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Observations before heading home

Mike Gangwer Published on 28 June 2012

This is my final report to you from South Sudan. I have traveled extensively in three of the 10 states: Western, Central and Eastern Equatoria state.

The bulk of my work has been what we call institutional building at the state ministries of agriculture and forestry. Generally, the Central Ministry in Juba (national) has two responsibilities: one, manage and allocate a budget and, two, set national policy.

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The state ministries have a different role. They are implementers. They are operational once their budget has been allocated to them and specific objectives have been decided upon. The minister of agriculture answers to the governor of the state, rather than the Central Ministry.

At least this is the model. The actual real-world performance of these ministries is something different. Here, in this column, I list four observations and for each of them suggest a way forward.

1. This country is less than a year old. We cannot expect a fully functioning government in this nascent county any time soon. But we should expect public officials to work toward some degree of function. We must look hard to find it. We do not get to pick the public officials we work with.

In a democratic representative government, public officials are elected and then held accountable for their performance. They build staff based on merit and performance as well ... we want our public officials to be selected based on merit.

Positions that are given and not earned yield poor performance and the civil good is diminished. In South Sudan, most of the government officials at the ministry and director general level are appointed with little credence given to their ability to perform.

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We might ask: How do we define performance and how do we base positions of leadership and management upon merit? This is creating and fostering good governance. And in places like South Sudan, we have a critical need to develop leaders and managers based on performance, so that their future positions are based upon merit.

Nearly all of the higher-level officials at the state ministries lack this kind of governance training, and we in the U.S. government should be increasing our efforts to mentor, guide and instruct these individuals. They need some understanding of leadership, coordination and collaboration, coupled with the functional attributes of holding staff people accountable to a business or work plan.

Those concepts may seem elementary to you, but here in South Sudan they are foreign concepts. Written another way, this effort is investing in people.

The long-term outcomes of having a civil service cadre of trained and accountable public officials is so important that if we do not commit ourselves to such a role, this new country will remain nascent and one of the poorest places on earth.

Note here that such investment in people requires time, as in years, not weeks. My six months in-country is not enough time.

2. My second observation is somewhat related to the first. We have many non-government organizations (NGOs) and church-based organizations (CBOs) in South Sudan. Some of them, like the Norwegian Peoples Aid have been here 25 years.

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What do we make of this or, written another way, what do the South Sudanese make of this? I ask the question: What is the reason for all of these organizations working here and, for some, here for decades? Should we be asking: At what point do the South Sudanese tell them “thank you for helping us ... we will take it from here”?

This massive entitlement program bothers me. Why? Like you, I was taught self-reliance, responsibility and dignity. Yes, we in America have many opportunities to get ahead based on education and a solid work ethic, but there are South Sudanese finding a way to get ahead without foreign aid.

They are few, but they are showing others and set a great example for their fellow countrymen and countrywomen. My point here is that, as long as these plentiful aid organizations are here, the South Sudanese people will be accustomed to this aid – it becomes normal and it degrades the self-reliance ethos that I suggest is necessary for this country to truly move ahead.

Economic development is not based on handouts and entitlement. Rather, it is based on a South Sudanese man rising up out of his chair and figuring out how to bring value to his life that is manifest in building something better for himself and his countryman.

Might I suggest, therefore, that the South Sudanese people themselves tell these organizations to go home soon. Until they do, we will not see the kind of progress necessary for this country to join the international community.

3. Without doubt, the single biggest constraint to food security in the Equatorias is land clearing. During the dry season (November through April), land is cleared by burning, and the clearing of trees and brush by axe and machete.

All of this work is done by hand. All crop fields of an acre or two have stumps and roots in them. At times, the government has had tractors that farmers can rent, but they break down given the stumps and root systems that make tillage nearly impossible.

Farmers may want to farm more land in an effort to grow enough for the market, but the cost of labor is too high. Generally a farmer cultivates (by hand) an acre or two because that is what his family can handle. Farming an additional number of acres can only be done by mechanization, and the use of machines is currently a challenge given the problem of land clearing.

Interestingly, we do not have any aid organizations addressing this problem. I would fix this if I could.

4. My final observation is based upon history and contemporary thinking. The South Sudanese people have, historically, been subservient to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan to the north.

The central government in Khartoum provided the south with support, money and instructions. Independence changed that. Now South Sudan must figure out how to become a nation and one that is ready to join the international community.

I find many South Sudanese wishing for the modernity of most other countries and all the civilized traits of governance, equality and freedoms that go along with it.

The leadership here gives many eloquent, aspirational speeches. Sadly, they are rooted in the past, in history. Rarely do we find a political leader talking about the future in operational terms.

Or, written another way, hope and dreams are nice but, in the real world, courses of action are necessary to reach solidly thought-out objectives, with a budget, so that progress can be manifest.

The South Sudanese are realizing, slowly, that aspirations are fine but what counts is what gets done. And in a place like this, of limited resources and practically no infrastructure, prioritizing critical needs is essential.

This concept is no different here in the U.S. or anywhere else. At some point, we must roll up our sleeves and go to work. We must use resources, both human and physical, wisely and we must prioritize our courses of action so that critical objectives are met or done first.

Unfortunately, this approach is not yet taking hold in South Sudan. In fact, the county is fighting with its neighbor to the north, Sudan, over oil and the shipping of this oil in pipelines that go through Sudan.

Were the South Sudanese ready for independence? I submit the jury is still out. I do suggest that there is no going back to one single Sudan.

I end on a positive note. Within each of the three state ministries of agriculture and forestry, I met some hard-working, dedicated public servants.

They understand the sooner South Sudan does for themselves instead of living in the midst of a huge entitlement program, the better they will all be.

What is the appropriate role of the U.S. government? I submit the role is helping build institutional capacity – and that is an investment in people that is far more important to the long-range outcome of this new country. This work is not easy, nor can we do this work in six-month assignments like mine.

I am privileged and honored to work once again in a foreign country, another challenging place and another place where the struggles of everyday life are overwhelming.

May we all be grateful for what we have here in the U.S. Yes, we have problems and challenges, but not at the same scale as many others in some parts of the world. I am really looking forward to being home for awhile. PD

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