Under a shaky peace deal, is it too soon to invest in South Sudan's development?

A man carries the South Sudanese flags as he stands outside the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, South Sudan. Photo by: REUTERS / Andreea Campeanu

JUBA, South Sudan — The aid community is contemplating how soon to shift its focus from an emergency response to one that invests in South Sudan’s future. It’s been five months since the country’s warring parties signed a fragile peace deal to end a five-year civil war, yet over half the population still relies on humanitarian assistance.

“You take your eye off [resilience programming] ... then ultimately what you’re turning people into is beneficiaries … Nobody I’ve ever met anywhere in the world wants to be a beneficiary.”

— David Shearer, mission chief, United Nations South Sudan

Five years of fighting have devastated the nation, killing almost 400,000 people, displacing millions and plunging pockets of the country into famine. $1.5 billion is needed to support more than 7 million people, according to South Sudan’s 2019 humanitarian response plan, which describes the needs as “dire.”

So far, the peace agreement has instilled little confidence that the situation is changing. While there’s been a reduction in fighting, the deal’s implementation has been rife with delays, missed deadlines, and continued violence. The ongoing turmoil makes it challenging for organizations to shift attention from a humanitarian response to one of development.

“As long as the humanitarian needs are currently as high as they are, I’d stress that the level of investment that goes into [lifesaving support] right now needs to be maintained, at the very least, because the situation is still just as bad,” said Tim Bierley, campaigns and advocacy manager at Oxfam in South Sudan.

Any change will be gradual, he said.

Oxfam combines its humanitarian and development approaches by linking the two wherever possible, teaching new skills while providing emergency assistance. In South Sudan’s capital, Juba, the group installed a water treatment center for 20,000 people. The permanent structure is powered by solar energy and is now run by the community.

But the aid group will continue with its current operations rather than make any drastic moves toward development programming in the year ahead, Bierley told Devex. Instead, along with most organizations and donors Devex spoke with, Oxfam is focusing on resilience programming, billed as an attempt to bridge emergency aid and longer term development initiatives.

A focus on resilience

For the first time in South Sudan, United Nations South Sudan mission country chief David Shearer is launching the Multi-Partner Trust Fund for Reconciliation, Stabilization and Resilience, a fund in which donors can pool their money to be used to develop programs combining reconciliation with development in areas where there’s active fighting.

“[Until] now, when there’s been an active conflict going on, we’ve been largely dependent on humanitarian type of work, relief work, giving people food or medicine … this is something different. It’s giving, helping people but it’s also addressing the conflict itself,” Shearer told Devex.

The U.N. has been working in Lakes state — part of mandated work through the civil affairs unit — where there is a high level of intercommunal fighting, including the killing of civilians, cattle raiding, and child abduction. By bringing people together, helping them address the causes of the conflict, and supporting the development of water resources for cattle, the U.N. program seeks to build links between communities. Groups know coming to an agreement can lead to benefits such as food, water resources, and health facilities, Shearer said.

The importance of resilience activities is to give people hope and help them plan for their future, he said.  

“You take your eye off [resilience programming] ... then ultimately what you’re turning people into is beneficiaries … Nobody I’ve ever met anywhere in the world wants to be a beneficiary,” Shearer said.

The initiative, approved in December, is still in its infancy. To date, a few million dollars has been donated by Germany, the project’s sole funder. Other parties are showing interest, according to Shearer.

But aid groups worry about donor fatigue. Requested funding for South Sudan this year stands at $1.5 billion, a decrease from $1.7 billion in 2018. Ninety-six percent of 2019’s response plan has yet to be funded, according to data from the U.N.

A window to invest

In December, United States National Security Advisor John Bolton laid out the administration’s new Africa Strategy, citing a review in its assistance to South Sudan to ensure that its “aid does not prolong the conflict or facilitate predatory behavior,” Bolton said. In 2018, the U.S. Department of State accused South Sudan’s government of using oil revenue to purchase weapons, fund militias, and undermine peace. The U.S. has provided approximately $3.76 billion dollars in humanitarian aid to South Sudan and refugees in neighboring countries between 2014-2018.

Other donors are taking a similar, more humanitarian-centered approach. The U.K. Department for International Development will continue prioritizing humanitarian needs for the coming year, a spokesperson told Devex.

Decades of back-to-back conflict have left little room to invest in developing the young country, but Oxfam’s Bierley cautions against missed opportunities.  

“You can understand skepticism about the peace deal, but if there is a window to invest, I think it needs to be taken advantage of,” he said. He’s asking donors to “hold firm” right now so the country doesn’t experience a further decline in funding.

Some donors, including Canada, are already running concurrent emergency and development programs in order to build resilience and reduce the humanitarian caseload, said Maegan Graveline, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada.

Canada invested $50 million in humanitarian assistance and $58 million on bilateral development assistance in South Sudan in 2016-2017, according to GAC. Stability has improved through its focus on development in areas such as health, food security, governance, and education as well as emergency assistance, Graveline said. Canada will focus on new development initiatives in the future by investing in education for girls as well as supporting women journalists and women farmers.

Aid groups are hesitant to discuss when there may be a shift, but the peace deal needs to hold in order to support a move to development, several actors told Devex. When that time comes, it will be crucial to take steps toward development by recognizing existing community approaches and understanding drivers of violence across the country, said Jeremy Taylor, regional advocacy adviser for East Africa and Yemen for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“Putting in place programs that do not recognize ongoing conflict, displacement or the wishes of a community can make an initiative ineffective or even make matters worse by complicating a community’s own strategies,” he said.

About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.