The challenge of building a nation

Organisers of the historic referendum in Southern Sudan on Thursday announced that the threshold of 60% turnout had been reached: the results of this vote will be valid, and, if news reports are to be believed, the North looks set to accept the result. The looming threat of violence that has galvanised international groups and media into taking action, or at least paying close attention, during the last week seems to be receding. Although localised clashes have still been happening and there is always the chance that next month’s release of the results could spark further fighting, things seem, for now, relatively settled.

It would be easy to assume that this means that everything will now be fine. The media coverage of the situation has tended – perhaps for dramatic effect, perhaps because it is difficult to represent complexity within the limitations of a news story – to present the situation as binary: either there will be widespread violence and a return to civil war and it’ll all go to hell, or the referendum will go well and then everything will be sunshine and rainbows in South Sudan forever.

In the rush to cover the prospects for violence or peace, commentators have failed to represent just how difficult it is going to be to basically build a nation out of nothing at all.

Where the border-lines will be drawn is potentially more contentious than the question of the referendum and is likely to continue to be a flashpoint for violence until the issue is resolved.

Some would say that the South Sudanese government has been functioning fine and thus discount the potential for problems but the humanitarian and developmental challenge they now face is one of the most difficult any government has been left with at the creation of a new nation.

51% of people in South Sudan live below the poverty line. Only 27% of the population above the age of 15 is literate. Only 37% of the population above 6 years has ever been to school. 38% of the population – that is nearly 2/5 – must walk more than 30 minutes (one way) to reach a water source. 80% of the population doesn’t have access to toilet facilities. Infant mortality is 102 per 1000 live births. 96% of the population use firewood or charcoal to cook their food. Only 1% of households in Southern Sudan have a bank account. (All stats – World Bank).

On top of this, food security is a problem. WFP and FAO estimate that 1.4 million people (of a population of less than 10 million) will need food aid between March and August in the best-case scenario of an entirely peaceful referendum. In the case of instability, this number could be as high as 2.7 million. This, in spite of a 30% improvement in cereal production last year.

There are also uncertainties in terms of how things will be divided up. Some areas of the border have not yet been agreed – partly the cause of some of the clashes this week between nomadic tribes and other groups. Where the border-lines will be drawn is potentially more contentious than the question of the referendum and is likely to continue to be a flashpoint for violence until the issue is resolved.

The division of debt is another potentially problematic issue. Sudan carries nearly $38 billion in sovereign debt. There have been calls for the debt to be cancelled, at least to the South and some stories have suggested (rather fantastically) that the North will take on all the debt. Whatever the details of the agreement that is finally reached, any debt will further disadvantage the South as they struggle to create a functioning country.

The money that will be available to the South to build their new nation will come mostly from oil and gas revenue. How this is divided up, and the extent to which the South is able to assert their autonomy with regard to this money when they are dependent on the North’s control of the pipeline, is yet to be seen. In the short-term, at least, the South will have no choice but to remain on somewhat friendly terms with the North because, although they will have most of the oil, it is the North that will have the infrastructure needed to make money out of it.

Voting, democracy and self-determination are important. They are not, however, a panacea that will magically remove all the problems of the region. The expectation that South Sudan will emerge immediately as a, fully-functioning, even flourishing state is dangerously unrealistic. The road to building a new nation out of the rubble civil war, violence and poverty will take many years, a lot of money and more than a few miracles along the way. Perhaps recognising that would help the international community focus less on pie-in-the-sky projects, like ridiculously expensive and ineffective satellites, and more on how to support the long, slow process of development in South Sudan.