The importance of an empty building

South Sudan, July 8, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Daniel Oyuru, manager of the Juba Civic Engagement Center; Moses Opio Korsura, CEO of Soweto; and Mercy Corps' Sebit Emmanuel at the soon-to-open Center. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

In the blur of excitement that is South Sudan’s capital these days, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of spending my morning at a civil society project — one of the more nebulous concepts in the world of international development. Enhancing my dread was the nature of the project: an empty, unfinished building.

I thought: It’s independence. Can’t I go see a parade or something? But not wanting to disappoint our South Sudan team, I trudged along.

I soon found myself at what will be the Juba Civic Engagement Center with my colleague Sebit Emmanuel, program officer for a USAID-supported program called Localizing Institutional Capacity in Sudan, or LINCS. Through LINCS, Mercy Corps has worked with more than 100 citizens groups that constitute what we call “civil society.” These groups tackle a range of issues including education, healthcare and human rights. The Juba Center is intended to be a resource for them.

Along with Sebit and I was Daniel Oyuru, a dynamic 27-year-old who will manage the Juba Center and is part of a group called the South Sudan Organization for Youth and Development, which promotes food security and children’s rights. There was also Moses Opio Korsuk, CEO of a group called Soweto that runs health clinics and helps people who’ve been impacted by conflict. Both Daniel and Moses are on the advisory council of eleven civil society groups that will run the Center in the long term.

When we arrived at the building, it looked fine — a good-looking facility and an advanced one by South Sudanese standards. Sebit, Daniel and Moses gave me a tour, explaining that the building will have a conference room, work spaces, computer room and internet café, library and a room for office services like copying and printing.

I still didn’t understand why a building is such a big deal. Daniel and Moses explained that civil society groups have an incredibly difficult time getting the resources, training and basic work space they need to have impact. Most of these groups have been working at private internet cafés, but that becomes very expensive very quickly. One hour can cost US$3 — in a country where most people make less than US$1 a day — and that doesn’t include reliable access to printing, copying or the other services that organizations need.

This isn’t just about making copies. These guys are trying to build a new country.

Civil society groups barely existed during the war; now they are critical in tackling South Sudan’s many challenges, and they keep citizens informed and the government honest. These groups were involved in the drafting of South Sudan’s constitution, and they were instrumental in making both the January 2011 referendum — in which nearly 99 percent of participants voted to separate from Sudan — and April’s parliamentary elections successful.

Moses’ excitement about the Center is palpable. “This is the biggest investment so far in civil society groups,” he explained. “Infrastructure is a great asset for us. Nothing like this has every happened before.”

Mercy Corps’ role in the Center has been vital. We financed the building’s construction, making sure that groups that will use the Center were involved in plans every step of the way. But we won’t stay involved forever. The Center’s management and financing will soon transfer to the groups themselves; we’ve provided training to help them come up with business and financing plans. They need to own this Center.

The Juba facility is one of 12 resource centers Mercy Corps has built across South Sudan to bolster the efforts of citizen groups. At the end of my visit, I realized that these centers are much more than physical buildings. They represent hope and possibility for people working to move their new country forward.

And then I went to see a parade…