Taking the long-view on South Sudan's crisis

Thursday, 28 July 2016 12:15 GMT

South Sudanese women and children queue to receive emergency food at the United Nations protection of civilians (POC) site 3 hosting about 30,000 people displaced during the recent fighting in Juba, South Sudan July 25, 2016. REUTERS/Adriane Ohanesian

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The most recent outbreak of heavy fighting in the South Sudanese capital of Juba has intensified the humanitarian crisis already facing the world’s newest state. It has struck a potentially lethal blow to the peace deal signed in August 2015, displaced over 40,000 people and led to yet more loss of life.

This latest clash between the two main warring factions, who were supposed to be the twin pillars of a transitional unity government, has triggered new debates on whether the shaky peace can be salvaged. Yet even before the events in Juba, significant new violence was spreading to other parts of South Sudan, as the effects of a civil war that was never really resolved slowly crept across the country. Wau and Raja, in the north-west, and Equatoria, the southern third of South Sudan’s territory, all saw serious fighting.

One irrefutable conclusion is that the resolution of South Sudan’s crisis will be a long and slow process. Large-scale humanitarian aid will continue to be required - the humanitarian programming needs for 2016 total over $1.3. BN, less than half of which has been funded to date - to support millions of displaced citizens, many of whom will have lost the means to meet even their basic needs. Policymakers should take a long-term lens on humanitarian programming options, deploying lifesaving support in way that can also contribute to peace building, economic development and longer-term stability in South Sudan.

The immediate debate following the Juba fighting has been disproportionately focused on short-term military options, with international attention focused on the deployment of a new regional intervention force. In part this has been a response to consistent attacks on civilians and recent targeting of the UN operations, but it is an approach that on its own is unlikely to meaningfully advance peace in the country. There has also been a steady call from the UN, African Union and the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) for increased humanitarian assistance and unhampered humanitarian access.

Earlier this year we carried out research across South Sudan’s conflict affected areas on behalf of the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), exploring just this scenario: if South Sudan’s crisis were to become a protracted conflict that stretched over years, how should donor governments adapt their short-term crisis funding to maximize impact? Our findings and recommendations fall into four main categories, and are worth considering as South Sudanese, regional and international actors debate the way forward.

First, programming should be localized where possible, with a greater international donor presence outside of Juba. Programming also needs to be responsive to local experiences of conflict: some local communities were overwhelmed by ethnic tensions; others managed to work round the conflict and maintain inter-communal peace and exchange. Programs need to make the most of the pockets of peace, and the most damaged communities need to adapt their own lessons from less damaged ones.

This has many challenges. Infrastructure for handling relief aid is weak, and the huge amount of money spent on dropping food from planes is a mark of the difficulty of working areas outside the main towns Often, local programming means circumventing government authority, or working with a different set of actors in opposition held areas. With each new outbreak of violence, government in South Sudan shrinks to fit itself within the military patronage system that consumes most of its resources. Donors have an understandable reluctance to keep this system going, but circumventing government altogether is also complicated as humanitarian workers then have to coordinate with authority shifting between little-understood military actors.

Second, programming should aim to support local livelihoods, local markets and income generation capacity. We heard consistent requests from displaced populations for basic tools that would enable self-sufficiency and income generation, such as fishing nets, or tools for planting crops. This can complement the outright food aid programs that we saw most frequently, which will be hard for donors to sustain for years to come.

South Sudan is facing economic collapse and this is severely undermining the purchasing power of ordinary citizens and weakening the coping mechanisms of border communities that rely on trade with Uganda, Sudan or Ethiopia. The last years of conflict have created a chaotic economic system where many people depend on a mix of food production, food purchase, and looting or other forms of violence, given the limited opportunities for employment. Yet people are also remarkably resilient and resourceful and aid efforts should aim to help them maintain their capacities for improvisation, support the growth of local production, and promote peaceful exchange and economic interdependence between communities.

Third, it is important to support communication networks for displaced citizens so they can make their own informed decisions about their future, about where it is safe to be and whether and when to move. During our research, people outside of Juba had little information about the peace process and were reliant on inconsistent access to radio programming or on phone calls to relatives. Rumours spread quickly in the absence of trusted information, and can easily contribute to the spread of violence. Ongoing government crackdowns on media and independent reporting have made South Sudan one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, but significant mobile phone penetration offers options for information distribution, such as sms-accessible tools that would allow citizens to access security status updates from across the country.

Finally, a longer-term lens allows for an investment in building infrastructure and capacity. For example, donors should support solar energy systems for humanitarian programs currently dependent on expensive and hard to supply diesel to power generators. Given the very high cost of fuel across South Sudan, solar power would pay for itself within a few years, while creating clean energy infrastructure with a 20+ year lifespan that can support future reconstruction efforts. In a country with almost no electricity generation, this shift will be cost-effective in the near-term and build assets for the future.

Civil war and economic crisis have now left roughly half of the population in need of external food aid. Political attention will rightfully remain on trying to salvage the peace agreement, but as governments respond to the ongoing humanitarian crisis they should also think how to strengthen the building blocks for future peace.

Chris Johnson, Dr. Eddie Thomas, Naana Marekia and David Mozersky have collectively been involved in South Sudan for over 40 years, working on issues of peace building and conflict resolution, humanitarian assistance, human rights and development. The researchers traveled to South Sudan on behalf of the UK’s DFID


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