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Relative quiet in Darfur: a window for progress in Sudan and eastern Chad

In order for Sudan to avoid a backslide into war, outside humanitarian aid work needs to cede the floor to local-led projects.

By Dorn Townsend / March 23, 2010

New York

International nongovernmental organizations and United Nations agencies have created and supported hundreds of new schools in refugee camps in Darfur and eastern Chad. The fact that they have been successful is big news considering the region has been gripped by genocide and unrest for years. Today, there is relative calm and more children – particularly girls – are getting an education. This points to the chance for major progress in the region.

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At the same time, last month’s agreement between Sudan and Chad to stop supporting each other’s proxy armies, and recent accords signed this month with some powerful rebel factions, have set the stage for such productive opportunities in Darfur.

Now comes the harder work for the international community: shifting beyond funding purely humanitarian projects toward economic development. Only through such development can Darfur avoid falling into another war.

Areas are calm enough that many Darfuris, about 3 million of whom still live in camps, regularly return to their villages to plant and harvest crops. Fighting does continue to flare up in some pockets of the region and many bands of rebels are ambivalent about the negotiations occurring in Doha, Qatar. Yet the scale of violence has greatly declined during the past four years.

And with funds to rebels now largely choked off, many camp residents are looking to return to their homes full time. But six years of fighting have accelerated the process of deforestation, drought, and desertification. Unless access to land, water, and other scarce resources are accessible, conflicts may reignite between villages, ethnicities, farmers, and nomads.

Right now, productivity is poor or nonexistent. International aid in Darfur and Chad has, understandably, and heroically, devoted resources to the here-and-now of humanitarian projects like sanitation, education, and medical supplies.

But the region needs long-term peace-building, environmental rehabilitation, and economic development assistance.

The well-meaning aid groups are not the groups who should or can provide these next steps forward. In fact, they could actually unintentionally stymie development efforts. Because of their scale, reputation, and organizational muscle, internationalist agencies could crowd out new and potentially effective initiatives.

So who should help Sudan and Chad? Given the scale of destruction in Darfur, rebuilding in the region needs a unique focus. Donor nations and multilateral organizations ought to create a special Darfur development bank that would fund infrastructure projects and nurture interethnic collaboration. Such a bank could be a microversion of institutions like the World Bank or African Development Bank.