By Bianca Larissa Taberna

This is part one of a two-part blog series on international foreign aid and the conflict in South Sudan. Part two, which will focus on Canadian assistance to the region, will publish Wednesday, February 19.

The recent developments in South Sudan exemplify the fragility that often comes with the state-building process. Disputes within the central ruling body, though conceivably minor at first, have the propensity to escalate and cause immense instability. This was the precise situation that occurred in South Sudan. Tension between ex-vice president Riek Machar and current president Salva Kiir have consequently manifested in open conflict between two warring factions of the country’s military. The conflict began mid-December and is ongoing. There exists a difference of opinion regarding how these series of events may be categorized. Due to the strong ethnic overtones, as well as the rising number of civilian casualties, some suggest that could in fact be the potential start of a civil war. As in any case of a nation ravaged by inner conflict, it is imperative to analyze the response of the international community. There are a number of key actors in the provision of foreign aid to South Sudan. The critical point of analysis is the actual efficiency of these actors’ efforts to aid the world’s latest nation-state in this time of conflict.

The United Nations has had a prominent role in the region since partition. The UN Security Council has an ongoing peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS). It was established in July 2011, the same time that South Sudan became an independent nation. The mission’s mandate has outlined three vital goals: support for long-term state building, conflict prevention, and the overall establishment of strong justice systems. Presently, UNMISS is focused on assisting civilians affected by the conflict. UNMISS is providing refuge for 65,000 displaced civilians within its compounds. UN Police is also a prominent presence in these civilian bases to further ensure the security of the people. As the situation developed in mid-December, the Security Council agreed to increase the numbers of the mission to about 12,500 military personnel. UNMISS has asserted its neutrality regarding the ethnic component of the conflict; as the mandate states, the mission aims to protect all civilians. Though UNMISS seems to be a potent method in providing aid, the true effectiveness of the mission is often questioned. The head of UNMISS, Hilde Johnson, stated at a recent press conference in New York, “We are in desperate need for improved capacity and strength to implement the mandate. All peacekeepers are under instructions to use force when civilians are under threat.” Critics of the mission’s efforts highlight that it is truly lacking the resources necessary to protect the affected civilians and ultimately, are left unable to enact the mandated objectives. The latter part of Johnson’s statement is also a main source of discord – the peacekeepers’ use of force.  There has been public disapproval of the mission’s procedures, manifesting in organized protests against UNMISS. South Sudan Civil Society Alliance called for the ejection of Johnson as leader of the mission during a protest in early January. Though some drawbacks and contestable methods of peacekeeping are attached to the UNMISS, its efforts to stick to the mandate and protect civilians must be acknowledged. It is evident that the United Nations is continuing to provide aid for all those displaced and affected by the violence, and their work – though susceptible to criticism – should not be entirely denounced.

As countries with the definite capacity to provide foreign aid, the West should ideally be playing the largest role in assisting South Sudan. However, western nations have yet to play an active role in preventing the current outbreak of conflict. The actions of the United States suggest a minimized sense of involvement in diffusing the conflict. The U.S. was very quick to evacuate embassy staff in Juba and is currently questioning the continuation of aid to South Sudan. Washington has provided a sizeable amount of aid to the struggling nation – an estimated $600 million per year. However, Reuters reports that Washington is discussing whether or not the U.S. will remain a source of financial support for South Sudan. American officials are worried that the ethnic elements of the conflict could manifest in a civil war. The Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce – evidently “infuriated” at the recent developments – has said, “It appears that the greatest threat to South Sudan post-independence is South Sudan itself” Despite the pessimistic outlook from chairman Royce, officials report that Obama’s administration is in fact pushing for a peaceful solution to the conflict.