By Derek Paulhus
Western powers are largely to blame for the disasters that have occurred in the world’s newest nation: South Sudan. Colonialism, resource exploitation, the carbon emissions fueling climate change, and ill-conceived political intervention have caused devastating effects on the young nation. Violence, famine, and natural disasters have plagued the country too, ravaging the population. Humanitarian aid has been a crucial lifeline, saving millions of people from famine, and providing hundreds of thousands of refugees with shelter. However, the Trump administration’s “America First” policy and aid cuts endanger the country. Millions of people in South Sudan are dependent on aid for survival, and a withdrawal of Western humanitarian support would be devastating for a nation that has already endured so much strife.
Setting up a nation for failure
Foreign powers have taken advantage of South Sudan and its people since long before its inception as a modern state. During its colonial period, the British bled the nation dry and set the region up for failure. Extractive institutions were imposed to steal wealth and resources, and few long-term state institutions were constructed. Additionally, “Southern Policy” divided a once peaceful people in half along religious and cultural lines, with the goal of eradicating Arabic influence in South Sudan.
When the British reunited the two Sudans in 1947, the people had become so different and divided that animosity and conflict quickly ensued, sparking two civil wars that lasted for the majority of the 20th century. While the wars were fought along cultural lines, the two regions were competing for scarce resources for their own separate economic and political gain—a consequence of British policies. Three million people died, and the nation’s already inadequate infrastructure was further crippled.
After these wars, western nations—namely the United States—championed South Sudan’s independence in 2011, even though the nation lacked the necessary institutions and infrastructure to govern. Shortly after independence, yet another civil war broke out, this time along ethnic lines between the Dinka and Nuer tribes in South Sudan. Once again, while the conflict has largely occurred along tribal lines, the struggle has been political and economic in nature, caused by underdevelopment, lack of resources, and lack of infrastructure. Many of these issues have been brought on by western intervention, which is why the international community must accept much of the blame for the ongoing conflicts in Sudan and must help stabilize the nation and save those in need through humanitarian aid.
Further fuel for conflict
Both directly through foreign intervention and indirectly through contributions to climate change, the Western world has played a leading role in the course of South Sudan’s devastation. Western nations realized that South Sudan lacked requisite institutions and infrastructure for governance, yet did little before pushing for independence. William Hammink from USAID said, “[i]n most developing countries that come out of conflict, you talk about reconstruction, but in South Sudan, you’re really talking about construction. They had very little to start with.” The infrastructure that did exist dated back to British colonial times, preventing South Sudan from developing its economy, exacerbating the extraction and corruption of resources, and ultimately leading to armed conflicts.
For example, oil revenues—which make up over 98 percent of South Sudan’s budget—have been used for corrupt practices, with a third of the money spent on army salaries instead of on much needed development. Furthermore, China has increased its presence in the Sudanese region for oil extraction, and has actively supplied arms and rockets to the warring factions.
Climate change has intensified the severe effects of resource scarcity. Rising temperatures, floods, over 30 years of drought with rainfall down by 30 percent, and desertification have caused a host of problems. Crop failures, displacement, an increase in dust storms called “Haboobs,” and food and water shortages have devastated the nation. Tens of thousands are at “catastrophe” level food shortage, and millions more are at stage three and four “crisis” and “emergency” phases, according to the UN. Temperatures are expected to continue to rise to between 1-3℃ by 2060, and the region might become entirely uninhabitable as the Sahara Desert advances by over a mile per year.
Critical underdevelopment, lack of infrastructure, resource extraction, and climate change, have contributed to the ongoing conflicts in South Sudan, largely at the hands of Western powers. Western countries like the United States, Germany, and Canada, have been among the top emissions producers, threatening the environment, and putting the most vulnerable nations—like South Sudan—at risk. Western nations must understand that without international aid, humanitarian crises will only worsen, and many will die.
Cutting life saving will be a death sentence to South Sudanese people
Now—at a time when South Sudanese people continue to suffer under the weight of a culmination of devastating factors—is not the time to cut life-saving aid. Despite the fact that foreign aid only constitutes less than one percent of the US’s budget, the Trump administration has singled out aid as a financial strain and has vowed to reduce it by over 30 percent.
South Sudan cannot afford a cut to humanitarian assistance. Violence has displaced about four million people, more than half of the total population (about six million people) are acutely food insecure, and refugees to Uganda have increased by about 300 percent within the past year. American aid has played a crucial role in bringing life-saving food assistance to three million people; building ministries, roads, and schools; providing 13,500 UN peacekeeping forces that help promote security and peace in the nation; and setting up UN camps that house hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Withdrawal of life-saving US aid would result in cuts of over $1 billion from funds to fight famine, steep reductions to organizations that offer humanitarian support, and cuts to critical UN peacekeeping efforts. In South Sudan alone, one million people will be removed from their only lifeline of survival. Children across the country will lose their education, people will be dramatically more prone to serious illness and disease outbreaks, many on the brink of starvation will lose their only source of food and water, and conflict and violence will spike.
The devastating effects of these cuts will be sharp and long-lasting. The current aid subject to cuts is purely humanitarian, and does not even scratch the surface of the efforts needed to rebuild the country. Thus, the aid being reduced is only to ensure that millions in need can survive to see another day. The United States and the international community have a responsibility to continue to contribute humanitarian aid while supporting long-term solutions to address the underlying causes of strife in South Sudan, and to ensure that the people of South Sudan have the means to survive.
Derek Paulhus was an intern during the summer of 2017 with Win Without War and the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy (CIP). He is a rising junior at Harvard University. At CIP he has worked on topics such as arms trade deals, climate change, and global conflict zones. Derek is interested in climate policy, Middle Eastern and Latin American policy, and global development.