Building on South Sudan’s Remaining Social Capital

By Joanna Springer, Senior Research and Evaluation Specialist at Global Communities  |  This article originally appeared in Global Observatory.

The outlook for peace and security in South Sudan has darkened considerably since fighting between forces of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition resumed in July 2016. Conflict is spreading among ethnic groups and growing ever more deadly, driving the country to the brink of starvation and sparking massive out-migration.

These life-threatening circumstances have become commonplace for the South Sudanese people and are one reason to expect they may have long ago given into despair about the future. Yet our early 2016 research in the country instead found that communities were committed to playing an active role in finding a solution to the violence. This includes having a voice in the design and implementation of international assistance activities.

Contrary to the widespread perceptions of a thoroughly fragmented society, the evidence shows that communities have established mutual support groups within ethnic groups and sub-groups, and appoint representatives who speak for different segments of the population, although women and youth voices are frequently marginalized. These factors will help international aid workers to provide a much-needed resilience-oriented approach to strengthen the ability of communities to mobilize and overcome shared challenges.

Our team measured levels of social cohesion and capacity for collective action in 16 different communities. We learned how people in urban, settled, and pastoralist communities, as well as settlements of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Juba, Eastern Equatoria, Lakes, and Jonglei states organize themselves, make decisions, address conflict, and seek to respond to and recover from environmental-, livelihood-, and conflict-related shocks. Resulting project-based work aims to strengthen these resilience capacities over a two-year period by using a community-led process for selecting, implementing, and maintaining assistance activities.

A survey of over 2,000 households, and more than 100 in-depth discussions and interviews with men, women, youth, and IDPs found that decades of successive conflicts had so far failed to extinguish community volunteerism and the capacity to mobilize to meet shared challenges. In fact, on average, the communities scored much higher than expected on multiple indicators of social cohesion and capacity for collective action, despite abysmal levels of economic wellbeing.

Interviews and discussions revealed that communities suffered compound shocks from violence, displacement, sickness, and natural disasters. In response, several communities recounted distributing food or livestock to the neediest households, and mobilizing youth to build dykes to protect from floods or lead seasonal migration.

In pastoralist areas in Awerial and Jonglei, cattle raids and child abductions resulted in youth fighting with neighboring communities, often acting under the leadership of elders to fill a gap in community defense. The government’s inability to provide security is a reality undergirding localized conflict dynamics.

Despite extreme hardship and persistent insecurity, people were still finding time to attend meetings with community groups as of early 2016. Two communities in Jonglei even reported rates of participation at these meetings at well over 60%. Women in Duk County in Jonglei spoke proudly of representing women in the local government, serving on the council of elders, and forming a church-based mothers’ union to address issues including gender-based violence.

Neighborhoods in Juba had the lowest level of participation, yet even there youth in one neighborhood undertook a community-led border demarcation project to avoid land disputes, a rubbish collection effort, and a successful community policing initiative. Overall, the majority of survey respondents (60%) reported participating in a project to benefit the community between one and five times in the past year.

People in all the surveyed communities were keenly aware that lack of transparency and inequitable distribution of resources have and will continue to fuel conflict. As a result, women, men, and youth demanded that leaders and non-governmental organizations keep the community informed about assistance activities and hold meetings to invite community input on decisions related to everything from project selection to conflict resolution.

However, aid workers will face many obstacles from internal community dynamics. For instance, mobilization is difficult in communities subject to recurrent cattle raids or riven by inter-familial disputes. In others, poor leadership and corruption have led to deep mistrust and reluctance to expend effort for the common good, while cultural norms can also lead to marginalization of women and entrenched resistance to their influence in community decision-making.

In short, although there is a strong foundation of norms and values to work from, community resilience programming will require persistence and follow-through to achieve results. Nevertheless, the South Sudanese we spoke to have had enough of unfinished projects and seeing benefits diverted to the most powerful individuals or groups in the community. To address mistrust and cynicism, and avoid aggravating causes of conflict, development and humanitarian actors will need to build on the bonds of social cohesion that are still strong at the community level.

The need for further commitment from the international community, regional stakeholders, and local actors cannot be overstated in order to create the conditions for peace and enable real progress. With that goal in mind, international assistance that uses a resilience-oriented approach stands a fair chance of strengthening communities’ existing social capital and contributing to peaceful outcomes.

Joanna Springer is a Senior Research and Evaluation Specialist at Global Communities (formerly CHF International). The views in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States government, which funded the South Sudan research.