Oil not South Sudan’s only hope

Unlocking potential: Aid will save lives, but the country must be careful not to rely on oil for its survival. (Peter Martell)

Unlocking potential: Aid will save lives, but the country must be careful not to rely on oil for its survival. (Peter Martell)

During a recent visit to Jonglei State, I met communities in Akobo and Pibor, the most insecure counties in South Sudan. They shared their fears, challenges and aspirations.  

Their neighbours had just lost their livestock to cattle raiders, a frequent practice every dry season in Jonglei State.
I was struck by the children who, in the midst of a cloud of despair dashing the hopes of many in Jonglei, still have dreams. They want to be teachers, doctors, nurses, soldiers, even pilots.

As United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator for South Sudan, I felt the weight of their dreams. The past eight months that I have been here, I have witnessed the expectation of development and economic growth gradually thaw into impatience.

We need to apply a broader analysis to South Sudan. Independence marked the beginning of a long and hard journey, as the government inherited a country with virtually nothing in terms of infrastructure and services, where more than 80% of the population lives in rural areas. The oil taps, which contributed 98% of the country’s annual budget and upon which the hope of South Sudan depends, have remained clogged by discussion after discussion and delay in the implementation of agreements.

The country is grappling with a quickly worsening financial situation and subsequent austerity measures that have derailed the government’s ability to offer services. That has meant that survival for many South Sudanese has remained at  subsistence level, highlighting the vulnerability of an economy that relies on one source of income at a time when opportunities to diversify have yet to be explored.  

Tension with Sudan and internal hostilities displaced about 190 000 people in 2012 alone. Seasonal flooding affected more than 313 000 people across the country and 2.7-million people were food insecure. More than 155 000 South Sudanese who returned home from Sudan in 2012 still face resettlement challenges. The country hosts 216 000 refugees, 190 000 of whom are from Sudan. In 2013, the humanitarian community predicts that the refugees will spike to 350 000, mainly from Sudan. Hostilities are likely to displace more than 200 000 people and about 125 000 more South Sudanese may return from Sudan. About 2.3-million still require food assistance.

Aid will save lives, but there is a need to think beyond the oil-resumption box and unlock the potential in other sectors of the economy.

South Sudan is endowed with enormous other opportunities. The Nile River, one of the world’s mightiest, remains barely exploited. Combined with fertile soil and climatic conditions that allow for the production of a wide variety of crops, the country’s food production could be boosted significantly. However, lack of investment and simple technology means that only 4.5% of arable land is being cultivated, exposing millions to hunger. Food imports accounted for nearly half of all imports in 2010. The percentage of South Sudan’s budget spent on agriculture is 5.2%, though there is a commitment to increase this to 10%.

Livestock and fisheries have vast potential. South Sudan ranks sixth in the cattle economy in Africa, with an estimated cattle population of 12.2-million and an asset value of $2.4-billion. However, animal diseases and extraordinarily high livestock mortality means the loss of millions of animals each year. Similarly, fish are available in large quantities, but exploiting this opportunity would require investment in modern processing and preservation.

Within the UN, our aspiration to link peace, development and humanitarian work are spurred by the sight of vulnerable children such as those I met in Jonglei. It is the above initiatives that we must work towards, in partnership with their government: addressing food security, improving education, diversifying livelihoods, supporting accountable governance, security sector reform and reintegration of returnees. A tall order you might think, but those of us on the ground in the capital of the world’s youngest nation are working assiduously with the people and state of South Sudan to move things forward.

Toby Lanzer is UN deputy special representative and resident development and humanitarian co-ordinator for South Sudan.

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