Remember South Sudan
Fewer than 30 days into the new year, the foreign policy agenda for Europe and North America has already become crowded. North Korea, Iran, Syria, potential breakthroughs in Burma, and the still roiling revolutionary fervor in the Middle East are but a few of the issues facing transatlantic policymakers. Iraq, facing renewed violence in the wake of Coalition troop withdrawals, and Afghanistan, where France just lost more soldiers and ambivalence reigns on negotiating with the Taliban, have not gone away. Add to this volatile mix national elections in the United States, France, and elsewhere and it is easy to forget one of the landmark events of 2011: the July 9th independence of South Sudan.
Moreover, although remembrance of the new nation’s founding is appropriate, what is more critical is that Europe and North America sustain the generally positive and optimistic dynamics of South Sudan’s birth. These dynamics came into focus for me when I attended the recent International Engagement Conference on South Sudan, organized by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington. The two-day session, addressed by the first President of South Sudan, the Honorable Salva Kiir Mayardit, saw presentations by World Bank President Zoellick, United Nations Development Programme Administrator Clark, senior European Union officials, and numerous ministerial level representatives from Sudan, Europe and North America, including U.S. Secretary of State Clinton.
The conference list of co-sponsors boded well for continued world engagement with South Sudan: The UN; the World Bank, including the International Finance Corporation; the African Union; the European Union; the governments of Norway, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States; the NGO coalition InterAction; and the Corporate Council for Africa. And well should these international heavyweights be interested. Not only does South Sudan possess very large – how large is yet to be fully determined – petroleum reserves, but the White Nile and other resources could be world-class sources of renewable energy.
Some of us are old enough to remember when the southern reaches of Sudan were heralded as Africa’s “breadbasket,” and the combination of vast, fertile, and well-watered lands has re-awakened interest in South Sudan’s food-producing potential. Although its internal population is under ten million, South Sudan is at the center of a regional market containing 250 million. And, politically, a stable South Sudan could be a bulwark against trans-national violence in a Great Lakes region that has hovered on the edge of chaos for decades. Looked at through a slightly different lens, the risks of the transatlantic community not focusing on this fragile, newborn state are high. South Sudan lies in a rough, violent neighborhood, bordering on regions of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Uganda notorious for fragile governance and violent atrocities. South Sudan remains one of the most underdeveloped regions of the world (there exist fewer than 200 kilometers of paved roads in a nation-state the size of France), and underinvestment in the country’s optimistic, rapidly growing population runs the risk of spawning a crisis of rising, but unfulfilled, expectations.
Despite the generally cordial breakup of Sudan last July, the specter of continued instability haunts the Sudan-South Sudan border, with the risks of violence and human displacement ever present. USAID reports that the U.S. government alone spent nearly $10 billion in primarily humanitarian aid in the six years prior to independence alone, a level of resources from donor nations that must now be shifted to the long-term development account, if the promise of independence is to be fulfilled. Foreign investment, on which the new government in the capital of Juba is relying heavily, comes at this point primarily from Asia, with Chinese investment in petroleum exploration prominent.
Personally, I harbor no antipathy to Chinese investment in Africa, but – a little competition being a healthy thing – business people from the transatlantic nations should be on the ground, as well. The International Engagement Conference on South Sudan provided a useful venue to focus on the new state’s potential. The challenge for Europe and North America, going forward, will be to maintain, amid a daunting foreign policy agenda, the sustained focus required to fulfill the promise of a successful South Sudan, and avoid the substantial risks of under-investing in the world’s newest country.
James Kunder is a non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.