The Absurdity of Peace-building in South Sudan (II)

By Tongun Lo Loyuong

September 18, 2013 (SSNA) — The absurdity of peace-building in South Sudan (II) picks up from where it was left off in the previous reflection on the absurdity of peace-building in South Sudan (I) (posted on the blog: One area where peace-building absurdity is strongly felt in South Sudan is the largely duplicate and ineffectual humanitarian and development programs of the various “life-savers”—international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and the mostly brief-case local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have sprouted all over the country.

Unsurprisingly most INGOs (we need not be detained by the local NGOs here as this is a whole different Can of Worms better left for another occasion) follow the operational pattern charted out by the so-called “technical peace” model discussed in the previous piece. Some refer to this as the “professionalization” of humanitarian work. One person even remarked that these INGOs “live off our suffering.” It seems South Sudan is now a theatre where the so-called humanitarian workers catapult their carriers forward more so than the “make a difference” or life-saving rhetoric that dominates the mission statements of most of these INGOs. But there is more to this absurdity than the failure of a one-size-fits-all, a professionalization or a technical peace approach that characterizes humanitarian and development programs implemented by INGOs in South Sudan. Let us set the parameters of what is being discussed here.

According to 2010 official record of INGOs operating in South Sudan as mentioned on South Sudan NGO Forum website, there are a staggering “over 155 international NGOs registered and equally as many national NGOs.” It is logical to conclude that these figures are not static, and may have increased exponentially with possible continued bolting and congregation of INGOs in South Sudan, in the past three years, particularly in major towns and city centers where the need is less dire. Without overly reducing the contribution of some of these INGOs to merely a quest for carrier-making forays, what some also call “conflict tourism,” peace-building, and particularly its coordination is an area that can be scrutinized with some degree of certainty.

It is almost generally accepted by many, including academic think tanks that political, inter-communal or otherwise violence persists in South Sudan and may have even escalated since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. It was only recently that South Sudan was ranked fourth critically failed state in the world according to this year’s failed states annual index compiled by the prominent think tank, Fund for Peace (F4P) and the Foreign Policy Magazine (FPM). Of note is that this failed state ranking was attained under the presence and watchful eyes of the numerous INGOs and global humanitarian and peacekeeping institutions in the land. Hence they are as equally complicit in presiding over this failure. Of course our guarantors, particularly the United States and United Kingdom deny this and prefer the term “fragile state” in reference to South Sudan’s failed state status, as if this is a reason to leap for joy and celebrate! Nonetheless, it is understandable why. It is very rare that people take responsibility for failure, though they tend to quickly lay a claim to success.

But by the admission of the Harvard-based senior member of the ruling SPLM establishment on Sudan Tribune, facts remain: “South Sudan was ranked number four (4) of the failed states, ranked number 143 in terms of Global Peace Index out of 162 countries, classified as not free country in terms of Freedom in the World Index, ranked number 124 out of 179 countries in terms of Freedom of Press Index, got six (6) scores in terms of Status of Political Rights compared with the least free score of seven (7) and got five (5) scores in terms of status of Civil Liberties compared with the least free score of seven (7)…these global indices squarely put South Sudan in the group of bad countries…” Numbers, unlike other indicators add up and do not lie.

The methodology or rather the indicators used by F4P and FPM in determining South Sudan’s failed state status despite the active presence and activities of the life-savers INGOs, some of which have been operational in the country from time immemorial, is even more emphatic. Some of the key indicators include social indicators, such as demographic pressures or social pressures caused by disease outbreak, natural disasters, famine or food insecurity, water scarcity and mortality, among others. Then there are social pressures caused by persistence of popular or group grievance that translate to communal or ethnic violence, and tribal discrimination, among others. Other social indicators include influx of refugees from neighboring countries, mass movement of internally displaced people (IDPs) as a result of political violence, draught, famine, flood or otherwise; and migration to exile or the so-called human flight and brain drain of the state for various reasons.

Economic indicators are also examined, such as economic disparities and uneven distribution of resources or lack of economic and infrastructure development, unemployment and prevalence of abject poverty and economic destitution, among others. The F4P and FPM also look at other indicators in this category, such as political power struggle between factionalized ruling elites; and the degree of external intervention—the presence of peacekeepers and the extent of other foreign assistance provided to the weak, fragile or failing state or whatever you want to call it.

And finally political and military indicators are also tested. This may include but not limited to factors such as widespread corruption, inequitable political representation in state institutions and political decision-making that fairly reflects the social composition and identity diversity of the state; poor human rights protection and lack of impartial rule of law enforcement; insecurity and absence f adequate social service delivery, including affordable quality health services and quality education, among others. Together these various indicators are tested against the state’s political will and ability to determine its status. Can South Sudan be credibly described as a state with a political will and ability that has succeeded in managing these pressures? You be the judge. Yes as some maintain, South Sudan is a nascent state and starting from crap. And some of these pressures are inherited from the region, particularly our old and ailing state, Sudan. But is this not the task of peace-building to appreciate this complex environment and comprehensively address these issues? It has been almost ten years since the CPA came. It is enough time to measure successes or failures of long term humanitarian and development initiatives to this end.

The absurdity of peace-building in South Sudan is precisely to be found in the apparent impotence to amicably deal with local socio-cultural dynamics and complexities in conflict impact assessment (CIA), strategic design, implementation and evaluation of humanitarian and development programs. In an informal conversation I have had recently with one man of God, here is how he aptly captured the gist of peace-building absurdity and humanitarian and development efforts in South Sudan. He observed: “and then another thing, if you want to help me be straightforward with me and say I want to help you. But to zigzag with me, I cannot accept it…. This is the thing that really aggravates the humanitarian situation.

“For me, this issue of compromise does not exist, because I am dealing with human beings who are in need. There is no time to compromise. And there is no time to say let us do survey, let us [expats] do visits to the field. Visits to the field are done by us the local people. While you go and make assessments and visits and commissions and sub-commissions and studies and papers, people are dying. A drowned man does not need some person to see how he is drowning. He needs immediately to be taken out of the water. It is may be a different way of looking at things that we can sit at a table and we can reason as mature human beings. I appreciate what they [NGOs] are doing for us, I do. But also I say ok I am the father of these children and I want to highlight this issue more than that.

“You know there are some people who come to you and say we want to help you, but we want to help you to do that. And I tell them but that is not my priority. It is just like somebody building a house. And I tell him what I need is a kitchen and a bathroom. And he says to me no, I will build for you the shower and the balcony. And I am going to tell him I don’t want it you can keep the money. Our partners as we call them should be informed on our priorities as we see them. We are at the grassroots level; we know our people; we know our situation; we know our strength. Mind you our people are capable of doing things, and they don’t need to be told what they need and how to do it. Let them treat people with dignity.”

What this local man of God has described can be characterized as the “coordination dilemma” which is a topic of much debate in humanitarian and peace-building affairs. Let me come back to the coordination dilemma momentarily. But there is a wider peace-building debate over contested understandings of peace-building thought and praxis. As Michael Barnett et al. have eloquently posited in their piece entitled “Peacebuilding: What is in a Name?,” “although peacebuilding is generically defined as external interventions that are designed to prevent the eruption or return of armed conflict, there are critical differences among actors regarding its conceptualization and operationalization.” Consequently, it is fair to say that peace-building as has been practiced in South Sudan thus far, is in the eye of the beholder. Its conceptualization often remains alien to our local cultures, subjective, self-interested, mandate-driven and relative to the culture of the implementing institution. For this reason, there then emerges group consensuses on peace-building theorizing and practice around which likeminded organizations and institutions, possessing similar mandates and pursuing similar interests and goals seem to coalesce and form “peace-building” cantons, and hence the ineffectual practice of peace-building in South Sudan. Technical peace and professionalization of humanitarian work as is currently practiced in South Sudan is not working, and needs serious re-thinking and paradigm shift in implementation. What this paradigm shift should look like is examined in addressing the question whose peace are we striving to foster in South Sudan? This is the burden of the final section of this sequence of absurdity of peace-building in South Sudan reflections.

Akin to the relativity that characterizes the divergent conceptualization and practice of peace-building, coordination likewise has thus far eluded a unanimous conceptual grasp, with different institutions tending to interpret and hence, prioritize coordination practice differently. For some organizations, this is dictated by the interest of the organization. For others, mandate, mission and guiding principles determine to what extent coordination may be pursued.

Catholic Relief Service (CRS) for instance, highly appreciates concerted collective humanitarian and development effort, because it is clearly embodied in its epistemic base—namely, its guiding principles. I have no association with CRS, nor do I have interest in marketing its brand. But you can find plenty of information on the guiding principles and the meaning of coordination on its website.[1] Coordination for CRS is also consistent with the agency’s overall mission and mandate, which in part is to trust in the human potential of others, and through partnerships, seek the experience and expertise of those in propinquity to, or directly affected by the conflict. Thus, coordination in CRS is conceptualized and practiced as the promotion of the “principle of subsidiarity” or partnership, which is one of the principles of Catholic social and moral thought, and therefore is strongly encouraged in the agency’s modus operandi.

Although coordination remains a buzzword, other organizations practice it differently. The United Nation’s Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), for example had to recently defend its mandate in Eastern Equatoria because the locals have complained that the mission is not doing enough. One would argue poor coordination accounts for this seeming local disillusionment with the efforts of UNMISS. In some cases coordination appears to be either resisted or reinterpreted to suit the NGOs interest. Coordination is often resisted when it collides with funding interest of the NGO. High competition for funding between NGOs often determines the nature of coordination that is pursued by the NGO, in relation to other NGOs who are competing for the same grants.

This trend is particularly dominant in relation to public funding or the notion of “sub-contracting” where massive funding from donor governments is often auctioned and the contract is offered to the best NGO bidder. In order to win a public funding contract, NGOs must meet some requirements often based on reputation, experience and expertise of the NGO, as well as its strict adherence to transparency and accountability measures. This is also often the case with private funding or funding that is offered by private foundations. Although compared to the government funding, private foundations are often flexible and there is room for negotiations. NGO that fits the profile of implementing the program for which the funding is committed wins the contract. Often the donor community already knows where they think the need is in local humanitarian settings. But as discussed above, sometimes the local just need a kitchen and not a shower room as determined to be the need from abroad.

In summary, the NGO and donor community largely have differing conceptualization of the term coordination and program priorities. Often this is compounded by other issues of power struggle and control of programs implementation between the INGOs. There are also challenges posed by divergent interests and mandates between NGOs and donors, and between NGOs themselves; and turf wars over funding, and territorial domain between NGOs. The implications of these factors on the ground meant that conflicts fail to be arrested and sustainable peace remains elusive in South Sudan as energies are wasted coordination dilemmas. For instance South Sudan is replete with organizations in the security sector reform and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration sector. But this sector remains in dire need of redoubling of coordinate efforts. Can lack of coordination and appreciation of local socio-cultural dynamics be dismissed as not one of the key challenges? I doubt. The impact of challenges and differences happening at the “ivory towers” of our Western partners lead to lack of genuine coordination between conflict stakeholders on the ground, which in turn leads to ineffectual, insufficient and even conflict exacerbating peace-building efforts, partly because local voices and concerns are not well represented and appreciated. This in short is the absurdity of peacebuilding in South Sudan (II).

Tongun Lo Loyuong is reachable at [email protected]; and can be followed on twitter @TongunLoLoyuong. This and other pieces are also on his blog:

[1]  For CRS’ guiding principles, visit, accessed September 17th, 2013.

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