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As a Man-Made Famine Looms, Christmas Comes Early to South Sudan

Posted on Aug 8, 2014

    Refugee family in the Yusuf Bathil camp in Maban County, Upper Nile. Photo by European Commission DG ECHO (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

(Page 4)

America’s Limits

Among African nations, South Sudan has had an almost unprecedented relationship with the United States.  Aside from Liberia—a nation settled, hundreds of years ago, by former American slaves, whose capital is named after a U.S. president—it is the only African country for which Americans have evidenced a deep bipartisan commitment and “longstanding humanitarian and political interest as well as a deeper kinship,” says Cameron Hudson, who was the director for African affairs on the staff of the National Security Council from 2005 to 2009.

“For nearly a decade leading up to the 2011 declaration of independence, the cause of the nation and its citizens was one that was near and dear to the heart of two successive U.S. administrations and some of its most seasoned and effective thinkers and policymakers,” Patricia Taft, a senior associate with the Fund for Peace, wrote in a recent analysis of South Sudan.  “In order to secure this nation-building ‘win,’ both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations poured tons of aid into South Sudan, in every form imaginable. From military aid to food aid to the provision of technical expertise, America was South Sudan’s biggest ally and backer, ardently midwifing the country into nationhood by whatever means necessary.”

For all America’s efforts, the wheels started coming off almost immediately.  “We’ve gotten pretty good at understanding what goes into building a state, institutionally, but as far as what creates a nation that’s actually functional, we fell short,” Taft tells TomDispatch.  The U.S., she says, failed to do the necessary heavy lifting to encourage the building of a shared national identity and sat on its hands when targeted interventions might have helped reverse worrisome developments in South Sudan.


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Still, the U.S. repeatedly pledged unyielding support for the struggling young nation.  In August 2012, for example, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking in Juba, was emphatic that the U.S. “commitment to this new nation is enduring and absolute in terms of assistance and aid and support going forward.”  A year later, announcing the appointment of Donald Booth as President Obama’s Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, made special reference to America’s “enduring commitment” to the South Sudanese people.

Lately, however, words like “enduring and absolute” have been replaced by the language of limits.  Speaking in Juba just days before the July Christmas party, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne Richard drew attention to the fact that the U.S. had given generously to South Sudan, but that such assistance would be of little use if the war continues. “There is a limit to how much aid can be provided in a year with so many crises around the world,” she said.

That doesn’t bode well for those already going hungry and those who will be affected by the coming famine, forecast by some to be the worst since Ethiopia’s in the 1980s. Here, limits equal lives lost.  A $1.8 billion U.N. aid operation designed to counter the immediate, life-threatening needs of the worst affected South Sudanese is currently just 50% funded, according to Amanda Weyler of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in South Sudan.  She explains that “any shortfall in funding potentially means that we cannot save lives of people that we may otherwise have been able to help.”

In a statement emailed to TomDispatch, Anne Richard acknowledged this very point, though she couched it in the language of “needs,” not lives.  She put the blame on South Sudan’s warring factions while lamenting the plethora of crises around the world.  “Even if Congress again funds our budget so that we can provide a solid share of support to aid organizations and U.N. appeals, we can’t cover them completely and other donor countries will also be stretched.  At some point, we may see reports of food and water shortages and healthcare needs going unaddressed,” she wrote.  “Ultimately, these crises are man-made and will not be alleviated until the fighting stops.” 

Do They Know It’s Christmastime At All?

It’s an overcast day, but the sun is strong behind the clouds and it’s bright inside the white tent of the Médecins Sans Frontières field hospital.  It’s also hot.  One of several large, aged metal fans pushes the heavy, humid air around these cramped quarters as the staff moves purposefully from patient to patient, checking progress, dispensing medicine, providing instructions.  Children cry and shriek, babble and laugh, and cough and cough and cough. 

A scrawny black and white cat slips through a maze of legs moving from the rudimentary pharmacy to the examination room past the bed where Nyajuma sits.  She’s putting on weight, 2.5 pounds since her arrival and so, for her, things are looking somewhat better.  But as the country plunges into famine, how many other Nyajumas will arrive here and find there’s not enough food, not enough medicine, too few doctors?  How many others will never make it and simply die in the bush?         

“When there’s a clash, when the conflict starts, it’s in the news every day.  Then we start to forget about it.  In South Sudan, the needs are only getting bigger, even bigger than in the beginning,” MSF’s Javier Roldan tells me.  “When the conflict becomes chronic, the situation deteriorates.  Food access is getting even more difficult.  Fewer donors are providing money, so the situation for civilians is deteriorating day by day.”

That embassy party in Juba seems light years away, not just in another state but another world—a world where things in Malakal don’t seem so bad.  It’s a world where choice cuts of beef sizzle and cold lager flows and the pool looks cool and inviting, a world where limits on aid are hard realities to be dispassionately explained and cursorily lamented, not death sentences to be suffered.

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