Issue 68 - Article 2

A ‘call to peacebuilding’: rethinking humanitarian and development activity in South Sudan

January 26, 2017
Freddie Carver
Children play in a child-friendly space in Nyal payam after fleeing fighting in Leer.

A common refrain from international staff working in South Sudan is talk of crises: humanitarian crises, economic crises, political crises, violent crises. Even in the period after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which by comparison with recent years seemed relatively stable, the UN still spoke in 2009 of a ‘humanitarian perfect storm’ resulting from high levels of violence, food insecurity and impending economic collapse. While South Sudan has undoubtedly been beset by extreme external and internal shocks over the last 20 years, too often our perceptions of permanent crisis are shaped by expectations of progress towards stability and growth which bear little relation to the actual situation in the country – or, worse, by a desire to raise profile or funds for our own organisations. The consequence is an international community that struggles to get out of reactive mode.

Not only does this make us less effective, but it is also based on a fundamentally flawed analysis. From the perspective of average South Sudanese citizens in the peripheries of the country, is this characterisation of endless shocks and crises meaningful? For many of them, has all that much really changed in the last 20 years? Violence, food insecurity, the availability of basic services: all have ebbed and flowed in different parts of the country, tied to a range of local, national and international factors, and while the impact of a few major events (notably the December 2013 violence) has been significant for many, as internationals we tend to overstate these effects – while the baseline of extreme vulnerability doesn’t change. Most recently, the signing of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Crisis in South Sudan in August 2015 led to a flurry of activity amongst the international community in Juba based on the ‘changed context’, but much of this was irrelevant to communities confronting the same challenges they’ve faced for decades. And while the events of the last six months are undoubtedly having a serious impact in many parts of the country, we can only understand these effects properly if we place them in the context of local trends rather than our perception of a ‘national’ narrative.

Understanding this perspective better – and introducing it into our thinking about how to support the delivery of humanitarian and development objectives – would help us avoid making the same mistakes again and again. Rather than the endless debates around shifting from a humanitarian mindset to more developmental approaches – and back again – it might help if we engaged with what’s really at work in South Sudan. Rather than seeing events in the country as a series of discrete but inter-related crises, we may more easily recognise the fundamental long-term drivers of conflict and think about how we might – in our small way – actually do something about them. In short, we might actually be able to promote peacebuilding in a more sustained and effective way.

Of course, none of this is easy – if it were then we would probably be doing it already. Worse, none of this is new – we have thousands of pages of best practice guides about how to operate in conflict-affected environments, telling us how to move from working in conflict to working on conflict, how to understand and influence conflict dynamics, how to avoid doing harm. We struggle to turn these into practice, but unless we can do something different, we are doomed to go round in the same circles, and continue to fail the people of South Sudan.

I’d like to propose three actions that all international actors can take as a starting-point for putting peacebuilding at the heart of their work.

1. Fundamentally rethink our timeframes

This is about more than the usual call for project cycles to be more than the standard one, two or three years, or for more continuity in international staff postings – as helpful as these things might be. It is about recognising that there are no quick fixes in a place like South Sudan, and that if we stop looking for them then we might be able to identify opportunities to work with longer-term dynamics in more meaningful ways.

The international approach to peacemaking in South Sudan has too often lined up behind the interests of elites that are focused primarily on themselves and those who stand behind them, with a collective focus on making sure the pie is divided up adequately amongst those able to hold the centre to ransom: talk of increasing the ‘inclusivity’ of current arrangements is sadly likely to translate into just more of the same. But we now have many years of evidence that such deals are too narrow to improve the lot of the wider population, and that, in the last three years, these elite pacts have not even managed to produce the short-term stability that is generally used to justify this kind of realpolitik approach.

And so a strategy that puts all our efforts on promoting peace at this level seems misguided. Rather than seeking to impose peace from the top down, we should instead ask what building it from the bottom up would look like in practice. Rather than seeing things through the lenses of our own institutions and those that we understand (primarily those of the state), we should take as our starting point the institutions that are really meaningful in people’s lives – kin, tribe, agemate sets, the churches – and consider how our interventions can positively work with these institutions to build peace. Such engagements won’t lend themselves to time-bound projects with easily measurable milestones, but they do give us an opportunity to build greater resilience into our activities. These are not institutions that are going to suddenly disappear overnight, and this might allow us to think about what 10-, 15- or 20-year interventions to build real social capital and invest in a more peaceful future might look like – whatever happens in the political sphere.

There is experience of this kind of work – for example, the Swiss government’s history of seeking to engage with chiefs from across the country, most recently in the form of the Rift Valley Institute’s South Sudan Customary Authorities Project, or the support that has been provided over the years to help churches promote peacebuilding efforts – but too often when we do engage with these elements of South Sudanese society it is to instrumentalise these institutions to promote externally driven agendas, rather than providing the individuals involved with the space and time to shape their own. All outside actors working in South Sudan should be expected to spend more time understanding these complex institutions, which is perfectly feasible given the wealth of relevant research available. For example, on the subject of chieftainship and customary authority, Cherry Leonardi’s book Dealing with Government in South Sudan is particularly helpful. Cherry Leonardi, Dealing with Government in South Sudan: Histories of Chiefship, Community and State (Suffolk: James Currey, 2013).

2. Reframe the way we think about South Sudanese citizens

At a systemic level, the international community tends to see the South Sudanese population as passive recipients of our assistance, when in reality this couldn’t be further from the truth. The body of research demonstrating that dependency on food aid is exaggerated See for example Sarah Bailey and Simon Harrigan, Food Assistance, Reintegration and Dependency in South Sudan (London: ODI, 2009). is just one illustration of this. Every South Sudanese person we encounter is faced with a complex set of choices, and their agency to navigate these choices is one of the main assets available to the country if the situation is to improve. Our involvement – if it is meaningful at all – will always have an impact on these choices, and we should be asking ourselves more regularly whether we are expanding or reducing people’s agency.

This would present a different way in, for example to thinking about violence reduction. The violence that has affected South Sudan for so long ultimately relies on people being willing to pick up their weapons once again. Have we spent enough time understanding why this is the case, or considered what it means for where we might engage? Undoubtedly, in a country experiencing violence on as large a scale as South Sudan has for so many years, there are a range of environmental or ‘pull’ factors that enable future violence: the wide availability of weapons, extreme levels of trauma amongst the population, cycles of revenge and counter-revenge and the undermining of cultural norms against violence. But there is also a major ‘push’ factor: that for a population struggling on the edge of survival, as long as power and resources remain in the hands of military commanders, participating in violence is one of the most sustainable and realistic livelihood options available.

If our policies only increase the resources controlled by the various militarised chains of command, then we are unlikely to do much to change this. If, on the other hand, we can find ways to invest in increasing the resources available to ordinary South Sudanese independently of these authorities, then we might be able to increase their ability to say no the next time they are asked to fight. Livelihoods interventions have been a poor relation of programmes designed to strengthen the state in recent years, but – well-designed – may ultimately have a far greater impact on levels of violence.

Similarly, a concern for people’s individual agency might enable us to think differently about how we provide technical assistance, particularly to the government. Such support is almost by definition framed technocratically, seeking to enable the organs of the state to fulfill their functions more effectively. But in South Sudan there is little evidence to back up the basic underlying assumption behind such interventions: that there is a centralised state willing and able to implement a reasonably consistent set of policies. This is a major reason why so many of our capacity-building projects fail.

This isn’t to say that government capacity-building pro-grammes are worthless in a context like South Sudan, but it does imply that the logic that underpins them needs to be rethought. We need to recognise that, where there is such a distance between the institutions of the state and the ordinary realities of people’s lives, if we want to have an impact on the latter we cannot expect conventional approaches to be enough. It is down to creative and empowered individuals within these institutions to shape change in a way that will work in South Sudan. If we can frame our assistance in this way – supporting these individuals to fight their battles, based on relationships of mutual trust – then we might stand a greater chance of success.

3. Recognise our own political role

Politics is about the control of power and resources, allowing one set of people to dictate to others – forcefully or voluntarily. In South Sudan, the resource pool has been dominated in the last ten years by the oil revenues flowing from the centre out, providing a means to buy and retain loyalty across the country. But with these revenues severely diminished, the resources that the international community brings with it become increasingly significant from a political perspective. While the prospect of providing centralised budgetary support to the government (under serious con-sideration in 2013) is off the table for now, this does not mean that our resources do not play a political role in lending support to one or other party. We know from the days of Operation Lifeline Sudan how food assistance and support to basic services has played into local politics, with control over food distribution networks, for example, being a key asset for local commanders. For example, see Daniel Maxwell, Martina Santschi and Rachel Gordon, Looking Back to Look Ahead? Reviewing Key Lessons from Operation Lifeline Sudan and Past Humanitarian Operations in South Sudan, Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, 2014.

Recognising that this is the case does not mean giving up on principles of neutrality and impartiality, but it does mean accepting that we have a responsibility to understand the political impact of our assistance, and to think through how we can ensure that this impact promotes peace. We know that these principles bear little relation to how local actors see our inputs – something that is increasingly clear in the trend towards international assistance becoming a target of violence – and they won’t help us engage with the real power dynamics at play. If we aren’t willing to look at these issues, we are more likely to make poor decisions that may even contribute to conflict and violence. The majority of humanitarian actors know this reality because they live it every day, engaged in constant, complex political negotiations with local leaders on the ground, but there remains a reluctance to accept it publicly and discuss its implications.

This is not a call for all humanitarian assistance in South Sudan to align under some grand political strategy – this would be both unachievable and spell an end to anything that looks or feels remotely like humanitarian space. But it is to ask all actors to accept that their actions do have a political impact, and be willing to engage in both self-reflection and external dialogue about what that means given the wider political environment they are operating in. Where do we have points of influence with local political systems? How can we maximise these in the interests of peace? Where can we collaborate and coordinate to achieve this? And where should we be cautious about doing anything at all, given the risks of exacerbating violence? Making these questions a central part of decision-making processes for all external actors in South Sudan should help us promote peace in the long term.


As ever, saying what should or needs to happen is the easy bit – much harder is turning any of this into practical reality, particularly because it all requires such deep knowledge and understanding of the context at very localised levels. We tend to throw up our hands at this point and say that we just can’t do this, but that isn’t good enough – particularly in a country blessed with as rich a body of long-term anthropological and sociological research as South Sudan. Some of the capacity we need does exist, both locally and internationally, and we need to find better ways to make the most of it.

Some are already working on ways to help us think differently, with a number of recent and current initiatives holding out the prospect of improving the international community’s overall understanding. The South Sudan Humanitarian Project, launched in 2015, was established to improve the humanitarian community’s access to a wide range of contextual information. The South Sudan Peace Portal web-site, to be launched imminently, aims to inform and enhance theory and practice around peacebuilding in South Sudan through sharing experiences and providing a platform for different voices – particularly South Sudanese ones – to debate what a peaceful future looks like. And donors have recently established the Conflict Sensitivity Resource Facility, which will provide access to in-depth analysis and work with donors and implementing partners on the ground to help them engage with conflict issues. While none of these initiatives is a magic bullet on its own, together they point to a recognition that, unless we find practical ways to improve the way we do business, we – and South Sudan – are indeed doomed to perpetual crisis.

Freddie Carver is an independent conflict adviser.


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