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South Sudan in crisis, can Australian aid go further?

Image Credit: United Nations Photo (Flickr Creative Commons)

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) aid budget for 2017-2018 looks well structured, yet there is much to be desired with regard to certain areas of implementation. Australia can and should do more to address the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.

In 2011, after decades of alienation and conflict, South Sudan achieved independence from Sudan, making it the world’s youngest country. The cumulative effects of state fragility, a failed coup by the Vice President and a dissolved 2015 Peace Treaty have, however, led to the unprecedented humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in South Sudan today.

In line with both Syria and Yemen, South Sudan’s civil war remains asymmetric. For the purposes of this article, asymmetric civil war is defined as violence which arises between unequal and dissimilar powers, such as established governments and rebel groups. The country’s power vacuum continues to grow between government and rebel-opposition groups who continue to fractionalise along geo-ethno-political lines, prolonging the intractable conflict. Civilians are specifically targeted and the mobilisation of child soldiers regrettably falls into the mix. Since 2013, UNICEF has stipulated that there are now more than 19,000 active child soldiers. The South Sudan’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and main opposition groups in the past have signed direct agreements with the United Nations (UN) to stop the recruitment. Positive stories have come to light concerning the release of child soldiers, yet all parties have historically broken promises. Out of the 163 countries in the 2017-2018 Global Peace Index Report, South Sudan sits at rank 160. Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria follow with Yemen ranked at 159.

As an Australian response to the humanitarian fallout of the conflict, DFAT’S 2017-2018 Government aid budget confirmed a 'current focus on the Horn of Africa, particularly [with reference to] South Sudan and Somalia.' The response to date however, has remained somewhat restrained and limited. Australian foreign policy efforts in South Sudan are primarily implemented via ASLAN, the operational name for the deployment of Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel to the UN’s Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Like the majority of Australia’s military deployments overseas, the operation is non-combatant in nature, consisting of personnel who act as military liaison offices and aviation logistical support. In total however, the ADF operation consists of no more than 25 personnel, from the Airforce, Navy and Army combined.

This article does not advocate for a greater global combatant role for Australia. If anything, Australia’s notable non-combatant operations overseas plays greatly to its strengths. As the UN’s mandates continue to be stifled by the ever-growing divergence of great power politics, Australia has the chance to further diversify and pronounce its more than capable international capacities. Across the world, civil wars and conflicts are becoming increasingly dynamic and complex, commonly transcending territorial boundaries entirely.

With China’s first overseas military base being built on the horn of Africa in Djibouti last year, power projections are certainly shifting. South Sudan offers an interesting case study, like China, known for being traditionally non-interventionist, is beginning to test its UN and non-UN ‘peacekeeping’ abilities in the country, notably to protect the stakeholder interests of China’s national petroleum cooperation.

Australia would benefit by learning from the field of conflict resolution, and the strategies of countries such as Norway and Sweden. Soft power politics are internationally required more than ever, as are conflict-sensitive paradigms for effectual strategic aid implementations.

Moreover, in conjunction with DFAT’s AUD30 million South Sudan aid pledge, the report goes on to affirm that 'Australia delivers assistance through a range of trusted specialist partners, including NGOs, territory institutions, multilateral organisations, global funds and centres of excellence.' This in itself reaffirms the classical character of Australia’s foreign aid policy that needs to be revaluated. While centres of excellence are all good and well, South Sudan remains on the brink of famine. UNMISS is struggling to gain access to famine-effected populations, let alone protect its main internally displaced peoples camps near Juba, the capital.

In response to these rising global challenges the Overseas Development institute (ODI) for example, in collaboration with USAID and UK International Development, have recently launched ‘Creating hope in conflict; a Humanitarian Grand Challenge’.

The project’s central conviction is that foreign aid policies need to become more streamlined, in a bid to directly engage with indigenous peoples whose skills and projects have been notably recognised. In times of crisis therefore, the longstanding process of funnelling foreign aid through multiple NGOs and centres of excellence must be revised, in order to release the ingenuity of local problem solvers to prosper. Across the world, the characteristics of conflict and crises are continuing to change rapidly. Australia therefore, would benefit from re-evaluating its foreign aid assistance, as notwithstanding its historical successes, there is no longer a ‘one size fits all’ template.

In conjunction with working as an academic research assistant, Samuel is a third-year International Relations and Political Science undergraduate at Macquarie University. Samuel’s particular interests lie in conflict resolution, globalisation and genocide studies.

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