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Helping Sudanese prepare for historic referendum

South Sudan, December 29, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    One of the daughters of Tereza Deng, who organizes a local women's group that Mercy Corps has supported, with their house in the background. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Rodrigo Ordoñez/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Rodrigo Ordoñez/Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps is helping educate more than 100,000 residents of Southern Sudan in the run-up to January’s historic referendum. The referendum will determine if Southern Sudan remains part of Sudan or becomes a new African nation.

Southern Sudan won partial autonomy in 2005 as part of the peace accords that ended Africa's longest civil war. For the better part of 60 years, the ethnically African and non-Muslim population of Southern Sudan fought a rebellion against the Arab and Muslim north. The South's grievances included religious intolerance and unequal distribution of resources, including oil revenues and grazing lands.

As a result, the eight million residents of Southern Sudan live in one of the most undeveloped places on earth. For example, only 40 miles of paved roads connect an area larger than Texas.

Since the peace accord, Mercy Corps has worked to rebuild communities in Southern Sudan – helping local organizations distribute textbooks and construct classrooms, teach computer skills to government workers, provide vegetable seeds and sowing tools to farmers, purify drinking water and other projects to improve living standards. In the last year, Mercy Corps reached more than 70,000 people in Southern Sudan with humanitarian assistance.

One of the key elements of the peace agreement was a 2011 referendum on self-determination for Southern Sudan. Since October, Mercy Corps has been supporting civil-society organizations that educate residents of Southern Sudan about referendum registration procedures and polling requirements. We're supporting local coalitions who literally take to the streets — going to markets and churches, visiting homes, broadcasting from trucks with megaphones — to get the word out about how the referendum will work.

The 25-county effort spans eight states or administrative areas. (It's important to note that Mercy Corps does not hold or promote any views or speak on behalf of any local organizations.)

As part of the same program, known as LINCS — Localizing Institutional Capacity in Sudan — Mercy Corps has also built resource centers, promoted civic engagement and established community radio stations. These stations have spread the word not only about upcoming elections, but also public-health alerts — such as ways to prevent the spread of guinea worm — and financial education programs.