Jerome Delay/AP
Votes are counted at a polling station in Juba, South Sudan, Saturday on Jan. 15.

South Sudan welcomes outside help as it begins building a nation

Many are skeptical of how much outsiders can help South Sudan build itself into a country, but correspondent Maggie Fick has met some she thinks can make a difference.

Initial results from South Sudan’s long-awaited self-determination referendum held earlier this month indicate the region will soon become the world’s newest country. Across South Sudan, the euphoria of the dawning reality of independence has not yet subsided, but all signs point to a long and difficult road ahead for the five-and-a-half year old government at the helm of one of the poorest regions on earth. (Some of those challenges are highlighted here.)

Visiting Juba Wednesday on his way to the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, who is the current head of the AU, issued an optimistic call to the people of Southern Sudan:

"The future is bright. Southern Sudan is not a poor country, we have resources … you must believe you are not sitting on a poor country, you are sitting on a rich country with lots of resources. With resolve we can turn things around. You have friends in the African Union, you have friends all over the world to assist you, and will do whatever we can to move forward."

Juba is indeed already booming with new “friends.” Investors touch down daily at the international airport that is badly in need of a remodel. The new business they bring, however, seems unlikely to make a difference in the lives of the majority of the southern population – rural subsistence farmers who lack access to safe drinking water, primary education, and basic health care. In the capital, Chinese and Eritrean owned hotels keep springing up to serve the newly arrived consultants and diplomats who don’t yet have office space or long-term accommodation.

Opinions vary among Southern Sudanese and expatriates here about the impact of the swarm of foreigners who continue to flood Juba with “capacity building support,” “technical assistance,” and other acronym-laden support, but today I had the pleasure of meeting a foreigner who is working in the proverbial trenches for the Government of Southern Sudan and doing it with as much passion as if it was her own country. In her past career, Fides Wanjiku Maina worked for almost 20 years in the Office of the President in the Kenyan government. She rose to the rank of assistant director of personnel and gaining several advanced degrees in management along the way, before leaving the government in the 1990s to work as an independent consultant in “strategic management.”

A smartly dressed professional with cropped graying hair, Maina excitedly told me about the plans she has developed in the past few months in her work with the southern government’s six-month-old Ministry of Human Resources.

Speeding through an overview of the projects she’s working on – civil servant training programs, organizational flow charts, policy frameworks – Maina said that the challenges facing the southern government in becoming an effective, service-providing institution are “not comparable” to anything she witnessed during her years of service in the neighboring government in Kenya.

“Kenya has never been at war, so there is no comparison. But we cannot say here there is a total absence of capacity – you’re going to work with what you have.” When I asked Maina why she was here, working day in and day out in a plastic container office, she didn’t hesitate. “I’d like to be associated with the success of this country. I’d like to tell my grandchildren about this.”

So while it’s easy to be cynical and question how much outsiders can contribute to the building of the Southern Sudanese state from the ground up, passionate people like Fides Wanjiku Maina deserve credit for working in solidarity with the government here and treating the task as if the future of her own country were at stake. Given that Kenya shares a border with South Sudan, the fates of these nations are arguably intertwined.

Maggie Fick is a freelance journalist based in Juba who blogs here.

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