South Sudan: Opportunities and Challenges

Published on 15th December 2011

I’d like to say a few words about some of opportunities – as well as the formidable challenges that lie ahead for South Sudan.

Challenges and Opportunities

South Sudan is roughly the size of France – but with a population of 8 to 9 million, it has only about an eighth of France’s people.  Most of South Sudan’s population is very young: almost three quarters are under the age of thirty. 83 percent reside in rural areas.

South Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world; despite some recent improvements, its human development indicators remain among the lowest in the world. More than half the population lives in grinding poverty. Only 3 percent of women receive prenatal services.  One in 4 maternal deaths occurs during pregnancy or within two months after delivery.  Less than a third of those 15 and above are literate.

Adding to these challenges, South Sudan has been absorbing large numbers of returning migrants who need help to resume their lives in new communities. I recall visiting Juba and Rumbek in 2005, walking around burned-out military equipment, rutted roads, and a damaged, simple school building.  And that was in town. So I recognize that since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, important progress has been made in infrastructure and in basic services. Adventurous entrepreneurs have created a small business boom.  But there is a huge demand – and so far, this is only a start from a very low base.   

Today, there are only about 100 km of paved roads in South Sudan – that’s 60 miles of paved roads in a country around the same size as France. Only one percent of people in South Sudan have access to electricity, and its cost is among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa.  Without electricity, children can’t study after sunset; many businesses can’t thrive.  75 percent of businesses report that having no power is the single, biggest hurdle to investment in South Sudan. 

Yet South Sudan offers real possibilities, too.

The country has rich agricultural and forestry potential, with good land, good weather, and lots of water. It has significant oil reserves – about three quarters of Sudan’s overall crude output. The country has a history of resilient social structures, including effective customary law and dispute resolution mechanisms, being embedded in the apparatus of a new state. There is a significant trained diaspora, some of whom have returned to their country. And there is international goodwill that can still generate considerable resources for development.

Coalition Building

The greatest threat to South Sudan’s development and ability to overcome poverty is a new eruption of conflict.  Fires still simmer. Violence in the South has claimed more than 2,000 lives this year – and perhaps as many as 3,000. The World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report on conflict, security and development offers lessons about how to secure development in a post-conflict state such as South Sudan. Building institutional legitimacy is the key to stability.  But institutions and legitimacy can only be built over time; they also depend on producing results. Citizens in fragile states have told us that the results they want most are citizen security, justice, and jobs.

If the results are achieved by bringing people together in “inclusive enough” coalitions – not necessarily everyone, but a critical mass – the coalitions, new capacity, and results come together to start to build institutions.

Early wins are important.  As Rwanda has shown, engaging citizens in cleaning the country, building it, making it better – this builds pride and citizenship. We’ve seen some quick wins in South Sudan.  Prior to independence there were at least seven armed groups operating in nine of the country’s ten states, with tens of thousands of people uprooted and scattered from their homes and communities.  President Kiir has reached out to these groups, helping to bring stability to most parts of South Sudan. Now peace needs to spread.  Even when facing dangerous groups, force needs to be used with care so as not to lose the support of the local people.

Supporters of states emerging from conflict need to adopt a layered approach:  Some problems can be addressed at the country level, but others need to be addressed at regional or global levels. South Sudan will need a broad national coalition to tackle these formidable development challenges, to be as resilient in building your new country as you were in fighting, surviving, and negotiating for it. President Kiir has wisely called first and foremost for unity, inclusion, and development, with peaceful neighborly relations. 

Additional Building Blocks

The Government has produced a charter for its future called the South Sudan Development Plan. To support this Development Plan, I’d suggest a focus on three priorities.

First, ensure macroeconomic stability and fiscal sustainability: Managing oil dependence will be central to maintaining economic stability, which is critical for the country’s social and economic goals.  High inflation will also erode the public’s confidence in their currency, their savings, and the country. You need to manage the jump in both oil revenues and aid in a sustainable way. You need to own your country’s development.  So as you build, build your own capacity.  If you build something, be prepared to operate and maintain it.  Make sure the government’s budget is comprehensive and covers all expenses.  Make it transparent, too.

Second, provide basic health, education, and other key services: Your people are your country.  Take care of them.  Invest in them.  They are your future. Currently, the government provides very limited services, relying on CSOs, community groups, and charities to supplement these services.  Future government spending is uncertain. The government, with help from local communities, and the World Bank Group and other partners, needs to increase the reach and quality of key services, making these work through decentralization – and reaching far beyond Juba.  It’s fine to rely on others now.  But start to integrate these services within your design.  Over time, you’ll need to fund and operate the services.  You are independent, so look beyond dependence.

Third, kick-start non-oil growth: South Sudan needs a more diverse base of growth – for jobs, skills, safety, and to fulfill the land’s and people’s potential.  Private companies and investors can create new businesses and jobs.  Yet the costs of doing business in South Sudan are too high.  This year, the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report ranked Juba 159th out of 183 economies on ease of doing business, explaining that important laws and institutions are still absent.  To increase private sector engagement, South Sudan will need to improve its transportation infrastructure and strengthen its regulatory framework, as well as other economic measures to lower costs of doing business.

The Scourge of Corruption

Whether it takes the form of bribes at checkpoints, or officials taking cuts from deals, corruption gnaws away at political systems, weakens institutions, impedes the flow of commerce – and it is the people of South Sudan, your brothers and sisters, who pay the price. I am delighted that President Kiir has spoken out strongly against corruption. The plans to strengthen the Anti-Corruption Commission and require asset declarations by public officials are important steps. 

I hope the Legislative Assembly will have the capacity to carry out its accountability function.  State and county governments should be helped to manage resources transparently and be accountable to citizens for delivery of services.  It would be a wonderful foundation for the future if the first government of South Sudan establishes the checks and accountability so that police and security forces – state organs with coercive power – respect the rule of law. All of us have seen too many good starts trip up if security forces dominate – instead of serve – the public. Empowered citizens can hold their own governments accountable.

World Bank Group Support

The World Bank Group has been a staunch partner of South Sudan from the very beginning.  We will continue to be. Since 2005, the Bank played an important role in Sudan’s development.  The multi-donor trust fund for South Sudan has disbursed more than $476 million, that’s about 88 percent of the total amount contributed to the fund.  It supports 20 projects in more than 10 sectors, including infrastructure, health, education and the private sector. We also created a $75 million South Sudan Transition Trust Fund in June this year to improve health care, build roads, and create new jobs for the people of South Sudan.

As South Sudan becomes the newest member of the World Bank Group, it will be able to access concessional financing from our fund for the poorest countries, the International Development Association. The International Finance Corporation, or IFC – our private sector arm – has already helped Sudan put in place the basic legal framework for business.  IFC will next turn to financial sector development; investment promotion in key sectors such as agriculture; and funding options for those investments. And we plan on working with South Sudan and other development partners to hold a Donor Conference in 2012, with the theme of “the effective use of resources for results.” 


South Sudan has now emerged as a new nation, optimistic and hopeful.  Yet it is a nation that still bears the scars of decades of conflict that killed millions, made refugees of most of its people, and crippled the country’s development. As President Kiir said in July this year, at the birth of South Sudan’s independence, “the night may be long; but the day will come for sure.”  The people of South Sudan are working hard to build their future. We congratulate their commitment and their courage.

I know President Kiir and the government face many demands and are deluged with suggestions.  Perhaps the most important point now is to act.  Sometimes too much advice from donors can overwhelm, even paralyze.  Exercise your judgment as best you can, and then we and others will work with you to learn and improve. You’ve already seen the amazing come to pass.  You know that dreams can become reality.  Let’s work together to make that happen for the generations that will walk in your footsteps.  That would be a tremendous legacy of peace.

By Robert B. Zoellick,
President, World Bank Group.
Excerpted from  The International Engagement Conference on South Sudan, Washington D.C.

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