Oil worker in Unity State, South Sudan Oil worker in Unity State, South Sudan Photo credit: ENOUGH Project
Changing livelihoods in South Sudan
by Luka Biong Deng May 2013

Livelihoods in South Sudan are based on transhuman animal husbandry, agriculture, fishing, trade and gathering wild food, with various combinations of these elements making up specific household economies depending on each zone’s agro-ecological conditions and tribal traditions and culture. Livelihood systems were first mapped out by Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) in the mid-1990s. Using the Household Economy Analysis (HEA) framework, seven distinct zones were identified (Figure 1). These zones are still used in livelihoods planning and analysis today. Livelihood systems in these zones have undergone drastic changes during the prolonged civil war (1983-–2005) and in the period of post-conflict transition and independence (2005-–present). This article traces key aspects of these changes.


The impact of the civil war on livelihoods

The 1983–-2005 conflict and how it was conducted had a dramatic impact on livelihoods in South Sudan. Government bombing campaigns, helicopter raids in what are now Upper Nile, Unity and Jonglei states and periodic raids in Bahr el Ghazal caused widespread terror, death (of both people and livestock) and displacement. During the 1990s over 40% of families in Northern Bahr el Ghazal lost all of their livestock. This was a major contributing factor to the famine that struck Bahr el Ghazal in 1998.+A. Catley et al., Policies, Practice and Participation in Complex Emergencies: The Case of Livestock Interventions in South Sudan, Case Study for the Agriculture and Development Economics Division of FAO (Medford, MA: Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, and FAO, 2005).

Households across South Sudan tried to mitigate risk and adapt their livelihood strategies to these circumstances by relying much more on wild foods and fishing, and by moving animals outside of traditional grazing areas. Some households sent household members, particularly women and children, to northern Sudan and major towns in southern Sudan, on their own or to stay with relatives, both to protect them and for employment opportunities and education.

Households also diversified agricultural production by planting different crops and intercropping, reducing the number of fields planted and planting in different fields, staggering plantings and using drought-resistant varieties. To minimise looting of animals and grain during attacks, households retained more livestock and grain, moving animals farther from homesteads and storing grain underground. Some households ‘subcontracted’ the management of livestock to close relatives or friends engaged in pure pastoralism.


The war had a contradictory effect on kinship and community ties and related social support mechanisms. In communities affected by internal conflict such ties were weakened, whereas in communities attacked by outsiders they were strengthened. For example, communities in the Gogrial area were subject to raids by their own people – Dinka militia, who targeted better-off people with assets. In contrast, external (northern or ‘Arab’) militia attacked entire communities in Abyei. Figures 2 and 3 show the different ways in which communities in these areas adjusted their livelihood activities to mitigate the risks they faced.+Both figures and accompanying analysis appear in Luka Biong Deng, ‘Confronting Civil War: The Case of Risk Managing Strategies in South Sudan in the 1990s’, presentation to the High Level Forum on Protracted Crises, Rome, 13–14 September 2012.

Before the civil war, the Dinka economy in Bahr el Ghazal was based on transhumant animal husbandry, agriculture, fishing, trade and some gathering of wild foods.+L. Deng, Famine in the Sudan: Causes, Preparedness and Response: A Political, Social and Economic Analysis of the 1998 Bahr el Ghazal Famine, IDS Discussion Paper 369 (Brighton: IDS, 1999). During the war, communities in Abyei did not change their sources of livelihoods markedly, but those in the Gogrial area did, reducing farming and livestock-rearing activities and replacing them with gathering of wild foods (Figure 3). Despite these livelihood adaptations, poverty levels increased among all communities, but rose most sharply among non-poor households and communities exposed to attacks by internal forces.

Livelihoods in the post-war period

The long civil war finally ended in 2005, with the conclusion of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). A Joint Assessment Mission (JAM) report in March 2005 laid out a programme for the transition from war to peace in the south. Key elements of this programme included developing infrastructure, prioritising agriculture, the provision of basic services, regenerating social capital, including the safe return and reintegration of internally displaced people and refugees, and developing institutional infrastructure and governance.+The Joint Assessment Mission, or JAM, was initiated in December 2003, and was conducted with the guidance and participation of the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The primary objective of the JAM was to provide a detailed assessment of rehabilitation and transitional recovery needs for the immediate post-CPA period. Six years later, in 2011, South Sudan declared its independence from Sudan, making it the world’s newest country.

deng-fig-4Eighty-five per cent of South Sudan’s people live in rural areas. More than 83% of the poorest 20% of households are engaged in non-wage work in agriculture or livestock rearing. In contrast, 57% of the richest 20% of households work in agriculture, and 27% live mostly on wages and salaries (Figure 4).

deng-fig-5Agricultural production has not significantly improved following the peace agreement, and the area cultivated, production levels and yields remain about the same as they were during the conflict (as shown in Figure 5); indeed, if data on the area cultivated and levels of production before the peace agreement are adjusted to account for conflict conditions one could easily conclude that the level of agricultural activity has in fact declined since the end of the war. In 2003, the yield per hectare was higher than in 2009 and 2010. Only 4% of arable land is cultivated and only 20% of livestock production potential has been realised.+WFP, Southern Sudan: Annual Needs and Livelihoods Assessment 2010–2011 (Rome: WFP, 2010). South Sudan imports the majority of its food, including grain, frozen fish and vegetables, from neighbouring countries.

deng-fig-6Most of the rural population remains food insecure and levels of malnutrition are stubbornly high (Figure 6). Meanwhile, new forms of insecurity have emerged in the wake of the CPA and independence which have also affected rural livelihoods. Relations with Sudan are poor, and the government in Khartoum has used militias in an attempt to destabilise the new administration in Juba. Law enforcement systems are weak and there has been little attempt at reconciliation to heal the wounds of the prolonged civil war.

South Sudan’s failure to realise its potential as an agricultural producer may in part be a consequence of the migration from rural to urban areas that followed the conclusion of the CPA, attracted by significant government investment in construction, the provision of public services and increased employment opportunities. Juba, the capital of South Sudan, witnessed a rapid boom in construction and employment and a significant increase in demand for consumer goods, housing and services with the influx of foreigners. Inhabitants of the farming communities that had traditionally supplied Juba and other urban areas in South Sudan, as well as exporting their agricultural produce to border towns in Uganda, found it more lucrative to work in Juba than to continue farming.

The ‘resource curse’

Despite the predominance of agriculture and livestock in local livelihoods, South Sudan’s economy is overwhelmingly dependent on oil. Oil accounts for 98% of the country’s total exports and over 80% of its gross domestic product. No other oil-exporting country is as highly dependent on this one commodity. The extra income from oil exports is spent on non-tradable goods such as construction and services, pushing their prices up relative to the prices of traditional goods. While public spending in South Sudan on agriculture, including livestock and fisheries, remains extremely low (less than 5% of total public expenditure), public spending on non-tradable services and infrastructure has been relatively high (about 20% of total public expenditure).

The dangers inherent in such extreme over-reliance were laid bare in January 2012, when the government suspended oil production after failing to resolve a dispute with Sudan over oil export terms and payments. With no alternative means for exporting its oil, South Sudan was forced to introduce severe austerity measures. However, the loss of oil revenue has also prompted the government to improve its fiscal discipline, maximise non-oil revenue (mainly taxes and budgetary assistance) and reduce the economy’s dependence on oil exports, notably by seeking to develop the agricultural sector. Oil production resumed in April 2013, and it is too soon to say whether the government will continue with these measures. If it does so, it may stand a better chance of making oil a blessing, rather than a curse.


Livelihood systems in South Sudan have undergone drastic and volatile changes over the last three decades. These changes require a thorough and in-depth understanding as a prerequisite for any policy towards sustainable livelihood recovery in South Sudan. Critical to this will be the establishment and embedding of security and the rule of law across South Sudan. Besides the focus on strengthening the state’s monopoly over the means of violence, addressing the challenges of regenerating and rebuilding social capital in the wake of the conflict is critical for building sustainable grassroots peace among communities. This in turn can help to rebuild the kinship support systems that underpin the resilience of Southern Sudanese livelihoods. To do this effectively, a more nuanced understanding of how different forms of conflict have affected different communities is necessary. It is important that peacebuilding efforts address conflict both within and between communities, as experience in Gogrial and Abyei shows that such internal conflict can have a greater negative impact on livelihoods than conflict generated by external actors. South Sudan will also need to draw on experiences from other oil-rich countries in adopting appropriate policies to ensure that oil revenue is used to transform the agricultural sector and promote private sector development. This will be central, not only for addressing the challenges of livelihood diversification, but also for achieving sustainable peace and development.

Luka Biong Deng is currently a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, John F. Kennedy School of Government. He recently stepped down as representative of the President of the Republic of South Sudan on the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee, where he was co-chair. He served as Minister of Cabinet Affairs in the united Sudan and as Minister in the Office of the President of the government of South Sudan. He also held the post of senior economist at the World Bank in Southern Sudan.