So I have arrived in South Sudan.
After a frantic period of packing, goodbyes and intensive lying around in London’s grand array of parks, it was time to go. Heathrow was buffed and sheened in anticipation of the Olympics, but otherwise as grey and soulless as the next airport. A curious and unsatisfying place for farewells. Nevertheless, after two years of applications, internships and administration this was it: my first overseas assignment.
Alighting in the sticky heat of mid morning Juba everything was coated with the surreal sheen of the overtired. Perhaps this was why the threat of deportation summarily issued by the guard at border control seemed amusing above all else. Welcome to South Sudan.
We had been warned about the constantly shifting entry requirements and it soon transpired that I was lacking a crucial form which you definitely needed for entry but which definitely didn’t exist the week before. After an hour and a half of shuttling back and forth across the arrivals-hall-cum-baggage-reclaim-cum-customs where one’s suitability for entry into the world’s newest nation is determined, I was eventually granted a reprieve. While my more experienced colleague and travelling companion took the brunt of the dressing down – read shouting at – I took the opportunity to observe.
The South Sudanese are tall and noble, strikingly so, with a penchant for uniforms and epaulettes. And this is NGO country, that much is clear already. I counted at least four organisations represented at arrivals, in addition to several nationalities of UNMISS (UN Mission in South Sudan) troops. Tourists were notable by their absence.
Loading a year’s worth of antimalarials and sunscreen into the Land Cruiser and clambering in after it I ticked off one khawaja – westerner/white person – cliché. No doubt there are many more to come.
My first impressions of the team have been overwhelmingly positive. The presence of a couple of familiar faces makes a real difference, and I have been very grateful for the warm welcome I have received. I had heard from other NGOs that Tearfund’s compound was the envy of Juba, and I can see why. Spacious and with bursts of green there is a volleyball net which attracts visitors for twice weekly matches; a rickety little pool table under a tin roof; a hammock and a tree swing of sorts; and even a paddling pool. The food hasn’t been too bad either and, although goat has proven as gritty as expected, overall the whole setup is so good that it feels somewhat like cheating…
It is rapidly apparent, however, what a complex and unpredictable environment this is. A recently leaked World Bank report has forecast that the country will be bankrupt in six weeks as a result of the government’s decision to stop all oil production following a dispute with Sudan over revenues. As oil counts for ninety-odd percent of South Sudan’s GDP this was an unusual move indeed; the report essentially accused the government of gross incompetence and has apparently ruffled all manner of official feathers.
It is in this climate of piqued pride and mutual suspicion that the Northern and Southern governments are heading to Addis Ababa for peace talks; the last round of negotiations resulted in open hostilities and bombings in the border region last month, so it could go either way. Amidst this ongoing uncertainty donors are being particularly slow in signing off strategies or committing funds to projects. Our programme is far from immune from these pressures; there is a lot of work to be done. Due to staffing needs and the onset of the rainy season, during which the implementation of projects slows dramatically at our field sites, I am to stay in Juba for a couple of months, most likely to work on funding proposals and various donor-focused pieces of work. It will become clear in time, no doubt. For now, however, I will continue with the briefings and inductions and try not to panic about the scale of the task ahead.
A final observation. Having stumbled sleepily through my first day I joined a few of my colleagues for a run in the UN compound. The contrast between the industrial scale of the UN and everything else in South Sudan is striking – UNMISS seems an unintentionally apt acronym, such is the disconnect. It is immediately apparent why the UN can never be an agile organisation, and conversely why, when the machine grinds into gear and leverages its considerable resources, it has such potential to effect change.
Marked by paradox, like so much of South Sudan. This should be interesting.
Some choice extracts from the World Bank report, courtesy of the Sudan Tribune (http://www.sudantribune.com/EXCLUSIVE-South-Sudan-economy-on,42512):
“[T]he World Bank has never seen a situation as dramatic as the one faced by South Sudan,” the World Bank’s Director of Economic Policy and Poverty Reduction Programs for Africa, Marcelo Giugale, is quoted as telling representatives of major donors …
Giugale told the donors that neither South Sudan president Salva Kiir nor senior member of his cabinet “were aware of the economic implications of the [oil] shutdown”.
According to the transcript, the World Bank official “candidly said that the decision was shocking and that officials present had not internalized nor understood the consequences of the decision”.
South Sudan is a unique and unprecedented situation globally, Giugale said because “countries in crisis usually face a collapse in growth rather than of GDP”.
As a result of a “sharp” drop in influx of hard currency, once citizens in South Sudan realise that value of their local currency is slipping “there will be a run for the dollars and families with dollars will almost certainly shift them outside the country”.
Giugale pointed out that because most South Sudanese are not fully financial literate the run on the point has not yet happened.
“Once it starts, the currency will almost certainly collapse”.