Rebuilding South Sudan – from scratch

The desperate region must compete with Darfur for attention as fledgling government takes charge.

Kun Minylang Ding called America home for 12 years. Tall and dark-skinned, with parallel lines of tribal scars carved into his forehead, he cut a striking figure in small-town Nebraska. But last year, Mr. Ding returned to south Sudan after a peace agreement brought an end to the 21-year civil war that forced him into exile. "Life was no problem in America, but I wanted to do something, to use my skills to help my people."

So Ding came to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where the newly formed government of the semiautonomous south is building a state from scratch.

Recruiting skilled Sudanese from the diaspora is one of the biggest problems facing the Government of South Sudan (GoSS), which was born out of the January 2005 peace agreement signed between the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Sudan's capital, Khartoum.

More than two decades of conflict and deliberate neglect has left southern Sudan one of the least developed places in the world, but its plight has been overshadowed by the deadly humanitarian crisis in the nearby Darfur region of western Sudan. And as southern Sudan must compete with Darfur for attention and funding, so must the fledgling GoSS compete with a vast army of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the area for qualified Sudanese personnel.

The SPLM is struggling to transform itself from a rebel movement into a functioning government capable of simultaneously running South Sudan with its 10 state governments and playing junior partner in a northern-based Government of National Unity, while trying to maintain the peace and bring tangible development to the south.

In Nebraska, Ding worked two jobs: during the day he was a project coordinator in the state housing department, in the evening he used the MBA he had gained in Atlanta to advise other Sudanese refugees on microfinance initiatives.

Here in Juba, Ding has gone up in the world, and the 30-year-old is now deputy director of budget in the Ministry of Finance. Not that you would know it. In the hot still air of his dilapidated office Ding sifts through a pile of thick documents. Through the broken window panes comes the occasional thud as the withdrawing northern army explodes spare ammunition in the foothills nearby.

Ding used to earn close to $3,300 per month. Here he will get $700, that is if the first regular salaries begin to arrive as expected in June. Ding, who speaks with a slight American lilt, smiles as he recalls, "When I told people in America that's what I will earn, they laughed."

At the western end of Juba a collection of squat 1970s concrete buildings house the GoSS. One Friday afternoon last month a rocket thrown out by an exploding ammunition dump on the other side of town punched a hole the size of a watermelon in the side of the Ministry of Health.

In the building next door, David Deng runs the Ministry of Public Services. "The No. 1 challenge is availability of human resources," says Mr. Deng. "The institutions of governance had been completely wiped out by the war so we are starting from below zero. Our struggle is to reach zero.

"A lot of institutions will need skilled individuals, but to attract people from the diaspora is especially challenging because the conditions of service here are difficult and the salaries will be too low. The only choice is to appeal to them as Sudanese, to appeal to their patriotism."

David Gressly, humanitarian coordinator at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Juba, notes that besides staffing issues, "There are key functions that any government needs, and the GoSS doesn't have them."

Filling the void is a vast array of United Nations (UN) agencies, NGOs, aid workers, and consultants. These groups employ thousands of skilled Sudanese alongside their international staff, something about which Deng is ambivalent.

"We are competing with them, but I can't tell the people you must stop working with the UN, you must come to work for the public service. My only hope is that these positions [with the NGOs] are not infinite and they will come to an end," he says with a shrug.

There is no doubt the aid agencies are essential to rebuilding the south but Deng raises questions about the role they are playing. "During the war, NGOs became the de facto government of the day. If people didn't have schooling or water they would go to the NGOs and they became the instruments of service delivery. Now," he warns, "we are starting to reassert ourselves as a government.

"The war contributed, but the NGOs also contributed to the decay of our government structures. But we are better now as we have money in our pockets from the oil."

Last year, international donors, including the US and Britain, pledged $4.5 billion over six years to the reconstruction effort. In 2006, donors are expected to give $700 million, but this is dwarfed by the GoSS's own budget of $1.3 billion, funded entirely by southern oil revenues.

Oil was a major cause of the war and a major part of the peace deal, giving the GoSS a 50-percent share of Sudan's oil. But in what observers see as an indication that SPLM leaders have yet to set aside their military tendencies, $525 million (40 percent of the budget) is going to the army – more than the total spending on roads and health put together.

Attracting Sudanese such as Ding from the diaspora to help spend that money well is a tough job for the GoSS. Dealing with the hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people who want to return is another difficult job – this time for United Nations agencies.

"Southern Sudan is a challenge in every way," says Rudi Muller, head of UNOCHA in Juba. "There are a large number of people who have returned, will return, or are waiting to return."

In 2004 and 2005, when the peace deal was first a hope and then a reality, 1.1 million people came back to their homes. The UN estimates that there are about 500,000 refugees and more than 4 million displaced people who expect to return.

But many have been away for two decades and are coming back to homes wrecked by war and neglect. Juba, for example, was a bustling cosmopolitan town in the 1980s. Now, it is a sprawling collection of collapsing buildings and mud huts linked by a few strips of potholed tarmac and a network of rutted dirt tracks that shift with the rains.

"We are concerned about the preparedness of communities, and that the infrastructure is very poor," explains Mr. Muller. "We don't want to just move people into a community and dump them."

Often, the UN has no choice: This year, it has assisted in the return of 200,000 people (of whom 140,000 were refugees, the rest internally displaced). More than twice that number have returned spontaneously.

Managing the expectations of those returning home is tricky, and there have been reports of refugees getting to their homes only to turn around and head back, so acute was their disappointment.

Competing with southern Sudan's needs are other humanitarian disasters.

Over the past few years, the world's attention has been focused on Darfur, just a short flight north of Juba, while southern Sudan has slipped from focus.

Jan Egeland, UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, visited the south in April to draw attention to the region's plight, but his trip was overshadowed by the news that Khartoum had refused him access to Darfur.

This competition for attention and resources is a source of frustration to aid workers in the south. "This war went on for 20 years; 2 million were killed, 4 million displaced," says Gressly. "The suffering was far greater here, but south Sudan operates in the shadow of Darfur."

The scale of the challenge in southern Sudan is enormous, Ding notes.

"Everything is completely destroyed and it's very sad," he says. But, he adds, 'If we work hard, we can achieve something here – we can do something ourselves and rebuild our country so people can live a good life."

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