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Great expectations in Southern Sudan

Nicholas van Praag's picture

When I last visited Juba in 1981, it was a sullen garrison town.  Today the mood in Southern Sudan’s capital is more upbeat, but it is tempered by concerns about the present and hard-to-realize expectations for the future.    

    Basic services remain basic.  Photo: Arne Hoel / World Bank.

As Sarah Cliffe and I discovered on a trip there last month, there is a lot going on.  Trade is as brisk in the town’s market places as traffic is slow on its crowded streets.  We did not get a chance to leave town but I would have loved to discover what's happening beyond the city limits. 

The city itself has grown rapidly—to half a million people—since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, ending decades of fighting and setting out a timetable for self-determination. 

At the open-air cafes along the river Nile, talk is all about next’s April’s national elections and the referendum that follows in January 2011 when voters will decide whether the South will remain part of a unified Sudan or become independent.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum (and most people predict a majority in favor of secession), the government has a lot of explaining to doto its own people.  Reading the latest survey by the National Democratic Institute, which has been tracking opinion in the South since 2004, I can see some disturbing trends:

  • Widespread dissatisfaction with the levels of development and security.
  • Most people see some progress on basic servicescredited mainly to non-governmental actorsbut government-led efforts are considered inadequate.
  • Crime is the most widespread security issue but inter-ethnic conflict and misbehavior by security forces are problems in some locations.
  • Government performance is rated as ‘fair to good’ but corruption is seen as rampant.

These negative perceptions cloud the accomplishments of the last few yearsor perhaps the explanation is that improvements are yet to make much difference to ordinary people.  In our meetings with government leaders, we saw first-hand the strides made by the state bureaucracy that is up and running, and housed in proper buildingsa far cry from the tented ministries of the immediate post-war period.  We also saw roads in the capital being paved and markets full of goods.  

   Paving the way in Juba.  Photo: Nicholas Van Praag.

Foreign aid is credited with making a difference although performance is patchy.  Disbursements from the World Bank-managed Multi-Donor Trust Fund, which is the main conduit of international support to the government, have increased over the past 6 months. But questions remain about the design of an instrument that many people we spoke to see as too complicated, too slow and too inflexible to meet the urgent needs of Southern Sudan. 

It is tough to turn things around after decades of war. It takes time and, as we saw in Juba, there is a danger of overloading weak institutions with complex requirements they are not ready to manage.

Today, the people of Southern Sudan continue to be buffeted by an array of pressures ranging from unmet needs on health and education to security concerns and poor infrastructure which makes travel and trade difficult. 

The NDI survey shows that despite these stresses, a deep-rooted sense of grievance towards Khartoum remains a strong unifying force in Southern Sudan.  Concerns about the pace of development and growing impatience with corruption are not enough to dent the confidence that most people feel about their futureperceptions that Traci Cook, NDI’s Juba-based director, describes as ‘utopian’.

The government of Southern Sudan has its work cut out as it pursues the task of building the technical capability of the state and, crucially, of projecting a vision that resonates with citizensa narrative for their common future.

It is a tall order to manage expectations in a country that has kept its hopes bottled up for so long. Encouraging greater realism about what lies ahead must be a priority if the government is to avoid the trap caused by dashed expectations that, as experience elsewhere has shown, can lead to renewed conflict.


Good information. Team conflict arises when the leader does not have clear goals and definite action plans. Developing these leadership tools and developing a communication plan are also ways to minimize conflict. Hugh Ballou, The Transformational Leadership Strategist

Hi Nicholas, A very helpful piece that gives a nice sense of the mood of expectation in S Sudan, even if it is "Utopian". What did you pick up about the prospects for the elections going ahead without widespread and disruptive violence? There seems to be growing concern that the LRA will soon be unleashed to cause trouble. It seems to be an article of faith in S Sudan ( that elements of the Khartoum government are still in cahoots with Kony's boy soldiers who are now scattered across three central African countries. "There are elements that still, clandestinely support the Kony movement. I don’t have evidence, but this is my belief," a senior official in the government of Western Equatoria apparently told the BBC last year. What is the state of independent media in S Sudan and is there anything the international community is or should be doing to help it develop? Watching S Sudan from afar, one gets the impression that positions are very entrenched and that there is not much room for debate, not to mention dissent. is a new international network to help journalists and other communicators around the world in the face of censorship and other pressures.

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