May 2014: When donor governments meet in Oslo on 20th May to discuss funding for South Sudan, it is imperative that they put money, peace and children at the heart of their discussions. At stake are the lives of almost half the population in South Sudan. In real terms, we are talking about close to 5 million people. It is equivalent of the entire population of Norway. People are at risk of a potential famine, many of them are women, and children - they are hungry, malnourished and homeless. Donors have an opportunity pull the red card (read chequebook) to stop the slide - and they need to act now.
History and future of a catastrophe fore told:
During my recent visit to South Sudan to support Plan International’s relief efforts, I met two young girls aged 9 and 4 in Awerial, in the Lakes state*. With fear in her eyes, the elder sister recounted her horrifying tale to me - how she and her tiny sister witnessed the execution of their own parents by armed men in their hometown in Jonglei. The sisters joined the wave of people fleeing the violence, many of them wounded and bleeding from the violence and gun battles that have engulfed the country since a failed attempted coup in December 2013. The media has reported “thousands of deaths”.
Since December, human suffering has reached catastrophic proportions - 1.3 million people have been forced out from their homes, with close to 300,000 refugees pouring into neighbouring countries. Thousands of children like the two sisters I met have been trapped in the crossfire; displaced and separated from their families and friends, living an unending nightmare.
Peace is a priority- make it non-negotiable:
No words can truly capture the suffering and trauma. For children who have been orphaned or separated from their families and friends and forced from their homes, schools and child hood, there is no future without peace. Education is critical for children and youth impacted by conflict. Many children have witnessed or experienced traumatising events and education and emotional first aid can help to heal. Thousands of children in South Sudan are currently not able to attend school as many schools remain closed while others are occupied by armed forces or displaced people.
Olaf Thommessen, my colleague from Plan Norway, has recently written about the children forced to leave their childhood* . Norway, the venue for the donor conference on South Sudan which is taking place on 20th May, has an impressive track record for contributing to mediations and negotiations and ‘oiling and witnessing’ peace processes in many a conflict zones. I hope the ambience also influences the outcomes to make peace non-negotiable.
Money matters- good intention alone is not just good enough:
Good intentions to help the poor and hungry are noble thoughts, but to make that happen and for everything else, you need money. The UN requests US$ 1.27 billion to provide life saving and sustaining relief in South Sudan. The donors have so far pledged only 42.5% . This gap in funding is impacting the lives of millions of people and failing a whole generation of children. Donors, while they meet in Norway next week, have an opportunity. The decisions they make will impact millions of lives and help the aid agencies which are battling the crisis.
Well, there is lot of money in the world - except that the world gets its priorities wrong. Global arms expenditure in 2013 was US$ 1.7 trillion (i.e. over 1,747 billion dollars). A fraction of that could buy enough food and education for those in need. Peace always doesn’t flow from the barrel of a gun.
Bread and books before bullets:
This week, South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and ‘rebel’ leader Riek Machar agreed a peace pact – the second attempt of its kind in recent months. This is a ray of hope. Peace is a precondition for addressing life saving needs and stopping the cycle of violence and trauma. Peace is key to prioritising bread and books before bullets.
Food shortages and malnutrition levels are extremely high with one third of the population now experiencing emergency levels of food insecurity. The country is heading for the worst food crisis in recent times and the UN warns that some 50,000 children are at risk of dying from malnutrition. Aid agencies warn the risk of a famine in the coming months.
Put children at the centre of the discussions:
Children are vulnerable. In addition to short term life saving and long term resilience building measures, for thousands of children who are hit hard by this complex crisis, education and protection are key. Donors must ensure that the needs of children, especially education and protection, are priorities.
Why is there a bias against children and their needs when funding decisions are made? In 2014, of the total allocation for humanitarian work from the UN’s central emergency response fund, only 1.51% has been allocated for education. Protection and human rights related work attracted 7.04%. It is time to change this. We shouldn’t fail the children of South Sudan. In order to ensure that relief is given with dignity, it should meet global standards such Sphere standards*.
Who said children don’t vote? Well, they don’t cast their votes by standing in long lines and on ballet papers, but they cast their votes from under-funded relief camps and feeding centres and ill equipped schools and hospitals. Every hungry child is a vote of non-confidence on humanity. I hope the donors don’t ignore them.
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