South Sudan isn’t just the youngest nation on the planet, it also remains plagued by conflict and a lack of infrastructure and basic resources. Aid organizations have been rushing in over the past year to fill the void, only to find harsh working conditions and, often, bleak prospects for success.
The country “remains a complex place to work,” Jan Raats told Devex this week, just days after leaders from Juba and Khartoum reaffirmed their – some would say questionable – committment to a demilitarized zone near the border of South Sudan with Sudan. Raats serves as country director of the United Nations Office for Project Services’s South Sudan Operations Center.
The international community has a lot to learn about South Sudan, Raats acknowledged, especially if it is to push for sustainable development.
The biggest impediments to aid delivery relate to logistics, he suggested – perhaps not surprising since that is UNOPS’s focus.
“There are health risks as well as a population that is still heavily armed in an economic climate where pay to security forces is poor,” he added. “There are internal and external political issues that will continue to be risk factors.”
Here’s an email Raats shared with Devex, republished with his permission:
South Sudan remains a complex place to work. We have the expected post-conflict, limited resource environment that has minimal capacity and is beset by natural, and man-made, disasters. Within this context, and given that the country is one of the most underdeveloped in the world, I expected that upholding our core U.N. value of “do no harm,” would be the easiest aspect in sustainable development within both the humanitarian and nation-building space.
It was during a conversation with a Cabinet minister of the South Sudan government, about the years of war, adjusting to a post-conflict environment, and governing, as well as meeting the never-ending priority list of nation building that I came across a key element of sustainable development. We don’t know the country — particularly when it comes to sustainable infrastructure.
In building a road, an environmental impact assessment may tell us where we cross the migratory route for elephants. Or in setting up a refugee camp, where the winter floodwaters need to be directed so as not to flood the local market. Or where material for construction activities can be excavated in a way that creates a water hafir to mitigate against intertribal conflict. All of which are activities that increase sustainable development and “do no harm.”
A factor I have not integrated into my thinking, and planning, is the huge resource of knowledge many of those in government have, after spending two decades walking across the country during the years of conflict.
In opening a road, to increase food security through market access, enhancing peace building by allowing security forces to rapidly respond to cattle raiding, reducing child mortality by enabling women to easily access clinical services, and positively impacting on the lives of girls by creating safe routes free from violence, are we creating long-term problems by not knowing that this same road is now opening areas for loggers to exploit a previously inaccessible resource? Or that the road will link two communities, rekindling a decades old conflict?
My task for the New Year is to access this pool of knowledge and as such achieve sustainable development that also does no harm.