On February 20, the United Nations declared that famine had hit more than 100,000 people in South Sudan, meaning that “20% of households face extreme food shortage, acute malnutrition rates exceed 30%, and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons.” According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), over 4.9 million people, above 40% of the country’s population, are in urgent need of food. More than fifteen million people in the surrounding countries – Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria – are also at risk of starvation and even famine, says Stephen O’Brien, United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
South Sudan became independent from Sudan on July 9, 2011, and currently stands as the world’s youngest country under the presidency of Salva Kiir Mayardit. But a longstanding ethnic rivalry in the region between the Dinka and Nuer people rose quickly to the political level. In July 2013, civil war broke out after president Salva Kiir, a Dinka, accused vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer, of planning a coup d’état. Fearing the violent outbursts, Machar fled the capital, Juba, and went into hiding. General Taban Deng soon replaced him.
A 14-year-old South Sudanese girl named Angurese currently lives as a refugee at the Bidibidi camp in Uganda. She fled from the village Lainya, near Juba, the capital and largest city in South Sudan. She told NPR that the fighting between the Dinkas and Nuers became so bad that fighters began to attack civilians. According to an April United Nations Security Council report, both the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and non-government militias rape women and girls and sexually mutilate boys, though these testimonies are denied by government officials.
The UN Refugee Agency reports that 3.6 million people have fled the country – reaching 3,000 people per day in March – and 6 out of every 10 refugees are children. Nearly 700,000 of these refugees go to Uganda, where they are often granted land to farm. “You cannot accommodate refugees unless the leaders have a good attitude towards the refugees,” Robert Baryamwesiga, settlement commandant at Bidi Bidi, tells the Economist. “Ugandans have open hearts to accommodate their colleagues.”
If Uganda can take hundreds of thousands of refugees into its borders and offer jobs and community, at the very least, the United States can and should continue to support financially from overseas. The U.S. donated more than $2 billion in humanitarian aid to South Sudan from 2014 to 2017, more than $2 billion to the World Food Program in 2016, and $1.4 billion to the U.N. refugee agency, by far the largest contributor to the conflict. If President Donald Trump’s budget plan, which promises “to reduce or end” support for aid organizations and cuts above $200 million from U.N. peacekeeping, most of which goes to Africa, the effects will be felt significantly.
The budget for UNMISS, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, for July 2016 until June 2017 is above $1 billion, currently the second highest of sixteen missions. This budget encompasses almost thirteen thousand uniformed and two thousand civilian personnel across 48 bases. If UNMISS loses the United States’ financial (and political) support, the civilians that are seeking refuge at UN bases will be forced to make long and dangerous flights from the country. Undoubtedly, food, workers, and supplies won’t fix everything in South Sudan, they are all necessary to treat the very severe symptoms of a bigger problem: a problem that can only be solved from within.
The actions of the South Sudanese government seem awfully resistant to the tremendous global effort for peace. On March 7, the government increased work permit fees for foreigners from 100 USD to up to 10,000 USD, apparently to generate additional revenue for filling gaps in the budget. Of course, this move also hinders the desire for and ability of thousands of foreign workers to assist the state of emergency. Festus Mogae, chief of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) claims that “the humanitarian crisis, now officially a famine, [has] nothing to do with failing rains, drought or infertile soil,” and calls for “genuine and sincere” political inclusion.
On February 21, President Salva Kiir announced his intentions for “unimpeded access” for humanitarian organizations, but according to World Bank, as of February 2016, South Sudan had a “road network over 17,000 km, but only 200 km of paved road.” Nellie Kinston, emergency coordinator for Concern Worldwide in South Sudan, told NPR on March 14 that most of the dirt roads will become mud when the spring rains come. Leer County, a famine-declared area in which her team works, will be inaccessible for aid delivery, along with many other parts of the country.
Luckily, international allies understand the importance of infrastructure for the protection of civilians and for the young country’s future. The United Nations reported on February 15 that South Korean peacekeepers completed repairs on the 125km Bor-Manga road stretch between Greater Equatoria with the Jonglei State in less than three months. They plan to repair major roads between Bor and Pibor next.
Last November, 350 Japanese self-defense forces arrived in Juba to work on road reconstruction, among other peacekeeping duties. Because of Japan’s anti-war constitution, established after World War II, the decision to place armed soldiers overseas, with the likely possibility of having to shoot rebel militia in the name of civilian defense, was controversial. But even more controversial was the decision to keep guns around at all.
On a 7-8 vote, UN Security Council decided against adopting a US-drafted resolution to impose an arms embargo – a limiting of weaponry – in December. While weaponry allows foreign troops to defend themselves from rampant militia, recent findings have revealed that the cost is quite steep. A 48-page UN confidential report released in March, accessed by Reuters, found that oil revenues from March to October 2016 totaled $243 million, and at least half, “and likely substantially more” of South Sudan budget expenditures are devoted to arms purchases. The 2016 budget was 97% oil revenue: the government spent at least $125 million on guns instead of food, roadways. Meanwhile, President Salva Kiir lives in a palace, his family in a luxurious gated community, and sends his four grandchildren to private school for Sh1 million ($10,000) each per year. That seems like a big expenditure out of a paycheck allegedly standing at Sh6 million ($60,000) per year (but that’s only the number on the books).
Spending money on emergency food for the already warring, already starving, already fleeing people of South Sudan is akin to chasing the problem by its tail. The complacency of a country’s own government far outweighs the billions of dollars and hours poured into fixing the aftermath: the world can’t fix a system that resists change. In fact, such internal stubbornness births the rationale that “donating a dollar won’t make a difference” – if the government funneled more money into fixing roadways, aid organizations wouldn’t spend so much money and time travelling to areas in need, and more food could be purchased on the same dollar. President Salva Kiir does not have an easy job to face, but if his government more actively cooperated with ally forces, peace would actually be attainable. On the other hand, the proper response to this situation is not for an ally to recede into complete self-interest.
Take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The fundamental level of need is physiological: food, water, clothes, shelter. Once that need is met, safety can then be pursued, once safety, belonging, etc. The United Nations is a contract between global forces to protect all members. No individual country should move focus to safety concerns until all members of the contract have satisfied physiological needs. The situation in South Sudan – in simple terms, widespread fighting causing farmers to flee – is a physiological problem caused by a safety problems, a challenging twist upon the psychology. Still, it is the duty of America, facing mostly safety and belonging concerns at home, to support a country stuck lower on Maslow’s hierarchy. There’s a bigger cause than “America first.”