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South Sudan is marking its first year of independence with development at a virtual standstill and conflict, hunger and displacement distracting its government and international donors from tackling vast needs stemming from decades of war.
“From the standpoint of improving the quality of life for millions of South Sudanese people, these first 12 months of independence can be written off as a lost year,” says Susan Purdin, who heads the International Rescue Committee’s aid programmes in South Sudan. “In a country emerging from conflict, it takes at least a decade and sometimes a generation to make significant progress in improving maternal mortality rates and access to education and health care. If it doesn't start now, many people who struggled for independence will never live to see its benefits.”
Since it separated from Sudan on July 9 last year, South Sudan has been beset by a “perfect storm” of natural and man-made disasters. Communities with no capacity to feed and shelter their own are struggling to host an extra half a million uprooted people. According to the UN, these include 170,000 refugees who fled conflict and hunger across the border in Sudan, some160,000 people newly displaced by internal inter-ethnic violence and a steady stream of returnees from Sudan, most of whom have no shelter or means of support. They join some 400,000 others who have returned since 2010 and barely get by. Food shortages triggered by failed rains and a poor harvest and aggravated by soaring inflation has doubled the number of people in need of food assistance to 2.4 million over the past year.
South Sudan’s decision to halt oil production amid unresolved disputes with Sudan has wiped out 98 percent of its own revenue—income that was to be used to jumpstart development, like building hospitals, roads and water systems. Put off by the government’s oil shutdown, chronic corruption and perceived disregard for the welfare of the population, international donors have indicated they are unwilling to make up for the shortfall and reticent to invest in development. Instead, they have largely focused attention on emergency assistance and other immediate needs in volatile areas.
“The new humanitarian emergencies must be addressed and funding for rapid response is essential, but it must be done in conjunction with development,” says Purdin. “Shelving the South Sudan Development Plan will ultimately have a dire impact on many more people who struggle daily to survive.”
For millions of South Sudanese, especially women, the threats and challenges they face have remained the same since the country’s independence. The vast majority of the population has little or no access to health services and one in seven children dies before they turn five, mostly from curable diseases. South Sudan has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates and lowest literacy rates. A 15-year-old South Sudanese girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than completing her education, while violence, sexual assault, oppression and forced marriages continue to blight the lives of many women and girls. Some 90% of South Sudanese live on less than one dollar a day and a dearth of economic opportunities portends a bleak future for millions of young people.
“People in rural areas live the definition of a hard-scrabble existence. It’s the hardest life you can imagine,” says Purdin. “It will be a long haul before people realise the material benefits of freedom, but one year after independence nothing that was anticipaed is even on the horizon.”
In a year when the country should have been taking its first steps toward development, Purdin says, the government’s actions delayed the start of progress, sonorous donor pledges to invest in development never materialised and emerging crises required rapid responses and a redirection of funds.
While donor efforts to address humanitarian needs are both crucial and welcome, the IRC urges donors and the South Sudanese government to recommit to funding and carrying out South Sudan’s Development Plan.
“The challenges are immense and complex, but millions of South Sudanese should not have to pay the price,” says Purdin. “What South Sudan needs now are donors who can make a long-term commitment to help the country provide essential services for its own. They need to stick with South Sudan through thick and thin.”
The IRC has been one of the largest providers of aid in South Sudan for over 20 years. Today we provide more than 700,000 people in six states—Central, Eastern and Western Equatoria, Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Unity and Lakes—with vital services including healthcare, child survival programmes, education, and sexual violence aid and prevention projects.