Amid outcry, South Sudan backtracks on threat to expel foreign workers

In aid-dependent South Sudan, politicians have fed on popular anger that jobs from executives to waiters are being filled by outsiders who largely keep the nation running amid a civil war. Authorities have now limited the policy. 

Matthew Abbott/AP/File
Workers unloading grain for food distribution from a WFP plane in Malakal, South Sudan, July 25, 2014.

Leaders of the world’s youngest country, already struggling with war and poverty, sparked international concern by issuing a ban on foreign workers in several key sectors including humanitarian aid.

South Sudan’s labor minister said in a widely-circulated statement that, starting Oct. 15, expatriates were barred from “non-governmental organizations, private companies…banks, insurance companies, telecommunications companies, petroleum companies, hotels and lodges." Instead, jobs should go to South Sudanese citizens. 

If implemented, the rule would seriously hamper international efforts to help South Sudan avoid famine, aid agencies based in East Africa warned.

However, Circular No 007/2014, dated confusingly both Aug. 21 and Sept. 12, and carried in South Sudan’s newspapers Tuesday, is likely to be recalled, according to media reports today. The country's foreign minister said the policy was designed to favor local workers, but only when they were qualified for jobs. 

Still, the statement spoke to frustration that foreigners are making money in key industries, while South Sudan's own people, mostly subsistence farmers, struggle to get by. The government, which is waging an unpopular war with a rebel army led by a mutinous former vice-president, appears keen to ride the populist anti-immigration wave. 

Many service jobs in the capital, Juba, including taxi drivers, waiters, hotel receptionists, food importers, electricians and auto mechanics, are filled by workers people from East Africa, including Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia. Decades of civil war in South Sudan have rendered levels of education and commercial expertise among the world's lowest. 

Senior humanitarian staff, ranging from charities’ country directors to their logistics managers, transport fleet directors and education specialists, are usually foreigners, as are managerial and technical staff in oil firms.

Kicking out these staff would strangle a weak economy and disrupt humanitarian programs that feed more than one million people in the country, say aid officials. 

“South Sudan is on a knife-edge and could easily tip into famine in 2015. Even though the aid effort here is huge, it is not reaching many of the people who desperately need help. We need to be expanding aid programs in South Sudan, not restricting them,” says Tariq Riebl, director of Oxfam Great Britain in South Sudan.

Clarification of policy

South Sudan’s foreign minister told Reuters that the order applied only where there were qualified locals to take jobs now filled by foreigners. "You need to give employment to the citizens except in those places where there is no capacity," he said. 

Sadly, in too many sectors, that capacity is lacking.

“Schools have been shut since December [when the current conflict started], 80 percent of the health system is being delivered by non-governmental organizations, and 27 percent of the population is illiterate,” says one expatriate aid worker stationed in Juba.

“I’m thinking if the international community packed up and left, South Sudan might take its obligations a bit more seriously.” 

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