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South Sudan – a blueprint for a food secure future

Mother and child in Lakes State, South Sudan. Photo: Alun McDonald/Oxfam
Mother and child in Lakes State

Six months since South Sudan became independent, Oxfam America’s President Ray Offenheiser highlights the great potential for agriculture in the country – but also the great challenges the sector faces, from lack of infrastructure to widespread violence and displacement, and the leasing of valuable land to outside investors:

As South Sudan emerges as a new nation, there may be no more pressing issue for its people, and perhaps for the stability of the nation as a whole, than the investments it makes in its agricultural sector and long term food security.

In recent years we have seen the impact of volatile food prices across the globe. In 2008 there were food riots in 38 nations, and the international community has yet to fully address the root causes of this food crisis. So the potential for shock effects in fragile economies like South Sudan are real.

South Sudan is however fortunate. It has abundant arable land, water resources, and large stocks of cattle and fisheries. The White Nile region is one of Africa’s most fertile areas. So there is enormous potential and opportunity for South Sudan to achieve a high level of food security for its people. Yet while the struggle for independence has been achieved, the struggles to ensure peace and security and to overcome extreme poverty are still to be fought and won.

These twin challenges are daunting. 30 years of conflict has seriously compromised agricultural production. As many as 3 million people in South Sudan are at risk of food insecurity, according to the UN. Just 4 percent of arable land in South Sudan is cultivated. The production of livestock and fish is just a fraction of its potential.

The nation depends heavily on imported food stocks. Interstate trade and international exports are minimal. And South Sudan undertakes the task of building its agricultural sector with significant deficits in human and institutional capital, infrastructure, finance and technology.

So where to begin?

The first priority for investment in agriculture must be ensuring food security for all South Sudan’s citizens. With this goal in mind, there are some critical steps that must be pursued.

A farmer plants crops in Warrap state, South Sudan. Photo: Abdullah Ampilan/Oxfam
A farmer plants crops in Warrap state

First, create an enabling environment for public and private sector investment. Critical to this is investment in building the key institutions needed to ensure peace and security, rule of law, macro-economic stability and a coordinated regulatory framework. These are prerequisites for any functioning market economy that hopes to attract significant foreign investment.

Donors in this early stage have an important role to play. They should devote significant financial and technical resources toward assisting the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) to model excellence in governance; and toward building the capacity of those institutions that will manage aid funding, create the foundation for a vibrant market economy, and support civil society to engage in consultative processes with government in developing investment plans and monitoring performance.

Second, build the hard and soft infrastructure needed to support a growing agricultural sector. South Sudan must create a class of highly trained professionals to guide and manage the growth of its agricultural sector. It must create agricultural secondary schools, training centers, research capacity and a strong agrarian university.

It must build an agricultural extension system to serve the needs of its farmers and pastoralists and to deliver new technologies into its rural areas that will dramatically increase productivity. It must build a strong land administration system that can deal with the sensitive issues of land tenure and adjudication across the nation’s complex agrarian landscape.

It must explore the use of innovative tools like radio education to transmit knowledge to small farmers in local languages.  It must create institutions that provide needed finance to support investment in its agricultural sector. It must define a role for the private sector in the development of the agricultural sector, and provide the incentives to private sector actors to invest creatively in supporting the goal of food security.

It must build a system of trunk highways and feeder roads that will stimulate market investments across the agricultural sector.

Women farmers in Lakes State. Photo: Alun McDonald/Oxfam
Women farmers in Lakes State

And in this early stage, it must resist the temptation to lease large tracts of valuable and highly productive lands and water sources on a long term basis to third party investors from abroad whose interests are at odds with the goal of ensuring food security for the South Sudanese people.

Many food deficit nations are trying to ensure their own food security by investing abroad.  Between 2007 and 2010, foreign companies, governments and individuals sought or acquired some 2.64m hectares in what is today South Sudan for agriculture, biofuel or forestry products.

This is a land area equal to that of Rwanda, representing 10 percent of South Sudan’s landmass. For a new nation, just embarking on building its agricultural sector, it is premature to permit too aggressive an approach to such investments which could compromise the longer range goal of building sustainable livelihoods for its own people.

Third, give priority to small farmer agriculture and building sustainable livelihoods.

Ninety percent of South Sudanese households depend on crop farming, animal husbandry, fishing or forestry for their livelihoods. Productivity across all these sectors is minimal. It is critical that investment planning drive the transition from subsistence production and food assistance to long-term sustainable production and food security for all South Sudanese.

Support for pro-poor, sustainable livelihoods means:

  • Giving priority to increased investment to small-scale agricultural producers. This is an often ignored class of producers yet they hold the key to sustained inclusive growth in South Sudan.
  • Increasing access to, and ownership of land for returnees, internally displaced persons and vulnerable groups, and better targeting support in areas hosting large numbers of returnees who may lack land or experience in agriculture.
  • Addressing the critical role that women play within the South Sudanese agricultural sector. Throughout much of the country, women farm the land while men manage the herds. It is therefore women who will drive productivity increases in crop production. But to do so, they are going to need access to new skills and technologies and they are going to need equal rights and access to land. Women must be at the center of any strategy that would hope to achieve genuine food security for South Sudan.
  • Ensuring the adoption of strong, internationally-applicable standards of good governance relating to land tenure and management of natural resources, and the principle of free, prior, and informed consent in decisions about major national investments with consequences for communities and the region.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the GoSS must acknowledge and address the impacts of conflict and insecurity on the agricultural sector.

A pastoralist in Lakes State. Many people in South Sudan rely on cattle for their livelihoods. Photo: Alun McDonald/Oxfam
A pastoralist in Lakes State. Many people in South Sudan rely on cattle for their livelihoods

Insecurity disrupts cultivation, inhibits transport and trade, restricts access to markets, schools and healthcare and exacerbates vulnerabilities – with women and children almost always disproportionately affected.

Recognizing the linkage between insecurity and development means increasing support to mitigating security threats, addressing root causes of conflict such as inequitable development, and supporting the professionalization of the security sector.

The current fighting along the border is also a significant obstacle. Sudan and South Sudan will have to rely heavily on each other in the future, and having a peaceful border is vital for the long term development and security for both Sudanese and South Sudanese people.

The international community has invested a tremendous amount in shepherding Sudan and South Sudan through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and independence.  Now, however, the work just begins and donors must double down on their commitments to help South Sudan overcome the challenges of insecurity, displacement, and cyclical droughts and floods.

As it makes this transition to a nation at peace with itself and with its neighbor, South Sudan will require a comprehensive balance of predictable, multi-year development assistance alongside continued support for humanitarian needs focused on strengthening the GoSS emergency preparedness and disaster management capacity

It will also be important to invest in programs of Disaster Risk Reduction and resilience that enable communities to prevent, mitigate and recover quickly from humanitarian crises.  Donors should also look to emergent South Sudanese civil society as an important actor in providing humanitarian and development assistance that complements the programs of the state and private sector.

With the right priorities and the right investment strategies, and with support from the international community, we can all ensure the bright future that the people of South Sudan need and deserve.

This is an edited version of Oxfam America’s President Ray Offenheiser’s speech to the Agriculture Panel on December 15 2011 at the International Engagement Conference for South Sudan Conference held in Washington D.C. December 14-15.

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Written by Ray Offenheiser

Ray Offenheiser is the President of Oxfam America

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