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Conflict and insecurity always brings about substantial humanitarian response from actors around the world. The response is normally on both fronts – military and humanitarian assistance. The most celebrated case in recent past has been Afghanistan. There has been a lot of discussion on the contrasting spends on military and development. In the case of Afghanistan, ACBAR reported that, in the period 2001-8 the United States appropriated $127 billion for the war in Afghanistan and the US military was spending nearly $100 million a day in the country, some $36 billion a year. Yet the average volume of international aid provided by all donors since 2001 was just $7 million per day. See ACBAR report here.  I am not even getting into the discussion on effectiveness of the development aid since that is not what this is all about.

Interestingly even within an insecure country there are pockets of relative safety. One would think that the people there get a good crack at an opportunity to  climb out of poverty and suffering. However, quite often the safer territories suffer – yes suffer

they get lesser aid: for instance, in 2001-8 USAID spent more than half of its budget for Afghanistan on the four most insecure provinces leaving the rest for the remaining 30.

they get even lesser media attention (which in itself leads to lesser aid) – just think about it : almost everyone has heard of Kandahar and Hilmund provinces of Afghanistan. How many would have heard of Badakshan or Kunduz or Takhar?

I do not, by any means, want to claim that donors ‘reward’ insecurity by pouring in aid. No. Far from it. People living in high conflict situations need lot of support and a lot of the support is deserved. The point is that it does not mean that stable areas are to be ignored or under-supported. That is dangerous. There is always a possibility the lack of support may leave youth disenchanted and hence prone to joining the conflict. I can see this happening in parts of Afghanistan that have traditionally been very safe. Further, it is also possible that administrators of stable provinces get hamstrung – governments heading conflict countries are very often incapable of intervening and reduced donor support does not help. In extreme cases it may even tempt administrators to ignore incipient insecurity.

Why am in reminiscing about this? Well I am just back from South Sudan and discussions with the locals there triggered these thoughts. Why? You may well ask..

What I saw in Afghanistan is what I am seeing in South Sudan as well. I spent a few days in the South Sudan State of Western Equatoria. This area was significantly affected by the civil war. Being placed deep in the conflict zone the population did not have the relief from being on the international border from where they could escape. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 saw a semblance of peace return to South Sudan.

In the referendum earlier this year, the South voted overwhelmingly for secession from the North.   This referendum, contrary to all expectation, passed off very peacefully and in July 2011 South Sudan could well be the newest nation in the world. There is hope and expectation reminiscent of the situation all over post-colonial Africa in the early 1960s.

The country has emerged out of a bloody civil war going back decades. There are some internal troubles still in play – conflict over resources & continued presence of the Lord’s Resistance Army in some pockets. The infrastructure needs serious revamping. Political leadership, governance experience, civil society structures are weak.

The saving grace is the huge reserves of oil and minerals. These represent hope. They are the means that could be successfully harnessed to build a nation & pull its people out of grinding poverty.

This is the perfect point at which development interventions must be planned. I believe that it is at the point that insecurity ends or even reduces significantly that most development efforts and aid is needed.  My mind goes back to the last few minutes in Charlie Wilson’s War when Charlie asks for more money to pour into Afghanistan and the bemused secretary of state says “Afghanistan? Is that still around?”. Looking back one gets the feeling that the vacuum left by the retreat of the Soviet forces in 1989 just led to mis-governance and the start of a fratricidal conflict that is taking its toll on Afghanistan and the rest of the world even now.

South Sudan is at the cusp of destiny. They have the wherewithal to rise from conflict into a state where they can hope for peace and prosperity. That is if lack of leadership, inexperience of governing, corruption and rapaciousness does not prevent the poor from enjoying the benefits from the resources. This is not as farfetched at it first seems. It has happened in the past and may happen again. That would tip the poor into opposing its government. These starving poor took up arms in the past. They still have them! It won’t take much to push them back into conflict. This time against their own. Surely no one would want that to happen.

To prevent that, they need hope and that can only come about with long term development interventions. The international community has to show serious commitment to help the new Government of Southern Sudan to build a nation. This is not an opportunity that comes up too many times in history.

Will that happen? Is anyone listening?

Only time will tell..