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Country: Know Thyself

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Why National Identity and Public Diplomacy Should Be Part of Development Initiatives in Nascent Democracies

Just a scant four weeks ago on July 9, 2011, the world bore witness to the birth of its newest nation, the Republic of South Sudan, and while inspiring images of jubilance and flag-raising were present on our screens for just a few moments, they were almost as quickly replaced by another, and yet another story that seemed just slightly closer to home. Such is the cycle of news; there is always something more pressing waiting at bay to usurp yesterday's top story.

It bears repeating: a new country came into being last month. After the tireless work of so many Sudanese people (now South Sudanese), foreign diplomats and development professionals -- not to mention the many millions of people who gave their lives directly and indirectly to a bloody civil war that lasted decades, to disease, famine and mass migration, all results of a seemingly intractable instability that was its defining characteristic -- the once-largest country in Africa was no longer. In its place are now two distinctly different -- and disparate -- places, whose very identities are in flux.

When the dust clears, as it seems to be, and the business of getting a country operating from nearly scratch is well underway, there is an issue at hand that deserves more attention than it receives: the importance of a clearly and accurately defined national identity (or 'character,' or 'brand' -- these are interchangeable terms), and a strategic public diplomacy plan as part of an overall strategy for development. Development assistance, for all its good intentions, is missing this crucial and oft-overlooked component needed by failed, or failing states as is the case in Somalia, and by nascent democracies as is the case in South Sudan.

The history of post-colonial Sudan has been one steeped in ethnic, religious and political unrest, killing and years of civil war that has scarred this vast place. The world, through an effective (I use that term neutrally) public relations campaign, most likely associates "Sudan" with "Darfur." Though this new nation may have come into being baring the scars of a tragic and tumultuous past, the Republic of South Sudan needn't carry Sudan's national 'baggage' with it into its new life as a nation. South Sudan's identity may tied to its new neighbor to the north, but it needn't be defined solely in relation to it.

Unlike much of the arid north, South Sudan is a rich and fertile place, where the Nile spreads into a verdant and teeming swamp, the Sudd, which serves as both geographical and metaphorical border between the two newly-formed states. This fecund land possesses the proverbial seeds for what could be a great African success story: oil, untapped mineral deposits and rich soils that could theoretically support cash crops like coffee or sugar cane could transform the country into a self-sustaining, successful African nation. South Sudan is, in some ways, in an enviable position for a country in this region: though challenges are great, and obstacles may be many and varied, South Sudan is a new place, with a new national identity as yet to be fully understood by those outside its fresh borders. Development agencies have the potential to provide assistance in this unique way.

Development agencies and professionals are often the first outside entities on the ground in places where governments are unstable or non-existent. Though development and humanitarian assistance in general most often focuses -- and rightfully so -- on those issues most pressing; namely food, shelter, human security and some semblance of stable governance, it is that fundamental understanding of itself that comes with a defined national identity that can strengthen the foundations of a nation that then helps to inform successful and lasting founding documents, social and political structure and societal cohesion.

A well-defined and accurate national identity is, in many ways, a defined national strategy and as the world's focus has shifted for a moment toward its own economic woes and unrest, South Sudan and nations around the globe in a similarly early or developing stage, will need to muster as much internal strength, of character and otherwise, that they possibly can.

National identity, when most effective, is a simple and honest way of expressing those fundamental values that make a country and its citizens who and what they are. Public Diplomacy is a means by which a country can communicate its national identity with the global community outside of traditional diplomatic channels. These important components to governance are rarely discussed as part of the business of capacity building, humanitarian assistance, or nation building -- and it is in this process that these tools for governance are most needed.

National identity and public diplomacy initiatives are certainly not answer to all of the complications associated with good governance. Emergency situations, as is currently the case in Somalia for example, require immediate and acute response. During first efforts to shore up a failed government, quell unrest, or manage the enormous task of assisting millions of starving citizens is not a time to discuss national identity or public diplomacy. However, when the business of assisting a country in the complicated task of building or rebuilding internal political, social and economic structures is underway again after a crisis, national identity and public diplomacy should be among the very first issues on the table.

When the time does come, a national identity, in its highest form, provides the nation with a vision of itself; public diplomacy helps it to communicate this vision. Asking the deceptively simple questions: "Who are you as a nation?" and "What does that mean?" might just be among the most complicated and imperative steps on the road to a nation built on strong and lasting ideals that accurately reflect its citizens and its plan for its future as a functioning and successful participant in the global community. National identity provides foundational strength for a country, for it defines that unique metaphoric construct for collective belief in the nation not only as a physical place, but as a collectively held idea.

In the case of South Sudan, as is the case for other nations, the many tribal cultures, religious belief systems, the spectrum of socio-economic levels, its history, geography, sport, entertainment, arts, national mythologies, foundational narratives and so on, are entirely unique. Though the process can be daunting, the definition of a country's national identity is an exciting one in that it is a chance to bring together representatives from all strata of society -- no single social, religious, political or economic group can be left out of the process if it is to be effective -- and it is in these oft-energetic discussions that those foundational national traits are brought to light for discussion, fostering a sense of ownership of the concepts. National ownership of the defined national identity is imperative for its implementation and ultimate success.

As South Sudan celebrates just over four weeks of sovereignty, with most of the world focused on a litany of issues on their respective doorsteps, perhaps this is a crucial and fortuitous moment for a burgeoning country. The business of self-governance should be a private affair, and the great and basic internal needs of a nation; namely education, security, a functioning economy, food supplies and healthcare, are what matters now. With a defined national identity available as a tool for good and fair governance, coupled with a public diplomacy strategy that will lay the groundwork for successful global communication, countries like South Sudan can find internal strength for lasting success.

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