What foreign aid got wrong in South Sudan

A camp in Juba for internationally displaced persons driven from their homes by the conflict in South Sudan. Some donors are already threatening to cut aid to the world's youngest country if it is not able to stem the ongoing violence there. Photo by: Isaac Billy / United Nations

Aid darling South Sudan is facing a funding crisis — some donors are already threatening to cut aid if the country fails to stem the current conflict that is already chipping away at all the development gains made in the past three years.

The response did not come as a surprise. Since the latest conflict erupted after a failed coup in December, access has become tougher, aid supplies have been looted, and insecurity has left many development projects on standstill.

But would such premise accomplish anything?

In an online panel discussion organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday, a group of experts argued the international community — despite its good intentions — has made some serious lapses in its response to South Sudan following independence.

For instance, donors, according to one observer, prioritized government capacity building over the provision of services.

“The problem is that the conventional aid architecture has proven once again to be ill equipped to cater for a situation that spanned humanitarian and development needs. As in many ‘post-conflict’ countries, from the beginning South Sudan still needed support for direct service delivery, alongside support for the building of government capacity, but the latter was prioritised in the name of state building de facto leaving a number of communities poorly served if at all,” Sara Pantuliano, head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, said in response to a question posted by Devex.

This, along with the donor community’s failure to address deep-seated issues of youth alienation, equal access to water and land resources, the poor integration of demobilized soldiers and refugee returnees and not promoting national dialogue have all contributed to the current situation, the experts agreed.

“These issues have ended up being a fertile ground for today’s political rivalry to spiral into a widespread conflict and will need to be at the centre of any future aid response,” Pantuliano said.

She added that the aid community’s approach in South Sudan has so far been based on the idea that it would lead to stability and lasting peace. However, a 2010 report (before independence) by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development  implied this to not be the case, having found no evidence linking the two.

What can the aid community do differently? Avoid the “pendulum swing” in the aid response, Pantuliano said.

“Some governments are already threatening to reduce, cut long-term aid programs, which remain essential in large parts of the country. The response needs to be tailored to the different realities on the ground, and will need to combine both humanitarian and development interventions,” she explained.

Ndungu Kahihu, a Nairobi-based consultant for Plan International on South Sudan, meanwhile, suggested the international community help build credible institutions in the country “that will enable the South Sudanese to disagree without resulting to the force of arms,” although he expressed doubts whether South Sudan would remain a donor priority in the coming years. Protracted crises often suffer from donor fatigue.

“The international donor community needs to think about how to balance humanitarian/aid support with the reality that the Government is the duty bearer to provide services. Such service delivery can be a uniting force that builds peace,” said Sam Rosmarin, Oxfam’s gender and conflict adviser for East Africa.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.