South Sudan: Brief observations on the sidelines of the International Engagement Conference in Washington DC

 

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WASHINGTON DC - The recent International Engagement Conference on South Sudan held under the auspices of the government of the United States and with significant and high-level participation by our government in the person of President Kiir Mayardit and senior cabinet members was a welcome initiative to highlight the opportunity that our nascent economy represents to investors around the globe. The objective of the conference as outlined by the governments in both Washington and Juba was to introduce South Sudan as a viable destination for investment by US and other multinationals, but more importantly, to allow our government an opportunity to enumerate its priorities and promote its development vision and how it plans to address the lingering concerns about the viability and general stability of our newly emerging state.

It was therefore heartening to have seen our delegation, especially the civil servants from the President to his cabinet members and Undersecretaries, do a commendable job boosting South Sudan and its prospects, while acknowledging the challenges ahead and the structural difficulties that they face as a government emerging from a decades long conflict. Our friends from the US and other countries were equally blunt in preaching against the vices of corruption and political instability that they believe will exacerbate the situation and severely limit the much hoped for growth and economic development.

The sector-specific workshops were also vey illuminating, and dwelled at length on the oil issue and how we are dealing with the continued problems with our neighbors in Khartoum, the immense and hitherto untapped great potential on our soil beyond hydrocarbons, and problem of limited infrastructure, especially roads, in our vast country. In general, my assessment was that the conference was a positive first step in reckoning with these issues in a more comprehensive manner, and an opportunity to tap into the expertise of our friends with a long track record in these areas.

Nonetheless, what I feel needs to be revisited is the very fundamental model of economic growth that we want to see come into reality. I get the sense that our conception of economic development assumes a linear progression that will happen if we have the resources, the support of our friends and the right technical and managerial capacity. That assumes, even if not arrived at consciously and expressed explicitly, that there is one model or attribute of economic prosperity that we are all pursuing, and that the messages that we send are sufficiently expressive of that objective.

It is my contention that we have been very concrete and precise in describing the sociopolitical grievances as South Sudanese against the center in old Sudan, and appropriately arrived at independence as an essential conclusion after the dismal experiment with some form of unity during the 6-year interim period. However, we have not applied the same level of rigor to the question of what kind of society we want to build and sustain now that we are independent and have our destiny n our hands. In fact, this rigor cannot be provided by the government alone, but by all sectors of our community joining this debate about what sort of economic policies should be pursued to help build a nation that can live up to the ideals of the long struggle.

This debate needs to reckon with the question of how to deal with our natural resource proceeds in a more humane and forward-looking manner as opposed to the well-worn path trod by our other African compatriots. Should South Sudan allow a runaway market economy to flourish unregulated? Should there be a real social safety net constructed to really reach every citizen beyond the generic building of schools and health centers that we are very fond of highlighting? Should we not recognize the causal link between the violence in our rural areas and the dismal ecological and socioeconomic conditions there, and should we not thus fashion a development policy that will target the transformation of these areas completely instead of just addressing the symptoms while sustaining the villages as they have been for centuries? How do we calibrate our relations with the behemoth that is the aid and NGO community in a way that really benefits us and achieves those rosy mission statements in their pamphlets?

I am convinced that these questions, and others along those same lines, will gain greater prominence over the near future by necessity. I believe that sufficient appreciation for the consequential nature of policy choices, especially in the economic realm, must be reached for us to really achieve something even remotely close to what other successful countries in our continent have achieved.

Parek Maduot is a South Sudanese commentator based in Washington DC. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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