It’s a common complaint among South Sudan citizens that their politicians have not visited them since their election, have not delivered on campaign promises, and don’t inform them how public money is spent. For their part, MPs say they don’t have the resources or systems to engage with the communities.
As part of the Within and Without the State project, which is working with civil society to promote more accountable governance, we have set up a series of events to bring MPs and their constituents together, to answer questions and account for the allocation of resources.
Hundreds of people attended a recent MP/public dialogue in Wulu, near Rumbek – one of several held over the past couple of months. Among them was Mary, a local constituent, who commented: “Those MPs said, ‘If you vote for me we will provide boreholes and tools for the community.’ I want to ask the MPs where those things are now.”
The events give citizens the opportunity to ask those kinds of questions and challenge people in power. Initial consultations are held with communities a week before, to identify constituents’ issues. Then MPs are briefed and invited to a dialogue. One month later, our local partner SDRDA (the Sudanese Disabled Rehabilitation and Development Agency) goes back to the MPs and the community and assesses any progress.
“The public is used to the idea that they are not allowed to question power-holders, but this is helping them to see that actually it is their role to do so, and that it helps the government to be more accountable,” says Hakim Cipounyu Awur of SDRDA.
MP Moses Aier Maneyiel was one of the politicians who attended the event. “The people elected me to represent them in Parliament… so I need to know what their concerns are… to be their voice.”
MPs listened to the concerns raised. In some cases they were able to explain why issues had not been addressed, and on other issues they reassured constituents that they are making progress. It will be challenging to ensure promises are delivered in these testing economic times, but such public engagement is a good start.
One issue frequently raised by citizens is how the government spends public money. Some international aid is earmarked for poor communities and distributed through the local government system – but it doesn’t always reach the communities it was intended to help.
Another of our partners, CEPO (the Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation) has started a Public Accountability Forum to look at how public money is accounted for. The first Forum, held recently with the government’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), was extremely well attended and allowed citizens to question officials on expenditures. Due to finish at 1pm, the discussion was so engaging that it continued until 5pm. The ACC has now agreed to hold it on the first day of every month.
“’Government money’ is actually the people’s money,” says Issac Majier Majok of CEPO. “So it is important to show how it is being spent.”
For dialogues and forums like these to work, it’s important that all citizens can participate. Women are often marginalised in decision-making, particularly in rural communities, and they have little control over household resources such as livestock.
SDRDA has trained community mobilisers to visit households and hold meetings to discuss power-sharing and equality. Views and traditions are deeply held, but there is some evidence that things are changing.
“Before, the wife and husband did not eat together,” says Rebecca Alek Meen. “The man would eat alone. Now, as a result of training, dialogue and discussion, women and men eat together. It’s a big change.”
Events like these are part of the Within and Without the State’s approach promoting the idea of a “social contract” between civil society and different levels of governance. Each actor has their own roles and responsibilities to fulfil, and by sharing and engaging they can work together to build a more effective state. This “social contract” is not just about citizens making demands of their state, or of building the technical and administrative capacity of the state – it’s about working together to build people’s trust in the state by making it more accountable and transparent.