After six up-and-downs in airplanes ranging from a Boeing 757 to a 19-seat Beech Airliner, Miguel and I reached Juba, Sudan, yesterday morning. Richard Haselwood, Mercy Corps' Sudan country director, flew from Khartoum this morning to meet us. Richard is a veteran aid worker who's focused on Africa for much of his career, including the last three years in Sudan. He briefed us on security protocols and gave us a broad program overview at the Sunflower hotel, a complex of shipping containers converted into basic accommodations on the banks of the White Nile.
How would you describe southern Sudan and the transitional areas we're working in?
In many ways it is the land that time forgot. There is very little infrastructure, and until the war ended in 2005, there were few permanent buildings and only a few kilometers of paved road in an area twice as big as Texas. But now people are flooding back, along with lots of investment from the U.S. and European governments as well as the UN agencies.
What's the context of our work here?
Sudan ended its 21-year civil war in January 2005 with a Comprehensive Peace Agreement that establishes semi-autonomy for southern Sudan and sets up a Government of National Unity. It establishes milestones for democratic reforms, revenue and power sharing, national elections and, ultimately, a referendum on self-determination for southern Sudan.
What's the focus of our programs here?
Primarily to strengthen the existing peace. No one wants to see Sudan return to war, so we're doing things that support the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and contribute to the development of areas that were either decimated or nearly abandoned during wartime.
And how are we doing that?
Two ways. One is through infrastructure projects — building schools, police stations, community centers and marketplaces — and economic-development opportunities, like increasing local agricultural production, that support the flood of people returning to southern Sudan and demonstrate a tangible "peace dividend." The second is by helping "civil society" groups — community groups who are neither government- nor business-related — develop the skills to better play their appropriate role in a democratic society. We're helping these groups be more effective and find linkages within Sudan, whether their mission is to empower women, improve children's health, raise awareness about HIV/AIDS or increase adult literacy.
Where are we doing this?
We have several project sites across southern Sudan, but our main focus is in communities along the border between the north and south —war-torn areas that are now critical to a peaceful Sudan. Three of these communities were singled out for special treatment in the peace agreement: communities in Blue Nile state, Southern Kordofan, and Abyei. Abyei is unique because it is administered by the Presidency and has representation and citizenship in both a northern state and a southern state.
How does our work in southern Sudan and in the border region relate to the conflict in Darfur?
The CPA essentially lays out a road map for a new and different Sudan. It's the first step toward addressing the concerns of the entire country, not just the problems between north and south. Self-determination, national elections, transparent resource sharing and development ... these are all things in the CPA that mirror many of the concerns of people in Darfur. So, if the CPA is implemented, our work in the transitional areas and in southern Sudan can lay the foundation for a model for post-war recovery and rehabilitation in Darfur. If, on the other hand, the CPA breaks down, there would be little hope for obtaining peace in Darfur.