Gordon Lam Gatluak: Foreign assistance, not takeover in South Sudan

Land management plan in Aweil, Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan. The country's lack of infrastructure has caused challenges for development. Photo by: Marguerite Nowak / CC BY-NC-ND

The international community still plays a vital role in South Sudan, but development practitioners should help the government do its job and not replace it altogether.

Gordon Lam Gatluak, a former South Sudanese child soldier and now policy advisor for Oxfam, explained during an interview with Devex that excessive dependence on foreign aid is prompting local officials to not allocate funds to projects they should be financing, and letting NGOs take care of it and foot the bill.

Lam also discussed how South Sudan is dealing with tough challenges in its transition to independence and democracy after decades of conflict, and why the country still has a long way to go in becoming a true nations, which starts by changing the “war mentality” of most of his countrymen. He also admits that part of the enthusiasm after independence has been washed down by the harsh reality of poverty, insecurity and underdevelopment.

Here are a few excepts of our conversation with the Oxfam policy advisor at the organization’s main office in Washington, D.C.

What are the biggest barriers to a smooth transition to free institutions?

When a guerrilla movement is transitioning from the political war to political peace, there is a lot of divergence in that process. So those divergences, I call them, are a blockage, they are barriers to development. They are barriers because the mentality of guerrilla movement into civilian government is quite challenging at the moment. So now we said the root of this is to make sure that our government is changed from the mentality of guerrilla to a modern governance system that is applicable to the twenty-first century government. […] A country that has a background of trauma, of war — the feeling is a kind of isolation. There is no internal harmony now, because civilians have still their own memories. Their war memories are still fresh in their minds. Of course, you’ve heard about the Jonglei internal war that is taking place, where civilians are displaced. They feel insecure […] because after war there should be reconciliation between the communities.

Are there spaces of democracy now, where competing visions of independence can be reconciled?

Because of the transition I mentioned earlier, people are going slowly into the path of democracy. But we hope that in the near future, when we achieve a level of open democracy, then, of course, the community will participate, and it will feel ownership of the government. Then it will be [up to] them to determine their own government issues, and they will not blame the government.

Are the barriers to a successful transition only internal, or are there things that the international community can do — or should have done — better to improve the process?

The international community should continue to push forward for the betterment of the country, because signing peace alone is not enough. Having independence is not enough. International effort is always quite important. But in the case of South Sudan, which has a weakness in terms of institutions — most of the time the international community, they go there, and they look at the situation. For example, if the NGO is running a health clinic, or education center, or maybe food security. Normally they handle that at the lower level of communities. They go there and talk to people, provide them with some necessities. All right, they create a little change. But, if it is not connected to the policies that the government is supposed to develop, how will that affect the change in people?

I suppose the international community should sit down with the government of the day and say, look, can I have your priority line? I want to support your policies, openly. So, you do that at the national level and then after you get that you go to the sub-national level. What do you have? I have this for you, but what do you have? What are your plans? At the national level, your country, at the village level. Otherwise, it appears that the international community which does their own effort without connecting it to the policies that are supposed to be derived from the government. They will not succeed much, because sometimes the government will isolate them. […] In other words you seem to be replacing what the government is supposed to be doing technically, and at the same time you are not helping the government to do they’re job. It’s ok what you are doing is important. […] Government should be pushed by the international community and agencies to have operation plans. […] If they don’t have plans, why do you support a government that doesn’t have plans?

How does the lack of infrastructure, and challenges of accessing some regions complicate the issues that you are trying to resolve?

South Sudan has [practically] zero in terms of infrastructure, and this has caused a lot of challenges [for] development. Development actors, humanitarian actors - sometimes like now the month of June - it will be difficult for you to go by road. You will always hire a charter. If you do that for the rest of the year, it will almost cost the budget that is required for the development of the community. And at the same time you will want to see the place. The charter plane is very expensive compared to the project that you propose. Transport itself is a big challenge. Security is another problem, because in some areas if communities are fighting each other it is very difficult to go to the area, let alone the international community. The communities themselves will not visit each other. That’s a big challenge. […] Humanitarian access is being compromised between the infrastructure and the accessibility, so there is a big challenge there.

Why don’t you think the enthusiasm felt at the time of independence has translated into enthusiasm for a united vision of South Sudan?

Lack of harmony in our security forces, policymakers, at the state level and sub-national level is there. So, what is uniting us? What will unite us now, after independence? This is the question that everybody’s asking. Therefore, on a personal level, I think the good governance is the bottom line that will create unity among our citizens. Because when you have good government there will be no feeling of tribalism. There will be no feeling of fragmentation. There will be equal service. There will be fairness in justice, security, and in service delivery, equality. There will be no negligence among our population. Education will be for all, health service for all. There will be no sense of isolation when you have that bottom line.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.