Global Politics

South Sudan's reliance on NGOs

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Refugees return to South Sudan (Photo: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam)

By Matthew Brunwasser

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Operation Lifeline Sudan, launched by the United Nations in 1989, was one of the biggest humanitarian efforts ever seen. It brought together UN agencies and some 35 non-governmental organizations (NGO).

Decades of civil war ended in 2005, when a peace treaty gave the south defacto autonomy. The former rebel group – the SPLA – has been governing the south ever since. Vassar College Political Scientist Zachariah Mampilly says the situation created an unsustainable relationship between foreign NGOs and the SPLA.

"The SPLA focuses on legal and policing issues to provide a degree of stability in areas that they controlled, and they basically outsourced the rest of governance provision, health care, education, to international NGOs," Mampilly said. "Inevitably, they are going to have to deal with this question of how do you get the NGOs to follow the directives of the new government of South Sudan?"

In the wake of January's vote for independence, the SPLA will have to take full responsibility for all aspects of governing. That won't be easy. Aaron Shapiro, from the Samaritan's Purse, an American faith-based organization (FBO), or a religious NGO, says NGOs still provide basic services in maybe 90 percent of South Sudan.

"It's a catch 22 in that if all the NGOs left, eventually something would have to give," Shapiro said. "The government would have to be responsible, be held to account but if they all left, a lot of people would die without health care and clean water."

Jok Madut Jok, an American-educated anthropologist who returned last year to become undersecretary of South Sudan's Culture Ministry, says he's well aware of the bind his government is in.

"If we dictate how we use help from outside, we will be accused of being too controlling; if we let the donor community tell us what to do with our nation, we won't have a nation," Jok said. "It would be a nation conceived and delivered by foreigners; it will not be raised from within our own philosophies; something that we own, that will fit in our traditions and our culture, something that will be symbolic of us being a sovereign state."

The government in Juba is feeling pressure to provide more services itself. But it lacks what NGO types call "capacity." There's a short supply of educated, experienced and motivated administrators. And its institutions are far from solid. South Sudanese have only just begun to make their own.

And there's another unforeseen consequence of having a country run by NGOs … armies of young, foreign do-gooders. There are so many 20-something Americans working at places like Save the Children that Juba can appear like a massive fraternity party.

At the Juba chapter of the Hash House Harriers, there's a "drinking club with a running problem" that's popular worldwide, especially with expats. This video of a charity fundraiser was posted online.

Marina Peter has worked as an advocate on peace and reconciliation issues in Sudan for 25 years. She says Sudanese have a lot of respect for their elders so young NGO staff can be hard to swallow.

"They see these young people coming in and telling them what they should do," Peter said. "Very often with no experience in Africa, let alone in Sudan, and they are running these NGOs with thousands if not millions of dollars, and so people are saying but who are they, they don't listen to us, they don't ask what we really need. And they are just disconnected from our society."

The large numbers of internationals and their international salaries create a separate economy as well. Juba has Thai, Indian and Chinese restaurants. There's a Cuban place with a weekly salsa night. Locals say its one of the most expensive cities in the world. It's normal to pay a hundred dollars a night to sleep in a tent.

With full South Sudanese independence expected in July, the threat from Khartoum is receding. So the public expects less money spent on the military and security and more for schools, hospitals and roads.

And that means the country must learn to take care of itself and stop depending on NGOs.

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