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As South Sudan reaches independence, it is troubled by border violence in South Kordofan. But there are ways to help the new country thrive.
JUBA, South Sudan — This week, Americans celebrated their Independence Day. After years of being under the thumb of the British empire, our forefathers fought to determine the destiny of their own country. Two-hundred-and-thirty-five years later, another young nation is about to be born — this time in Africa.
The independence of South Sudan on July 9th will be an historic event: the culmination of a six-year process that ended a long, brutal civil war that caused the death of millions. Although the journey here was hard, people look towards the future. The enthusiasm among freedom-hungry South Sudanese is palpable, but independence will mark just the beginning — not the end — of the new nation’s struggles.
South Sudan will be one of the poorest countries in the world with limited roads, sporadic electricity, and a woefully inadequate number of schools and hospitals. The human toll of poverty is painfully clear: more than a quarter of South Sudan’s 8 million people do not have enough food, and more women die in childbirth than almost anywhere else in the world.
Conflict exacerbates these challenges; this has been especially true in recent weeks as violence has erupted along the border with Sudan. More than 100,000 people fled from the disputed Abyei region, where it is hoped that a tentative peace agreement and Ethiopian troops can halt recent fighting. Fighting in Southern Kordofan State — part of the North — made things worse, and cattle rustling, heavily armed rogue militias and crime have added to the violent mix. As a result of conflict, trade has ground to a halt, creating shortages of food and fuel.
These challenges have led many analysts to call South Sudan “the next failed state.” At best, they’re giving up way too soon; at worst, they’re creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.
But South Sudanese like Mayol Dau show that the new country can make progress. Dau is a teenager who lives in the border area of Twic county. He and his family returned to the South as refugees after the civil war ended in 2005. They had nothing. But Dau has become a young entrepreneur with a small business repairing and charging mobile phones. He makes about $25 a day, and is using his profits to pay for food and his school fees. Dau is ambitious and hopes to become a doctor.
Dau started his business with help from from Mercy Corps, which has operated in Sudan since 1985 assisting people and government institutions to improve basic health, education, access to water and sanitation.
Dau and his fellow citizens — especially young people — are South Sudan’s hope for the future. Here are the factors that can help them thrive:
1. Build on the hopes, ideas, priorities and resilience of the people. All development success and sustainability depends on the involvement and leadership of the people whose lives are at stake. In South Sudan there is a huge opportunity to positively channel people’s energy and excitement.
2. Focus on good governance. Citizens and government must be partners. Mercy Corps has been working with more than 100 citizens' groups to help them gain access to information such as voting procedures, public health alerts and financial education offerings, but much more work is needed to help people hold their government accountable.
3. Encourage private investment. The private sector can bring South Sudan goods, services and jobs. With abundant arable land and a favorable climate, agriculture holds particular promise. New technologies — such as mobile networks that provide farmers with technical assistance, financial services and market data — can give these efforts a boost.
4. Include all voices. From Tunis to Cairo, the passion of young people and women are fueling transformation. All people in South Sudan must be encouraged to actively participate in their communities, with special focus on the country’s too-often marginalized women and young people.
Finally, as attention is drawn to South Sudan, we must not forget people in the north. Whether they are northern or southern, pastoralists or agriculturalists, of Arab or of African descent, the Sudanese people are — above all — mothers, fathers and children who deserve a future.
As this new nation is born, the international community must step up and match the positive spirit that’s alive in South Sudan. The challenges cannot be discounted; they’re very real. But let’s think back on our own American forefathers and remember how much people can achieve when they’re building something new together.
The people of South Sudan are energized. They’re empowered. Let’s help them get to work.
Matthew Lovick is the Africa Director of the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps.