South Sudanese villagers leave for home after receiving UN food aid. Photo: Alessandro Abbonizio / AFP / Getty Images
Fine words flowed at birth of the world’s newest nation six years ago. Britain spoke of “a moment of hope and optimism for the future” with then foreign secretary William Hague expressing pride at standing beside the people of South Sudan as they sought “a future of stability and prosperity”.
President Barack Obama talked with trademark eloquence on how dignity and self-determination could not be denied, while there were plaudits from China and Russia. “We have always aspired to witness the dawn of peace, security and stability prevailing in the whole of the Sudan,” proclaimed South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma. “That dream is coming to fruition.”
How naive those words now seem, as the fledgling state stumbles from the savagery of civil war into the horror of famine. The United Nations declared famine there this week with 100,000 people facing starvation and another million on edge of “escalating catastrophe”.
Nearly half the country’s 12 million population are in critical need of assistance, say agencies, as desperate refugees displaced from homes flood into neighbouring nations.
This is the first famine to be officially declared since 2011 – the year of South Sudan gaining independence from Sudan – when more than 250,000 died in Somalia. Some experts thought such terrible events would not be seen in the 21st century.
Yet as destitute farmers forage for food to keep their families alive and humanitarian groups beg for money, we are again witnessing an avoidable disaster. “This famine is man-made,” said Joyce Luma of the UN World Food Program.
The chief culprits are worsening war and consequent economic collapse. Yet sadly these events also illustrate another example of the dismal failure of Western aid policies.
Yes, Britain is boasting of pumping in another £100 million from its swollen aid budget to tackle the crisis. But our politicians would be wise to stop spouting their usual nonsense about saving the world’s poor and start considering the corrosion caused by the billions already poured in to this failed state, pursuing naive ideas about state building based on floods of cash.
This country the size of Texas is a classic example of how misguided outsiders can inflame misery. It illustrates the core aid criticism of Professor Angus Deaton, whose lifetime’s work on poverty won him the Nobel Prize for Economics: namely that fractured nations needing aid tend to not have ability to handle large flows of cash.
Arriving out of Africa’s longest civil war, South Sudan was born in 2011 battered and poor with rampant illiteracy, the world’s worst maternal mortality rates and a third of people going hungry even in good years. It also had natural wealth from oil and iron through to fertile land and livestock.
Yet while Western nations such as Britain and the United States cheered on the new nation and backed cosmetic power-sharing to dampen ethnic tensions, its rulers had grown rich from aid and theft. Experts such as the academic Alex de Waal say “looting food aid was elevated to military strategy” by militia commanders who later controlled the country. Despite these activities, $1 billion a year was handed over in aid in the years before independence, rising to $1.4 billion following arrival as the 193rd nation represented at the UN.
As de Waal revealed, the quality of budgetary management actually declined over the five years between 2007 and 2012. It was not hard to understand why. That year a letter was leaked revealing the president pleading with 75 senior officials to return looted funds.
An estimated $4 billion was missing “or simply put, stolen” in a nation with some of the most rudimentary public services on the planet. Such theft was repellent, but surprised few observers. But still aid poured in, leading to public spending per capita more than three times the levels seen in neighbouring Kenya. Britain and the European Union alone have contributed up to half a billion pounds a year.
By 2013 the government was supposedly paying salaries for 320,000 security personnel – equivalent to one in 10 men of prime working age. Many never existed, cash disappearing into pockets of warlords.
Goods at the border were subjected to up to 17 separate taxes. Three economists warned, in a Harvard University paper, how orthodox state building had failed leaving the country “mired in a capability trap… despite countless trainings, workshops, reforms, and a large corps of foreign technical assistants embedded within state ministries”. They bemoaned the “absence of real change”.
South Sudan looked like a functional state but was simply cover for corruption and looting. One donor even revealed there was a fake ministry of finance to deal with gullible donors and well-meaning armies of advisers, while the real version carried on under the generals with its backdoor dealings.
The World Bank warned that there would be no “meaningful gains in social outcomes in health and education” without real systemic reform. A respected foreign adviser resigned saying the government was “rotten to the core”.
Barely one quarter of adults can read, among the world’s lowest literacy rates. But no-one can say donors were not warned money was being wasted. An African Union inquiry in 2014 criticised “eagerness of the international community” to assist “in face of state decay, absence of functional institutions, huge developmental and governance challenges”, saying it was “counter-productive”.
The 315-page report revealed confusion over “technical assistants” from competing aid agencies with overlapping mandates – with an astonishing 40 in one ministry alone. “Too many cooks can spoil the broth,” commented one minister.
When oil prices collapsed and state coffers emptied, fighting flared up again between rival factions resulting in the economy crashing and inflation soaring into the stratosphere. War wrecked some of those most basic health and education facilities.
Attempts at peace deals have been punctured by hideous atrocities, with even foreign aid workers gang raped. Civil servants and teachers have gone unpaid for months. Thousands more families have fled homes. And now there is officially a needless famine.
This is one more chapter in South Sudan’s short but miserable life. The country’s brief existence, based on failed political settlement, has been scarred by murderous militia and greedy gangsters plundering precious national assets. Oil is the primary problem – but aid fuelled the fire.
For all the fine words and good intentions, the West has ended up assisting and empowering a callous kleptocracy – again. And now there are fresh appeals to help the poor victims of our latest blundering interventions abroad.