If you want to see the face of Africa’s newest nation, visit the riverbank by the port of Juba, soon to be the capital city of South Sudan. This is the disembarkation point for tens of thousands of people who fled a war and are now returning home. They come up the Nile in overcrowded barges from Khartoum, where they have been living in makeshift camps. Most arrive with pitifully few possessions. But you can feel the hope in the air.
“This is our country, our home,” says Helen Gudulo, a 23-year-old mother of three waiting to return to her village in Western Equatoria state. “The camps were a prison. We lived in fear. Now we have hope. My dream is peace, a better future and education for my children.”
Next week, six years after a peace accord that ended two decades of war, the predominantly African and Christian people of southern Sudan will secede from the Arab-dominated north. Independence is an opportunity to break a deadly cycle of violence and poverty. One in three of South Sudan’s children are severely malnourished. Maternal mortality rates are the highest in the world. More than half of primary school age children are not in school. With a population roughly the size of London, the new country has less than 400 girls in the last grade of secondary school. In fact, young girls are more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than achieve literacy.
The new country needs peace and development. There are real and imminent threats on both fronts. Unfortunately, the international community’s response has been spectacularly ineffective.
Prospects for peace are diminishing by the day. Having displaced thousands of Dinka people from the disputed border region around Abyei, Sudanese armed forces and allied militia have now embarked on ethnic cleansing in South Kordofan state. The same pattern of murderous attacks on civilians that claimed more than 2 million lives in the civil war and earned President Omar al-Bashir an international criminal court indictment for genocide are now being deployed against Nuba people.
These are worrying precedents. Even with southern secession there are fault lines running across northern Sudan, with non-Arab people in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile state demanding greater autonomy. Failure to find political solutions will lock north and south into an endless series of destabilising cross-border conflicts.
Bashir is under limited pressure to negotiate. Hopelessly under-resourced UN peacekeepers monitor his force’s attacks on civilians, but are powerless to provide protection. Appeals and warnings from western governments are ignored. Beijing has political leverage in Khartoum but says nothing. The UN security council twiddles its thumbs.
It is time to replace carrots with sticks. Talks with Khartoum on debt relief and the normalisation of relations with the IMF should be suspended with immediate effect. China needs to remember that it has oil interests in both countries and join with the US in pressing for a demilitarised border. The security council should signal that attacks on civilians will be met with a more robust response.
Not all of the threats facing South Sudan are external. The enemy within is poverty and violent power struggles between ethnic groups over land and water. The new government needs to cut across social divides and deliver basic services to all its citizens. Financial constraints and limited capacity mean that aid has a vital role to play.
The record so far has been patchy. Donors initially pooled their resources through a fund managed by the World Bank, to disastrous effect. Ludicrously stringent conditions for disbursement meant that little was spent for years. Money that could have been used to save lives and put children in classrooms was left locked in bank accounts in Washington DC.Other donors have been more innovative. For example, part of the UK’s aid has been channelled through Save the Children, which has built schools and trained teachers in some of the most remote parts of the country.
Wider aid effectiveness is hampered by some familiar failings. There is no coherent donor plan for supporting recovery. Instead there is a hotchpotch of projects administered by individual aid agencies. Donor co-ordination is weak. Financing is short term and unpredictable. Leadership is lacking. Contrast this with countries such as Mozambique, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, where key aid donors backed peace agreements with the long-term, predictable financing needed to support reconstruction.
South Sudan’s people have a right to expect something better. Their future is in the balance. They need donors to start delivering now – and to support their efforts over the long haul.
Kevin Watkins, senior research fellow at Oxford University’s global governance programme.