funded by the British Academy as part of its research for the Global Challenges Research Fund.  However, the views expressed and information contained in it is not necessarily those of or endorsed by the British Academy.



Photo: United Nations volunteers in Bentiu, South Sudan have donated a variety of food and non-food items to patients, prison inmates and students in Bentiu on December 5, 2018. UN Photo: Isaac Billy