South Sudan’s warring parties have signed a new peace deal that we hope will signal an end the country’s bloody conflict. Since violence erupted in the East African nation in 2013, a third of its population has been displaced, and 2.5 million are living as refugees in neighboring countries. The United Nations estimates that 7.1 million of those remaining in South Sudan face severe food insecurity, and its peacekeeping mission issued a report last month documenting egregious human rights abuses, including sexual violence and torture.
Signing a new political agreement is an important step, but implementing it and maintaining peace will be the bigger challenge. To complement its diplomatic advocacy for a more sustainable peace arrangement, the U.S. government should promote stability and protect the South Sudanese people by recommitting to the provision of lifesaving assistance, pressuring the parties to the conflict to ensure humanitarian access, and supporting conflict prevention and mediation at the local level.
Given these imperatives, it is worrisome that as part of its current review of foreign assistance to South Sudan, the U.S. government is considering cutting humanitarian aid that benefits 5.4 million people. Reducing humanitarian assistance is unlikely to change the calculus of armed factions that have repeatedly shown disregard for the wellbeing of their people. It is commendable that the current administration is evaluating its sources of leverage on the parties involved in the conflict, yet while some forms of U.S. assistance may provide effective pressure, humanitarian aid will not. Worse, reducing the availability of food, medical supplies, and other necessities could cause greater instability by driving desperate youth into the hands of spoilers of the agreement or by provoking inter-communal violence over scarce resources.
Supporters of the aid review argue that diversion of humanitarian assistance is propping up the warring parties and perpetuating the conflict. We share their concern about the risk of leakage, and we acknowledge that the parties to South Sudan’s conflict have profited from the aid economy, though the extent is unclear. However, the appropriate response to concerns about aid misuse, theft, or profiteering from the humanitarian architecture, should not be to cease lifesaving assistance or mandate cross border operations, which is tantamount to a significant cut, but rather to enhance oversight and press the parties involved to stop manipulating aid.
The humanitarian community already has active processes in place to ensure aid reaches the intended beneficiaries and is adopting new risk management enhancements, such as the Contractor Information Management System and biometric registration.
Rather than withhold humanitarian aid, we should enhance our collective action to ensure aid can be delivered safely and securely. With a new U.S. ambassador in Juba, there is an opportunity for donor governments to work with the aid groups to ensure that the transitional government prioritizes access. From February through April, the United Nations reported 260 “access incidents” when aid organizations were blocked from providing assistance, and armed parties continue to divert aid from opponents’ communities, demand bribes, and threaten aid workers. The United States should press the transitional government for a commitment to ensure unfettered access and establish a regular dialogue with the diplomatic community and aid organizations to resolve concerns as well as monitor and verify compliance. The penalty for violation should be targeted action against the individual officials who delay, manipulate, or steal aid resources.
Lastly, the agreement does not address the underlying grievances fueling widespread violence and inter-communal conflict throughout the country, which include denial of public services, natural resource competition, and agricultural land disputes. To address this challenge, the United States should invest in comprehensive conflict mediation and economic livelihood programs at the grassroots level. A study of Mercy Corps programs in Somalia found that providing access to education, economic, and civic participation opportunities for youth reduced participants’ likelihood of engaging in moral or material support for political violence by nearly 65 percent. By scaling up similar initiatives in South Sudan, the U.S. government can help reduce support for armed groups, resolve inter-communal tensions, and lay the groundwork for lasting peace and reconciliation. These programs can also strengthen a nascent civil society, jumpstart economic development, and cultivate the next generation of South Sudanese leaders.
When we met with South Sudanese civil society leaders in Juba last month and asked about the latest peace agreement after a series of unsuccessful accords, one common retort was “same paper, same pens.” We share their impatience for peace, which is why we’re joining our voices with theirs and calling on the U.S. government to adopt a new approach that puts civilians first in South Sudan.