Issue 57 - Article 1

South Sudan'’s greatest humanitarian challenge: development

May 16, 2013
Toby Lanzer
Cattle herd in Abyei

Independence was a milestone in the history of South Sudan, raising hopes for long-lasting peace and stability, development and economic growth. Well into the second year of independence, the challenges remain enormous and there are regular setbacks. One key question has been how we can continue to respond to emergencies without losing sight of longer-term development needs. This article elaborates on some of the key socio-economic challenges in South Sudan, with a particular focus on food insecurity. Food aid constitutes the bulk of the international community’s humanitarian response in South Sudan, with 2.7 million people receiving food assistance in 2012. Overcoming food insecurity is also among the government’s key development priorities. The fight against food insecurity therefore requires action that saves lives in the short run, and addresses the structural causes of widespread hunger.

Progress has been made

The debate about ‘linking’ relief and development is by no means new. Operation Lifeline Sudan, which started in 1989 and continued until early 2005, was among the first protracted emergency responses where international organisations ‘widened’ lifesaving assistance to encompass recovery support and integrate development approaches in order to counter food insecurity. This approach has not been without criticism. See for example Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal, Humanitarianism Unbound? Current Dilemmas Facing Multi-mandate Relief Operations in Political Emergencies, African Rights Discussion Paper 5, 1994; and Ataul Karim et al., Operation Lifeline Sudan: A Review, 1996.  The challenge of combatting structural food insecurity in South Sudan with humanitarian action persists today, albeit in a different political reality.

In the years since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, important progress has been made in state-building, including the formation of functioning national and state governments and the establishment of key rule of law institutions such as the police, the prison service and the judiciary. The number of children enrolled in primary school increased six-fold between 2005 and 2012, from 300,000 to 1.8 million, infant mortality decreased by 25%, the number of skilled midwives is growing and polio has been eradicated.

Despite this progress, people in South Sudan are poor and the country remains the recipient of large-scale international assistance. The Consolidated Appeal for 2013 is the second largest in the world after Somalia, seeking $1.16 billion. Over 50% of the population lives below the poverty line and life expectancy is 42 years. Maternal mortality rates are amongst the highest in the world, with 2,054 deaths for every 100,000 births. Notwithstanding improving education figures, only 10% of children actually finish primary school, and fewer than 2% are enrolled in secondary education. Limited government capacity to deliver basic services means that a significant portion of the population remains in need of food, healthcare and education provided by aid agencies.

Over the last three years, more than 10% of the population has been severely food insecure and another 30% moderately food insecure, with peaks during the hunger season, a period of scarcity between harvests that runs from May to August. Various forms of undernutrition have been prevalent in South Sudan for many years, including severe acute malnutrition, reflecting short-term nutritional deficiency. Chronic malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency reflect the long-term effects of poor nutrition as a result of inadequate diets.

Compounding the threats to people’s already fragile livelihoods has been the government’s decision to stop oil production in January 2012. Oil production resumed in April 2013.  With oil revenues accounting for 98% of government revenue, the shutdown has prompted deep cuts in public spending. These problems are exacerbated by seasonal flooding, displacement, loss of assets, high food prices and the closure of the border with Sudan following conflict in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, cutting off major trade routes between Sudan and South Sudan.

A complex humanitarian operation

Humanitarian action in South Sudan is complex and involves large-scale, multi-sector coordination. By the end of 2012, the UN and partners were delivering humanitarian assistance in 52 of South Sudan’s 79 counties. Given the limited road network and the fact that large areas are inaccessible for six months of the year due to heavy rains, the humanitarian operation is also costly. It requires meticulous planning and timely prepositioning of emergency stocks in deep field locations during the dry season.

Emergency operations are partly in response to shocks, the impact of which is difficult to predict. For example, 2012 saw the arrival of refugees fleeing to South Sudan as a result of ongoing violence in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states in Sudan. While at the beginning of 2012 humanitarian partners had planned for 80,000 new arrivals, this number had to be revised upwards when more than 112,000 people crossed the border to seek refuge between April and July alone. As of December 2012, according to UNHCR, there were 170,000 refugees from Sudan in South Sudan. Humanitarian response in 2012 was also directed at assisting around 190,000 people affected by communal violence in Jonglei, and over 155,000 South Sudanese returnees from Sudan. A further 260,000 people were affected by floods, three times as many as in the previous year.

While the exact scope of humanitarian needs in South Sudan is not always easy to predict, as last year’s refugee situation has showed us, we know that hunger and undernutrition are persistent and seasonally recurring problems in South Sudan. This year, the UN and partners plan to reach 2.3m people with food assistance, and nutritional services will be provided to an estimated 3.2m.

Enormous potential

South Sudan’s agricultural potential is enormous, and encompasses crops, horticulture, fish, livestock and forests. Conditions generally favour production and, in theory, there should be no food shortages. Yet this year the annual cereal deficit is expected to be around 350,000 metric tonnes – less than last year, but more than in 2010, when the deficit was 225,000 metric tonnes. Food imports accounted for nearly half of all imports in 2010. The portion of South Sudan’s national budget spent on agriculture is currently 5.2%, although the president recently pledged to increase this to 10% in line with the African Union target as set out in the Maputo Declaration of 2003.

With an estimated cattle population of 12.2m and an asset value of $2.4bn, South Sudan has the sixth-largest cattle economy in Africa and the largest per capita. However, extremely high livestock mortality means that South Sudanese are losing millions of animals each year, reducing the proportion of herds suitable for commercial trade. With a land area of 648,000 square kilometres, most of which is suitable for livestock rearing, there is immense potential for the sector to meet domestic demand for livestock products, provide surplus for exports and generate enough income to provide a pathway out of poverty. Fish are available in large quantities, but the sector remains largely unexploited and investment in processing, storage and preservation is lacking.

More than 80% of the population lives in rural areas, relying principally on livelihood systems that include rain-fed, smallscale agriculture, fishing, livestock and natural resource extraction. Decades of civil war prevented households from undertaking long-term production activities as they sought to avert risks. With almost no access to irrigation, food production is largely determined by rainfall, despite the fact that one of the world’s mightiest rivers flows through the country. More advanced agricultural techniques and agricultural value chains have yet to be introduced. Further factors undermining food production include a lack of appropriate storage and poor road connections, making it difficult for food to reach markets.

It is in this context of under-development that recurring emergencies lead to humanitarian response. Humanitarian assistance in the context of a crisis saves lives. But by solely responding to humanitarian needs we fail to address the underlying causes that undermine sustainable livelihoods, agricultural production and economic growth and perpetuate the pattern of emergency. In supporting the world’s newest country, we need to help South Sudanese avert crises, not merely respond to them.

The right kind of programmes

Addressing food security and breaking the cycle of hunger requires investment in the right kind of programmes. This is why the UN has been working with the government and NGO partners to design programmes that address shortterm needs and at the same time build the resilience of households and communities. In the past year, food security partners have strengthened their links with other actors, including in the nutrition sector. Approaches to food insecurity increasingly have an eye for human capital. For instance, daily feeding programmes in some 1,350 schools aim to prevent children from dropping out. Using food assistance, communities are being organised to address the causes of food insecurity, for example by building roads that connect them to markets, health facilities and schools. Farmer field schools have been instrumental in the increased use of ox-ploughs in some states, leading to higher agricultural production. In 2012, 2,000 farmers were trained on 76 farmer field schools in six states. Discussions have begun on addressing rural labour shortages by creating cash schemes for urban, unemployed youth. Institutional capacity to detect food insecurity is being strengthened by establishing monitoring systems in the National Bureau of Statistics. The establishment of a strategic food reserve will provide relief after harvest failures.

Most people in South Sudan find themselves in a continuous mode of survival, and will need humanitarian assistance for some time to come. However, in order to make meaningful progress in attaining food security we need to strengthen our collective focus on building resilience. Similarly, we need to continue to build government capacity to deliver health and education services, strengthen governance and rule of law institutions and further professionalise the armed forces. These processes are long and difficult, and may not yield the rapid results that humanitarian action can achieve. Nevertheless, in order to build a viable and sustainable state in which people are able to cope with shocks without large-scale and costly emergency assistance, addressing under-development requires our increased support.

Toby Lanzer is UN Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Resident Development and Humanitarian Coordinator, South Sudan.


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