World's newest country: future of South Sudan tied to efficacy of foreign aid

Western- and UN-backed aid organizations have lined up to support the fledgling Republic of South Sudan, but the challenges facing the nation 'would tax even the most developed of countries.'

By , Correspondent

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    People take photographs of each other during post-independence celebrations in Juba, South Sudan, Monday, July 11. South Sudan formally declared independence from the north on Saturday, July 9.
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World's newest country is a three-part series on the challenges facing South Sudan.
Part 1: Can South Sudan limit internal strife?
Part 2: South Sudan's oil remains a sticking point
Part 3: Future of South Sudan tied to efficacy of foreign aid

The Republic of South Sudan was born on Saturday to much international fanfare, as tens of thousands of southerners joined African heads of state, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and a host of Western diplomats representing the nations who have supported the South in its long walk to this moment: statehood.

Now that the celebrations are dying down, a new chapter in the war-devastated South's history is beginning and the Republic of South Sudan looks set to be the new darling of the aid community.

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The newly sovereign southern government and the international aid community are both in the process of shaping their future plans and priorities in one of the world's most underdeveloped and poorest countries.

USAID, the development arm of the American government, has one of its largest offices on the continent in the South's capital, Juba, and has plans to expand operations in the newly independent country. The British equivalent of USAID is likewise in deep in the south, with one of its largest per capita aid programs already underway here.

The UN Development Program is at working bringing "volunteers" from neighboring East Africa countries to serve in the ten state-level governments across the Texas-sized south, but some southerners are already wondering why the program is utilizing the skills of well-educated East Africans instead of working with the southern government to entice the large South Sudanese diaspora community spread across the world, from Australia to the U.S.

The new government has pledged to prioritize improving service delivery to its citizenry, the vast majority of whom do not currently enjoy basic amenities such as health care, clean water, access to roads to transport their goods to market, and education.

A great burden

While the chance to build the south 'from the ground up' provides both the government and international donors with opportunities to try novel approaches to development projects and institution building, the graveyard of aid effort failures across the continent is enough to give any donor government pause, given the negative and corrupting effects aid dollars have had in neighboring Ethiopia and a number of other African countries.

An oft-cited fear of diplomats and government officials alike in the post-independence period is the "high expectations" of southerners for what the new era of freedom will bring.

Clad in a polo shirt emblazoned with his new country's flag, Jok Michael marched proudly through the streets of Juba among his peers on Monday morning in a parade of Christian youth from several denominations.

"The nation will be democratic, we shall get good development," he predicted. "You can see what has happened in the past six years, what about the next 40 or 50? We think we will be like New York."

While a heavy dose of optimism is needed to propel the south forward, many are slightly more realistic about the road ahead for the world's 193rd country.

Speaking of all the challenges that South Sudan must begin "to tackle at once," a Western official in Juba said the multitude of to-dos for the young government "would tax even the most developed of countries."

Lise Grande, who leads the UN's humanitarian efforts in South Sudan, is careful to stress the extent of these challenges illustrating the "human indicators" here, which she says are one of the worst on the planet.

"Only 20 percent of the population ever during their life will use a health facility," she begins. "Half of kids will never enter a school. Ninety percent of women can't read or write. More than 90 percent (of the population) is living on less that a dollar per day."

"It's almost unimaginable that you can have a country that's so far behind," Grande says. "It's a great burden for the international community."

Mixed results so far

In the past six years, during the "interim" or implementation period of the peace deal inked between North and South in 2005, the record of international support to the fledgling south has been decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, USAID, the billion-dollar-per-year UN peacekeeping mission, and UN agencies, among others, have helped stand up the southern government, an enormous feat in a region where the majority of the population has little more than primary education.

On the other, efforts aimed at "capacity building" in the government's whopping 32 upstart ministries receive mixed reviews and smack slightly of condescension: government officials may not always appreciate being told how to perform their duties by a slick Western consultant.

Some massive aid projects, like the World Bank-administered Multi-Donor Trust Fund, have hit major roadbumps, drawing international criticism for failing to disburse funds and deliver on development promises.

But it's a two-way street, and corruption within the new government over the past six years does not bode well for the immediate future, as the prospect of an influx of more petrodollars and aid money is soon to be a reality.

As if the challenges of delivering on promises to the population currently in the south wasn't enough, UN officials are beginning to warn of a brewing humanitarian crisis due to the massive and steady influx of southerners who are returning from northern Sudan in part because of fear of harassment by the Khartoum government in the aftermath of southern secession.

The UN estimates 1,000 people per day are arriving back in the south, putting added strain on the limited resources in southern towns near the border, where tens of thosuands have already arrived since the south's independence vote in January.

A need for transparency

Experts say that all the hurdles in the way of implementing a range of development projects will multiply if the government is not open in disclosing its policies

Ian Bannon, the acting country director for South Sudan at the World Bank, told reporters on Monday in Juba that he hopes the government will make good on the words of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir in his independence day speech, which stressed "transparency and open government" as priorities for the new south.

"People need to feel that they are part of the decisions being made by their leaders," said Mr. Kiir. "We hope that will be the way things are done in South Sudan."

Mr. Bannon said that South Sudan is emerging "as the most oil-dependent economy in the world" and stressed that private sector development and diversification of the economy through investment in the agriculture sector will be essential to kickstarting the new country's economy.

He said the World Bank's message to the government and to donors is to "be patient, be persistent, and perservere... there will be setbacks, we know things will go wrong."

As the glow of the joyous independence celebrations begins to fade, the need for patience, but also for hard work, by the government and its international supporters, will be cast in sharper relief. But if South Sudan has made it this far, citizens like Jok Michael say, wait and see what it can do next.

World's newest country: South Sudan
Part 1: Can South Sudan limit internal strife?
Part 2: South Sudan's oil remains a sticking point
Part 3: Future of South Sudan tied to efficacy of foreign aid

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