A New Challenge for a New Country: Southern Sudan and Returnee Communities

01/26/2011 05:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As I write I am in Nairobi, Kenya, for the CHF International Africa regional conference. But the highest profile events in the continent just now are taking place several hundred miles north of here in southern Sudan, where the world's 193rd country looks likely soon to be created.

My colleagues in southern Sudan tell me that the excitement in that region is palpable. Jubilation and hope have replaced years of anxiety and desperation in a place that, in the not-too-distant past, suffered tremendously from Africa's longest civil war. Having successfully completed a referendum on whether or not to secede from the North despite enormous political, security and logistical odds, many in southern Sudan are starting to enjoy the feeling of proving the skeptics wrong. Voters proudly display the fading ink on their fingers, signifying that they participated in the referendum.

The challenges facing southern Sudan are well known -- potential clashes with the North, literacy rates of around 25%, little physical infrastructure or private industry -- not to mention the oil question, which can bring development but also exploitation and violence. Then there are every day challenges. My colleagues tell me stories that are hard to imagine elsewhere: warnings that leopards have been spotted in the center of the main city, Juba; finding a major road closed after a heavy rain that washed old landmines from their former 'home' to a new and very dangerous resting place. A few years ago, we gave four computers to the Jonglei local government office and it was major news in the area -- this fact alone signifies the major resource and capacity challenges they face. Small interventions, by western measurements, can make a huge impact.

But with the hope surrounding the probable impending independence comes another new challenge -- returnees. Since October 2010, the return of over 180,000 ethnically southern Sudanese to their place of origin poses significant humanitarian, social, and economic issues. Many returnees have technical skills that will be crucial for the development of Southern Sudan; but in a largely rural society focused heavily on subsistence agriculture, their peaceful and productive reintegration into host communities will be critical. They will need income to feed their families. They will need clean water and sanitation. They will need to peacefully resolve differences. They will need the skills with which to form stable, more complex societies.

With funding from USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, this is where we are currently focusing our energies, by providing income generation and educational opportunities for young adults, especially focused on vocational training and linking their energies to local and regional markets. This is vital work that will need to be expanded upon in the near future. It is difficult for a country with so little to absorb so many people and hope can turn all too quickly into frustration. If we want southern Sudan to succeed, international NGOs and donors need to work with the Sudanese people and governments to ensure that economic opportunities exist for the returnees and for the host communities to which they come, and that nascent infrastructure is strengthened to sustain these new populations. These communities know what they need and have the energy and drive to make it happen -- our job is to be a catalyst for those desires and the peaceful settling of differences for a better future.

The high point of independence movements is the moment of independence itself. The returnees and the Sudanese already living in this area want to be part of this historical moment. But after the moment of jubilation the hard work begins. I am hopeful that the Sudanese people will prove the skeptics wrong again.