Was South Sudan a Preventable Crisis?

07/18/2014 05:34 EDT | Updated 09/17/2014 05:59 EDT
In this photo taken Friday, May 9, 2014 and made available Tuesday, May, 13, 2014, a mother holds her malnourished child at a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in Leer, in oil-rich Unity State, South Sudan. Bodies stuffed in wells. Houses burned down. Children playing on military hardware. And young infants showing the skeletal outlines of severe hunger. These are the scenes from a remote part of South Sudan _ Leer _ where the aid group Doctors Without Borders has just begun feeding severely malnourished children about three months after the group’s hospital was destroyed in violence that has been ripping apart the country since December. (AP Photo/Josphat Kasire)

Three years ago this month, crowds gathered in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to celebrate the birth of a new country. The sun was shining on the day the Republic of South Sudan was officially welcomed into the world, reflecting the optimism that followed decades of brutal conflict with the country's former rulers in Sudan.

But clouds were also visible over Juba that day, a reminder of the many challenges looming over the young country as it sought a more peaceful future. Those challenges have now formed into a perfect storm of destructive circumstances. Three years after the hopeful launch of Africa's newest democracy, its people are suffering from a horrendous cataclysm of conflict, displacement and disease, as well as an immense and growing nutrition crisis. If the war-weary new citizens of South Sudan who gathered to celebrate their independence in 2011 could be forgiven for basking in the sunshine of the moment, the many international dignitaries who joined them should have been paying attention to the darkness on the horizon.


Photo: Nick Owen/MSF

South Sudan is the product of years of global, multilateral effort. The international community effectively built the country from the ground up, investing extensive time and energy to not only free the oil reserves straddling its border with Sudan from the stranglehold of a vicious civil war, but also to finally give its long suffering people a chance to live free from conflict.

By that measure, South Sudan's state-builders have failed to make the grade. A recent explosion of violence has plunged an already struggling population into deeper crisis. As I write this, families who had to flee for their lives last winter are returning home sick and malnourished, only to find their hospitals incinerated. Others have had to leave the country altogether, arriving in over-filled and miserable refugee camps following arduous journeys in search of safety. Still others have been caught by the cholera epidemic that has swept through the country. And in far too many places, people have very limited access to the food they need: more children under the age of five have been admitted to Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF)'s feeding programs this year than in all of 2013 combined.


Photo: Nick Owen/MSF

"We are now witnessing the shocking, cumulative consequences of one million people being displaced from their homes," said Raphael Gorgeu, MSF's head of mission in South Sudan, this week, in response to skyrocketing rates of malnutrition in the country. It is a man-made disaster, he said, one with very human consequences: "Some people have been living in the bush for six months, drinking dirty swamp water and eating roots to survive."

What happened? The current crisis is often traced back to last December, when hostilities between two of the country's largest ethnic groups broke out in Juba, a sectarian clash that soon spread beyond the capital, resulting in the deaths of thousands and the displacement of more than a million people.

But the dark clouds that unleashed this storm had formed well before December. The actors who built South Sudan knew what they were creating: a country barely emerged from decades of devastating conflict, led by a generation with no access to education or any kind of functioning infrastructure; a completely impoverished petro-state, entirely dependent on oil resources but with no capacity to develop them on its own; and a nation deeply split by ethnic divisions.

On the first days of South Sudan's new existence, these ominous elements were either overlooked or downplayed by the state's international backers, who were eager to close the door on decades of war, and rushing to turn an imagined South Sudan -- one that was peaceful, functional and open for investment -- into a reality.

But anyone looking would have seen that such a reality was shaky from the start. At the time of its creation, South Sudan was still crippled by poverty, disease and violence. In 2012, less than a year after independence, the country's inflation rate was a shocking 80 per cent, pricing subsistence beyond the means of many of its people. With food expensive and in short supply, worries about potential malnutrition spread into 2013. Already at that time, the growth of nearly one in three children under five was stunted by chronic lack of nourishment, and high numbers of malnutrition placed South Sudan above the World Health Organization's emergency threshold. Throughout all of this, small but deadly ongoing clashes between members of different ethnic groups added strain to the notion that an independent South Sudan was also a unified one.

With a humanitarian crisis of distressing proportions now unfolding in South Sudan, the international community is returning to the country in full force. But instead of celebrating a new beginning, its representatives are working to contain a disaster they had hoped to avoid. A state built by the world's best intentions has so far left its new citizens behind.


Photo: Nick Owen/MSF

The immediate priorities in South Sudan are to save lives and to meet the needs of the country's suffering people: As an emergency response organization, MSF is deploying all of its available resources to this end, sending more people and more capacity, and providing badly needed healthcare, shelter and nutrition assistance.

South Sudan's international backers must also find a way end to the current conflict, which has aggravated old grievances and ethnic tensions. The international community and the government of South Sudan failed to address with those issues in 2011; they need to deal with them now, along with the many other challenges that have faced the country from the beginning.

Three years ago, the people of South Sudan hoped that independence would bring an end to the violent storms of conflict, suffering and poverty that had affected them for so long. Now, the skies seem darker than ever. We owe them a reason to believe their future can still be bright.


Unrest In South Sudan