Politics of Poverty

Great expectations in southern Sudan

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Self-determination has come to southern Sudan through a peaceful and credible democratic process. But tackling the immense challenges and obstacles that remain will require both international support and the engagement of local communities.

The final results of the referendum in southern Sudan were released on February 7, with 98.83 percent of southerners voting for independence. The people in southern Sudan are jubilant. After years of fighting for self-determination the day has finally arrived; and it has finally come through a peaceful and credible democratic process.

That same day, Sudanese President Omer Hassan Al-Bashir wasted no time and officially accepted the final results. And President Obama offered a congratulatory statement and announced the intention of the United States to formally recognize Southern Sudan as a sovereign, independent state in July 2011.

Many southern Sudanese believe that independence will unlock a prosperous future for their children. They have heard promises from policymakers for years that the region will be transformed from one of the poorest places on earth to a breadbasket of Africa. Oxfam staff asked southern Sudanese about their hopes for the future. Watch the video below to see and hear what they had to say.

However, there are immense challenges and obstacles to overcome and many of the hopes expressed are unrealistic in the short term. Tackling these challenges will not only require generous and long-term international support for the new government of Southern Sudan, but also engaging local communities in this process.

Key challenges remain to be negotiated and years of war have left southern Sudan with some of the worst development indicators on earth. Millions of people do not have access to clean water. There are few schools, hospitals or roads. Many communities in southern Sudan still face the threat of violence. Fighting within southern Sudan forced more than 200,000 people to flee their homes last year and left almost 1,000 people dead. In 2009, almost 350,000 people were displaced by violence and 2,500 were killed –women and children often suffer the most.

The root causes of violence will not go away following the referendum. State authority is spread extremely thin across the South, and many communities rely on traditional mechanisms to resolve disputes. Southern Sudan’s civilian population is itself heavily armed, and local disputes—most frequently over land usage rights and cattle rustling—can escalate into violence.

The problem with high expectation is that you do not know how people will respond if or when they are not met. Other situations in the world have shown that discontent with the pace of change could prove dangerous. According to the US Institute of Peace’s Guiding Principles for Stabilization and Reconstruction, “spoilers are quick to capitalize on unmet expectations and can use the population’s frustration to their advantage.” On the one hand, international policymakers and the Government of Southern Sudan must work to ensure that aid delivers tangible benefits at the community level and addresses community priorities. On the other, they must encourage greater realism and manage the frustration that will emerge if development comes to communities slowly and unevenly.

To help manage expectations the US and other donors must be transparent in their assistance and encourage the Government of Southern Sudan to be transparent with their budgeting. Only through a transparent system can the media, elected officials, and civil society accurately review progress, upcoming plans, and hold the government accountable for inaction or corrupt practices. The US should also continue to support the use of local radio to inform communities on development projects and goals. The US supported education campaigns using radio and other media in the run up to the referendum and such programs should serve as a model for reaching out to communities on development projects and government accountability. Finally, as managing expectation is the primarily a role of the Government of Southern Sudan, the US and other donors should work to encourage government to undertake a sustained campaign to reach out to communities to learn their development needs and priorities and involve communities in the design and implementation of development programs.

Managing expectations will be exceedingly difficult in southern Sudan where the people have been waiting for the end of war and the move to development for decades. Southern Sudanese have the right – and must receive the support – to build a better future for their children, despite the enormous task this entails. Yet like everything else so far in this process from war to independence, difficult issues must be overcome because the cost of failure is too high.

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