Oops!: Project Update #3

Published May 23, 2011

Not much news to report about Abyei that’s new from yesterday. We’ll keep you posted if there are any new developments. We’ve decided not to go to Bor to attend the independence celebration. The logistics involved are costly and we still have plenty to keep us occupied here in Juba. Michael had scheduled his flight home months ago for this Thursday, 26th. He forgot that he needed to change it by now if he wanted to attend the celebration. That pretty much sealed it that we aren’t going to go. Hopefully we can get it changed without to much trouble so that he can stay for school construction.

And – oops – we found the limits to our easy-breezey access to “important” people to interview. Today we walked from our hotel to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to interview Michael’s old boss (at least I think that was the plan). Michael interned there for a summer while in school. Not having made any pre-arrangements for the interviews we’ve already conducted, we tested our luck that we would find someone to talk with at UNDP. Michael did his magic and got us in the front door. The assistant communications director, Natalie, met with us and it seemed like it would be a no-go. The people Michael wanted to meet with were either in meetings or out of town. We would have been perfectly happy to leave it at that, but Natelie told us she would see who else she could round up. She found two people, a program analyst and former program director in Bor and the team leader for crisis prevention and response. Great interviews – just what we wanted. The problem came with the release document allowing us to use the footage. whoops – that got the head of office involved – and to say he wasn’t happy is an understatement. We got off with a slap on the wrist, but I think his staff is in big trouble. Needless to say, we didn’t get the release signed. So – personal connections and hospitality can get you a long way, but really we should have set something up in advance and received proper permission.

So, while we probably can’t use the footage from the interview, it was still valuable information and a perspective on NGOs operating in South Sudan. The position of the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) is that it wants control of planning, prioritizing, and distributing development funds. In other words, GoSS would ideally like to oversee all NGO development in South Sudan. The United Nations supports this position, both because they want to appear to support the new government, but also out of their own ideology.

The argument is this – while a strong civil society and local control can accomplish a great deal (often with the help of NGOs), this model can lead to a weak central government. A populace whose services and quality of life have no connection whatever to government can contribute to a very deep chasam between the government and the people.

An example is the Grace Chapel Church complex already in Jalle. The school, built with NGO funds, is currently government run and supported, but many in the community think it would be better if it were private i.e. supported by donated funds and run by an NGO. It would no doubt probably be better run and have more resources under an NGO. However, this mindset is an example of the slippery slope NGOs are on. Perception is everything, and in this case the perception that NGOs do it better than government is a recepie for a week government. Perhaps better would be to hope that local citizens can work through and with government to improve things. This, though, seems to be difficult to achieve in practice.

For one thing, like governments everywhere, those with power are not necessarily equitable in their disposition of it. In the case of a government directing the work of NGOs it is easy to imagine resources being directed not where they are needed most, but where it is most politically advantages. Not unlike the US, where “pork” is often berated but rarely condemned, this alone would not necessarily be cause for alarm. However, the US taxpayer both shoulders the burden and receives the benefit; keeping both in mind at the ballet box. In the NGO and resource-extraction funded development model, benefits alone drive the dynamic between government and people. Benefits are an extremely easy way to gain political power and encourage favoritism. It’s even easier when someone else is shouldering the financial burden. It’s not necessarily simply corruption, but a system out of balance.

There is something happening in Sudan, however, that gives cause for hope. The people have and continue to shoulder great burdens to birth this nation. They have paid, not in taxes, but with life and limb. As one community member expressed, we are not REbuilding South Sudan, we are Building it for the first time. There are still great expectations for what is possible. The destructive dynamics NGOs can harbor are not yet entombed in the culture of South Sudan. Perhaps too, the Lost Boys with a deep commitment to Sudan coupled to a broader world view will be a unique bridge between resources and needs.

From the field,
Blake Clark, Executive Director

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