TALKING to families at a health clinic in Juba, Southern Sudan, last month, I was reminded of the scale of the problems that face the people of this vast country. For many of the patients, life has improved over the past few years, since the end of the civil war. I heard how it was now much easier to see a doctor, and that there was more medicine to treat the children.
The families were just some of the millions of Sudanese who have gained access to basic healthcare for the first time, thanks to British aid programmes. This year alone, nine million children have received polio vaccinations. By the end of next year, every family in Southern Sudan will have received an anti-malaria bed-net, which adds up to more than six million nets altogether.
Improvements in health-care have been matched by those in other vital areas. In the South, there are an extra 300,000 children in primary education, and 800 new teachers have been trained. More than 450,000 have gained access to clean water and sanitation. Areas have been cleared of landmines, and people have been helped to return home from temporary camps.
These improvements are welcome, but I also heard how there is still much more to do. The majority of people in Sudan remain desperately poor, and many face a daily fight to survive. Late rains and high food prices this year have demonstrated how precarious people’s lives are, as more and more go hungry. Maternal mortality rates in some states are among the highest in the world — as many as one in seven women die in pregnancy or childbirth.
For others, it is a life surrounded by violence and lawlessness, which is locking people further into poverty. The civil war between the mainly Muslim North and the mostly Christian South may have ended, but people are still forced to leave their homes because of the security situation. They join thousands of other families in temporary camps throughout the country. Some 300,000 people have fled homes this year in the Southern states alone.
The UK, through the Department for International Development (DfID), is helping to bring change in Sudan. We will provide some £300 million over the next three years for humanitarian assistance, for funding basic services such as hospitals, clinics, and schools, and extending people’s safety and access to justice.
Standing by our side are international aid agencies — including many faith-based charities — who work tirelessly to support people on the ground. Their staff are placing themselves in great danger, and I cannot praise their commitment highly enough. They have helped bring crucial improvements in health, sanitation, and education across Sudan.
In fear for their own safety, aid workers in Darfur are being prevented from helping some of the most vulnerable people and communities. Lives cannot be rebuilt if basic services and security are not provided across the region.
Last month, the elation at seeing the release of two workers from the Irish aid agency GOAL was tempered by the fact that two peacekeepers from the African Union-UN operation in Darfur were entering their second month of detention, and then shattered by news that an International Red Cross staff member had been kidnapped.
We must continue to support those who undertake this important work. I used my visit to call for the release of all the kidnapped humanitarian workers, and for the criminals who held them to be brought to justice.
A collective effort is needed to create a brighter future for Sudan. Integral to this are the Sudanese, who will need to step forward and break the cycle of violence and poverty for themselves — providing security, stability, and the rule of law for everyone. These are cornerstones of any society, and without them Sudan will always be fighting poverty with one hand tied behind its back.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended Africa’s longest- running civil war between the North and the South of the country holds the key to this (News, 8 July 2005). Its creation four years ago ended the fighting, but only the full implementation of its terms will secure a lasting peace. Talks are at a crucial stage, and progress is desperately needed before the end of this year.
The stakes are high. There is the prospect of elections next year, and a referendum, in 2011, which will give many ordinary Sudanese a say in their future for the first time. But if the parties are unable to resolve their current differences, the delicate peace will be put at risk.
Faith groups are working hard to improve the situation in Sudan. The Episcopal Church is a significant provider of basic services. Its education office has implemented a country-wide programme of teacher training, largely funded through the DfID. The Church is also playing a large part in building peace, partly by organising visits of influential leaders to areas of conflict.
With church leaders and others, I share the hope that this peace agreement will lead to a better life for millions of Sudanese. That is why the UK is supporting the peace negotiations, and why I offered further support to consolidating the peace when I was in Sudan.
We must all continue to urge both the North and South to keep the process on track. Its success is vital to a stable peace. For those families I met at the health clinic, and for millions of men and women across Sudan, a brighter future depends on it.
Gareth Thomas MP is Africa Minister at the Department for International Development.
To support the Episcopal Church of Sudan’s relief agency (sudan.anglican.org), email email@example.com.