A few weeks before South Sudan’ second independence anniversary on July 9, the Fund for Peace, a US-based organisation, published its failed state rankings in which South Sudan infamously featured in fourth place. The failed state index is constructed taking into account 12 different social, economic and political indicators which measure governments’ functionality and ability to provide basic security, rights and services to its citizens.
Several South Sudanese government officials have voiced their discontent with the ranking, calling it unfair given the country’s short existence and the numerous issues inherited from their northern neighbour Sudan, which holds the third position in the same rankings.
Not all new countries are born equal.
When South Sudan embarked on the path towards independence with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, it was a very long way from statehood. At that time, Juba did not even have sufficient brick buildings to house the newly established government entities, let alone any institutional foundations or systems to support the young government. Former Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) fighters filled the ranks of government, for the most part without any professional training on how to build and run a state bureaucracy.
During the first few years, significant funding by the international community was directed at the physical and technical capacity building of the government. Very basic systems are now in place, but important technical skills are still scarce.
For example, one of the biggest challenges of the Ministry of Justice in order to effectively fulfil its mandate is the shortage of judges. In a country where primary school completion is around 10 per cent, it will take generations to educate sufficient judges to serve the population.
When South Sudan gained independence in 2011, its starting point was in stark contrast compared to most other African countries. Kenya and Uganda, for example, inherited some sort of infrastructure and institutional backbone from the colonial period. Since then, they have had a few decades of peace and independence to develop. South Sudan’s government officials are thus right to say that two years of independence are very little time.
Establishing institutions as found in the West — the benchmark of the Fund for Peace report — takes centuries.
In the absence of strong institutions, South Sudan’s oil wealth becomes more of a curse than a blessing. Building a state is in itself an intricate task, but it is even more difficult for resource rich countries. Only few of them can boast having a well functioning state that manages and distributes resources adequately.
They are usually states that had strong institutions in place prior to resource recovery, which provided formal channels to distribute revenues and helped minimise rent seeking and corruption.
In the case of South Sudan, oil was discovered long before the first institutions were built, thus making the country particularly vulnerable to the resource course — a phenomenon by which resource rich countries tend to have less economic prosperity than countries without natural resources. The government admits that it already struggles with widespread corruption. Over $4 billion of public funds are believed to have gone missing during the post war years. It further lacks the technical expertise to manage its oil wealth wisely to prevent adverse effects such as revenue volatility and the lack of diversification.
The ruling party’s vision for South Sudan was that oil would serve as the engine for growth for other sectors, but the government still struggles to build a broader base for the economy.
South Sudan indeed couldn’t have had a worse starting position: Decades of civil war, a tropical environment that is conducive to many diseases, no access to a port, poor institutions and the ‘resource course’. In addition, the first two years of its independence were marked by many obstacles. Progress in the development agenda was thwarted by a 16-month-long stalemate in oil production due to disputes with Sudan over transit fees, which effectively stripped the government of 98 per cent of its revenues.
Continued instability and fighting along the border as well as internal insecurity have inhibited the government from focusing its efforts and money on driving forward crucial development programmes.
The slow pace of delivering services to the people has in turn fuelled impatience, competition over resources and rising crime rates. This vicious cycle must be broken sooner rather than later.
Most people will tend to agree that labelling South Sudan as a failed state after only two years of existence is not only unfair, but also discouraging. However, South Sudan has to work very hard now to make sure it doesn’t feature in the top 10 of the same ranking in 5-10 years time.
This will require striking a delicate balance between spending on programmes for long-term growth and ensuring basic security in the short-run.
Ensuring security of citizens is one of the basic duties of the government. South Sudan needs to desperately build a police force and professionalise its army. This needs to be coupled with a justice system that is capable of holding people accountable for wrong doings in a fair and transparent way.
The needs continue to be ubiquitous, and it’s difficult to pinpoint priorities. Even with oil revenues flowing again, the government cannot address all of them alone. It also has to work towards decreasing its dependence on the international donor community, which currently contributes to about 40 per cent of the government’s budget.
Developing the private sector by spending on roads and education and by putting in place the right regulations will be critical. Creating sufficient private sector jobs both in rural areas through agricultural development, as well as in the capital will be critical to prevent further insecurity and give people the improvements in their lives they have been waiting for.
Employing people in the private sector will also allow downsizing the government, which in turn will free up funding for other spending priorities such as institutional development and basic services.
If there is a positive side to South Sudan’s story, it’s that it doesn’t have to overcome ill-suited remnants from colonialism. In the next few years, the government has a window of opportunity to make sure the country makes the most of its rich resources. If the government gets it right, South Sudan has a chance of becoming a prosperous nation.
Simona Foltyn has a Masters in Public Affairs from Princeton University focusing on economic policy, and has lived and worked in both Sudan and South Sudan.