Despite corrupt regime, cutting off aid to South Sudan isn't the right move

A displacement camp in Leer in northern South Sudan. Photo by: Eric Kanalstein / UNMISS / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — Cutting off United States aid to South Sudan would not have the intended effect of punishing the government and instead would create further hardship for civilians in the civil war-torn country, humanitarians say.

The Trump administration said last week it was undertaking a review of all U.S. assistance to South Sudan to ensure it “does not contribute to or prolong the conflict, or facilitate predatory or corrupt behavior.”

But suspending assistance won’t affect funds available to the government because they are distributed through the United Nations and other international NGOs, said International Rescue Committee South Sudan country director Martin Omukuba.

“There is no direct money that is going to the government for any development projects as far as I’m concerned,” said Omukuba.

“The U.S. is one of the biggest humanitarian aid [donors] in South Sudan and we feel that if they are going to pull out their aid — or threaten to pull out their aid — then this puts more than half of the population into a very precarious position in terms of being able to access basic services.”

And even if the leaders, who are personally profiting from the country’s coffers, were also pilfering aid funding, aid organizations say civilians should not be punished for government corruption and lack of will for peace.

“From the standpoint of humanitarian human rights, I don’t see why a donor would cut aid to a country that is massively underdeveloped and in dire need,” Omukuba said.

“It would be unfair for the aid to be cut to be used as the only tool that would bring peace in South Sudan.”

Multiple peace treaties between factions supporting President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Reik Machar have failed to quell the fighting, and international locutors, led by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development, have become frustrated by the two leaders’ inability to stick to ceasefire agreements.

“The government of South Sudan has lost credibility, and the United States is losing patience,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement last week.

“The people of South Sudan deserve a government that is able and willing to lead the country to a stable future.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment asking for more details about what types of assistance are being evaluated and what impact of stopping humanitarian aid would have on the civilian population.

South Sudan became an independent country in 2011, with the U.S. playing a key role in negotiating a peace agreement to allow it to separate from Sudan.

Peace in the new nation was short lived. In 2013, forces backing Kiir and then-Vice President Riek Machar descended into a bloody civil war that has killed an estimated 300,000 people and displaced more than 2 million.

Although the U.S. remains the country’s largest donor, spending more than $990 million in fiscal year 2017-2018, U.S. relations with Kiir began to fray under former President Barack Obama. They are now a far cry from the close relationship the South Sudanese president had with former President George W. Bush, whose administration helped negotiate the peace deal separating South Sudan from its northern neighbor.

Cameron Hudson, who served as the director of African affairs on the U.S. National Security Council during that time, said he interpreted the White House rhetoric as more of a political statement rather than a real threat to cut back assistance. He said he doubts the White House would actually cut off humanitarian aid funding.

“It’s appropriate to acknowledge that as much as South Sudan may remain in the U.S. orbit of responsibility, the fundamental nature of the relationship has changed,” said Hudson, who also served as chief of staff to the president’s special envoy to Sudan as it separated from South Sudan.

“I would argue as somebody who was involved in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement — that the nature of the South Sudanese regime changed when that agreement was signed,” Hudson continued.

“That was the start of the change. Because when that peace agreement was signed, it required a rebel army to essentially begin to act and look like a civilian government, and that was never a wholly successful enterprise.”

Despite South Sudan’s oil wealth, the government provides virtually no services to its population.

“In essence, what we have is a government that is technocratic and a government that is engaged in massive, grand-scale corruption and it has ceased all institutions of governance and accountability,” Omukuba said.

“They treat the government as an ATM. Therefore there’s no money actually earmarked for anything called development, there’s no money for health. The only tangible government spending that is visible is in the military or security sector.”

“From the standpoint of humanitarian human rights, I don’t see why a donor would cut aid to a country that is massively underdeveloped and in dire need.”

— Martin Omukuba, country director at the International Rescue Committee South Sudan

A retraction of U.S. assistance would harm the 7.6 million people — more than half the country’s population — currently relying on aid. The needs are particularly acute ahead of a possible famine impacting 7 million people.

Brian Adeba, deputy director of policy at the Enough Project, said a withdrawal of aid funding would be catastrophic to an already desperate community.

“We could see an escalation in maternity mortality rates, we would see the rise in malnutrition, we would see a depreciation in health care services offered by the NGO sector,” if aid is cut off, said Adeba.

“Most of these services, including health care, education, primary education, nutrition, prenatal care, maternal care, all come from aid organizations that depend on a lot of funding that comes the United States.”

Adeba added that the move would likely have little political effect, and said there are other mechanisms to pressure the South Sudanese government that would cause less harm to civilians.

The U.S. government sanctions regime for South Sudan began in April 2014, when then-President Obama signed an executive order sanctioning entities threatening peace and security in the country. Most recently in March, Washington imposed new sanctions on 15 oil operators that it said South Sudanese government officials tap to fund the war. In January, the U.S. imposed a long-debated arms embargo on the country.

“Cutting aid is not really a good idea in terms of building the leverage required to change the status quo in South Sudan,” Adeba said. “I think the best thing to do really is to go after the political establishment in South Sudan using financial pressure, sanctions.”

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.