9 January 2014

South Sudan: Donor-Driven Technical Fixes Failed South Sudan - It's Time to Get Political

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Concerns and warnings about the role that patronage and ethnicity play in South Sudan's politics, as well as calls to better understand the causes of vulnerability, power relations, and drivers of instability, were largely ignored as the international community focused on less complex and more positive technical 'fixes'. As argued in Aiding the Peace:

"The problem lies in the conceptual vacuum around 'statehood', as well as unclear identification of critical conditions that lead to peace, or to conflict, or the lack of sustained attention to them.

Neither the [Government of South Sudan] nor donors produced a convincing and consensual model of what Southern Sudan as a 'state' would look like in say, ten years. From the donors, the reticence ... reflected the tendency to approach the challenge purely as a technical exercise in capacity building and service delivery."

Longstanding and unaddressed grievances deeply rooted in South Sudan's turbulent history were left unhealed and have now come to the surface again. The inherently political battle for power and control of the ruling party has increasingly taken on strong ethnic connotations.

In South Sudan, ethnicity is often manipulated to create enmity between groups (tribes, clans or sub-clans) for political or military advantage.

The biggest problem is that the violence has created a cycle of revenge and fear, tinged with ethnic divisions,which will be extremely damaging for the future cohesion of the country. The longer the violence continues, the more difficult it will be to stop the country from sliding into all-out civil war.

The immediate focus now is on stemming the violence. While President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar have reportedly committed to dialogue, no real progress has been made, and once again peace talks were stalled on the issue of political prisoners yesterday. That deadlock does not seem to have been broken today.

On the anniversary of South Sudan's independence referendum, Kiir and Machar must take responsibility for stopping the fighting, call for restraint and commit to holding direct talks urgently.

The country cannot afford to wait for a long drawn-out political peace process. Stopping the violence immediately is the priority, alongside a serious process of reconciliation in the long-term.

While the people and politicians of South Sudan will undoubtedly be the most significant players in determining the future of their nation, international actors will also need to reflect on how to refocus their efforts to support a peaceful transition in South Sudan.

These will need to build on a sophisticated and nuanced analysis of power relations, causes of vulnerability and drivers of conflict, which must be continuously revised to be useful. Technical fixes have failed South Sudan: it's time to put politics at the heart of the nation-building project at last.

Sara Pantuliano is the Head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute. Prior to joining ODI, she led UNDP Sudan's Peace Building Unit, managed a high-profile post-conflict response in the Nuba Mountains and was a resource person and an observer at the IGAD Sudan peace process. She can be followed on twitter @SaraPantuliano.

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