(Washington, D.C.) August 6, 2014 — As I write, the U.S. government is hosting African heads of state here in the capital to discuss future cooperation on issues ranging from economic development and technological advancement to education and agriculture.
At an associated forum held Tuesday as an opportunity for African and American civil society organizations to participate in this event, if only on the margins, the future for the peoples of Africa appeared positive. African and U.S. government speakers laid out an optimistic vision of popular empowerment, job growth, and civic engagement, requiring only good governance and international investment to realize.
At the very same time, however, international food assistance experts were meeting in Juba, the capitol of South Sudan, to debate whether the severe humanitarian food crisis taking place in that country meets the technical definition of a famine. A famine definition will help to trigger media coverage, public sympathy and, it is to be hoped, a greater level of response by international organizations and by the governments who fund them, potentially saving tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of human lives and untold human suffering.
In the meantime, whether the situation is a "phase four humanitarian emergency" or a "phase five famine" does not matter much to the 1.6 million South Sudanese who have been displaced by the political and ethnic firestorm that has torn the world's newest country apart since last December.
Despite that nation's oil resources, the vast majority of South Sudanese remain dependent on subsistence agriculture for their livelihood. Unable to plant or to harvest, displaced people in remote areas are seeing their children wither to stick figures. According to UNICEF, the UN Children's organization, one million South Sudanese children need food deliveries to fight acute malnutrition; 50,000 are already in danger of death.
The lack of paved roads, and the rains that turn what roads there are into a morass, combined with ongoing conflict, make the job of delivering aid to vast human encampments in the bush dangerous and expensive. Even by the most optimistic estimates, the World Food Program and its partners, employing trucks, barges and airdrops, will be able to reach only a fraction of all who are in need. Meanwhile, only 50% of the UN appeal for emergency funding has been funded.
This crisis could not come at a worse time. World attention is distracted by the conflicts in Gaza and in Ukraine to an extent that the greater conflagration in Syria has nearly fallen off the map. The fighting in Sudan, by contrast, seems like no more than a footnote in a particularly brutal chapter of human self-destruction.
This should not be so. Following the euphoria surrounding the achievement of independence in 2011, South Sudanese had reasonable expectations for a better future. In addition to its oil wealth, the country has other resources, including an abundance of rich farmland ready to be developed to help feed a hungry world.
Up until the recent crisis, the progress made by South Sudan had been encouraging. Although it remains one of the least developed countries in the world, there have been significant gains in such indicators as access to clean water and education. These advances have been made with the help of considerable investments by the international community. Now this progress is being unraveled, while the world looks away.
The international community should not turn a blind eye to the crisis in South Sudan, nor lose hope for a resolution of the conflict. It must first act urgently to ensure that desperate people are not forced by starvation to move again and again, destabilizing more of the country and making aid delivery even more of a challenge.
Commendably, the U.S. government so far this year has given nearly $400 million to relief efforts, nearly half of the contribution made by all donors combined. This support must be sustained if crisis is not to become catastrophe.
Just as important will be diplomatic engagement to rein in the power struggle that has unleashed the frustrations of communities vying for their place in a nascent society. South Sudanese leaders of all factions need to be reminded that the successful struggle they undertook to gain their independence required national unity. In the same way, only through unity can this newest nation continue on the journey to prosperity it began with so much hope.
The theme of the U.S.—Africa Leaders Summit is "Investing in the Next Generation." The cheerleading atmosphere of the summit may well serve a good purpose in providing the impetus to overcome the many difficult obstacles that Africa still faces, and in motivating much needed reforms and cooperation.
For South Sudan, however, it is impossible to even think about investing in the next generation with the present generation and all it has achieved in such great jeopardy. When this week's cheering is over, the U.S. and the international community need to refocus attention on keeping the present generation of South Sudanese alive and helping them to assemble the elements of a stable and hopeful more future.
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Director of Policy