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South Sudan could thrive with right investment, says Tearfund

21 June 2024

TOM PRICE/TEARFUND 2024

Since returning to Kajo Keji and taking part in Tearfund’s training at her local church, Mary, 42, has built a small enterprise baking and selling bricks. She is busy laying the foundations for her family and community to thrive as more refugees return home

Since returning to Kajo Keji and taking part in Tearfund’s training at her local church, Mary, 42, has built a small enterprise baking and selling bri...

SOUTH SUDAN, currently battling hyperinflation, a hunger crisis, and intercommunal violence, could “thrive” with the right investment and good governance, Tearfund’s local country director has said.

Speaking last week as the charity prepared to launch a major appeal, Erickson Bisetsa paid tribute to the “incredible resilience and strength” of the people of South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, describing how communities had come together to rebuild and celebrate their “rich cultural” heritage, including music, dance, and traditional crafts.

“If peace and political stability were established, South Sudan could thrive,” he said. “With effective resource management, investment in infrastructure, and governance reforms, South Sudan could embark on a path towards sustainable development and prosperity. The humanitarian crisis in South Sudan is primarily a ‘man-made’ catastrophe, fuelled by internal conflicts and political instability.”

In the 13 years since South Sudan gained independence, it has been riven by conflict: a civil war that erupted after clashes between supporters of the President and his former deputy (News, 20 December 2013), and outbreaks of intercommunal violence. Among the human-rights atrocities recorded was the rape of women in churches (News, 21 August, 6 November 2015). Bishops condemned a failure of political leadership as thousands died of hunger in what the UN described as a man-made famine. By the time a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2018, 400,000 people had died.

“Life in South Sudan remains extremely difficult and challenging,” Mr Bisetsa said. “For ordinary citizens trying to buy the things they need, hyperinflation means that many cannot afford the basics. This poverty has led to a rise in criminality, particularly in urban settings.

“Persistent inter-communal violence stemming from deep-seated ethnic tensions, and competition for resources, too often results in deaths, people fleeing their homes, and property damage. Climate shocks such as the threat of flooding, pose another significant concern, as floods can destroy crops and homes, leaving people once again without enough to eat.”

This month, the UN reported that the country, one of the world’s poorest, was in the grip of a “devastating hunger crisis”, exacerbated by the arrival of 630,000 people returning, and refugees from Sudan. Seven million people — almost two-thirds of the population — face “acute food insecurity”, according to the World Food Programme. The maternal mortality rate remains the worst in the world.

In addition to severe drought in some areas, flooding — which has occurred for four consecutive years, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and destroyed homes, crops, and livestock — has challenged the delivery of aid, Mr Bisetsa said. Roads have been cut off, and Tearfund’s vehicles grounded. A speedboat had been deployed to take food and nutrition supplies to vulnerable people, including pregnant women and children in hard-to-reach areas. “We need to work together to build up resilience to extreme weather shocks at the community level,” he said.

South Sudan is rich in natural resources, but corruption is widespread. South Sudanese politicians acknowledge that theft of state oil revenues has been widespread since 2005, according to Crisis Group, which has described the country’s internal politics as “deeply poisoned”. Basic services have suffered while income from oil is ploughed instead into defence and security. Less than one in ten people have access to electricity, while 70 per cent lack basic health-care services.

Against a backdrop of dysfunctional governance and a political leadership that has prioritised its own interests, churches in South Sudan have played a crucial part in development. In addition to the delivery of food, medical care, education, and shelter, the Church had been fostering social cohesion, Mr Bisetsa reported. It was “crucial in promoting peace at both national and grass-roots levels”, bringing together various ethnic and political groups for reconciliation.

Among the work in the country that will be supported by Tearfund’s Summer Appeal, which opened on Friday, is the Transforming Communities programme, which helps church leaders to “imagine a thriving community”, and then equips them with the knowledge and skills to realise their vision. Women have started income-generating activities, such as weaving baskets for sale, or baking bricks for house building, while in Mundri, Western Equatoria, communities have mobilised to establish an early childhood development centre and a primary school.

Churches were also playing a vital part in supporting those returning, who had fled South Sudan during earlier conflicts and often arrived back with nothing, Mr Bisetsa reported. Food, water, shelter, and health care were all urgently needed. But demand was outstripping supply.

The refugee crisis is the largest in Africa, with more than 2.3 million South Sudanese hosted in neighbouring countries, and more than two million internally displaced. The United Nations has described South Sudan as the site of a “forgotten crisis”. UK aid for the country halved between 2020 and 2023, from £156 million to £76 million, while the UNHCR reports that, last year, partners received only 21 per cent of the resources needed to support South Sudanese refugees.

UNHCR has raised particular concern about the mental health of young South Sudanese refugees, who were, it said, “losing hope for their future due to limited opportunities”. About 44 per cent of the population of South Sudan — where life expectancy stands at just 58.8 years — is under the age of 15.

“The mindset of youth in South Sudan, especially among those who are refugees and who have experienced prolonged conflict, is characterised by a profound sense of hopelessness and discontent,” Mr Bisetsa said last week. “Many young people find themselves grappling with the crippling effects of trauma, anxiety, and depression, all of which are further exacerbated by the relentless instability and unpredictability of their circumstances. Dreams and aspirations, once cherished, often wither in the face of limited resources and woefully inadequate infrastructure.”

With elections due to be held in December — “a crucial step towards stability and progress” — there remained grounds for hope, he said, referring to the building of more schools, the promotion of sustainable agriculture, and efforts to empower women.

This month, Tearfund shared the story of Mary as an illustration of the resilience, industry, and creativity of the South Sudanese people, and the transforming power of local churches. Mary, a 42-year-old widow raising four children and another whose own mother had died, she fled her home town of Kajo Keji for a settlement camp in Uganda during the civil war, after her husband died. She returned in 2020, and, in 2021, the parish priest invited her to a Transforming Communities workshop. In addition to selling baskets at a nearby market, she has led the formation of a community self-help group, harnessed local land to grow cassava and groundnuts, laid bricks to construct additional rooms for her children, started rearing goats, and served as a “gender champion” in a Tearfund programme, “Transforming Masculinities”.

Between 21 June and 11 August, Tearfund’s summer appeal will be match-funded by supporters. You can give online at tearfund.org/poverty, or phone 020 3906 3906. 

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