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Expert Interview: One Year Anniversary of South Sudan Referendum

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As the one-year anniversary of South Sudan’s referendum approaches, we spoke with Dan Griffin, CRS’ Sudan Advisor, who traveled to South Sudan for its referendum on Jan. 9, 2011 as well as the country’s independence celebrations six months later. He also recently attended the International Engagement Conference for South Sudan, held in Washington, DC, that addressed the country’s strategic development priorities and opportunities for engagement with the public and private sector.

Q: What did the referendum mean for Southern Sudanese?

The successful referendum remains one of the brightest spots in Sub-Saharan Africa. The peaceful resolution of Africa’s longest-running war is a phenomenal achievement and perhaps even the most significant transition in Africa in 2011. For the people of South Sudan, the referendum was a triumph of negotiated peace over seemingly intractable violence. The question now is whether that triumph can be translated into a thriving and prosperous South Sudan.

Q: How have things changed since the referendum, and what challenges remain?

The change has been very rapid in terms of trying to organize and set up different systems: economic, financial, and judicial systems that support a functioning nation. South Sudan recently released its very ambitious development plan, and there is a tremendous energy going into designing what needs to happen next, for example reforming the central banking system, releasing new currency, getting a seat at the UN and agreeing to various international treaties and regional bodies. The challenges that remain are enormous: for one thing, South Sudan has to put Africa’s longest-running conflict behind it. Tensions on the border with Sudan remain and the border itself is undetermined. There are concerns over oil revenue and the internal security of South Sudan is also at stake, especially in Jonglei and Unity state, where interethnic violence continues to hinder development.

Q: What role does the Church play in newly independent South Sudan, and has it changed since the referendum?

The Church continues its very important role of encouraging accountability and the building of civil society, especially as South Sudan moves forward with developing its permanent constitution. Corruption, ethnic violence and greed have too many times diverted the energy and resources of newly independent countries. The Church in South Sudan continues to keep its eyes on the prize of true independence and prosperity for all the Sudanese people. It also continues its important work in peacebuilding and conflict mitigation, opening the path for humanitarian assistance and long-term development that people have waited for for so long.

Q: What can the United States and the international community do to support the new South Sudan?

The U.S. has been a key supporter of South Sudan for decades but now is clearly a time when foreign assistance is needed and the ability of the U.S. government to provide assistance isn’t clear. Aside from funding for development, it is also vital to encourage appropriate trade relations with South Sudan. And addressing its extractives industries is another important step that S. Sudan needs to take. Much of the country’s budget is funded directly by oil production. While the extractives sector can provide an economic boon to a country, it can also lead to environmental and social issues. Communities in South Sudan have already called into question the fact that they’re not directly benefiting from oil revenue with things like improved infrastructure and social services. To address these issues, the Government of South Sudan recently announced that it has signed the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). If the government can live up to the international standards for transparency and accountability in its extractives industries, then it will be off to a great start. While no one doubts its sincerity, its capacity to live up to those standards remains to be seen.

Q: What role does CRS play in the building of the new nation?

CRS remains committed to our humanitarian outreach in both countries, in our advocacy and promotion of our solidarity with the Sudanese people, both in Sudan and South Sudan, wherever the needs are the greatest. CRS is one of the biggest agencies operating in both countries and our work includes projects in the areas of water and sanitation, agricultural recovery, livelihoods, health, education and peacebuilding.