Through 2017 and 2018, Wasafiri will be extending our work from Africa and into the UK and the USA – here’s why:

When we set up Wasafiri, over 5 years ago now, it was because we saw a problem that we wanted to change. Between us we had been working on a variety of development issues across Africa; from climate change to conflict to agriculture – and the problem we recognised across all these different issues was less to do with the issues and more to do with the approach; and it was this approach that we wished to change.

Universal to all these very different problems was that these were not merely ‘technical’ problems – where solutions could be engineered- but rather systemic problems, that were deeply human in their nature. The sort of problems that no one institution, however brilliant or rich, could change on their own. So Wasafiri was set up to offer a different way to approach these sorts of problems. An approach rooted in collaborative action, in multi-stakeholder engagement, in bringing together those committed to making change and together figuring out, imperfect but practical action.

Over the last 5 years we have worked with partners from DFID to USAID, from private investors to global foundations, and we have been part of some significant change; and have learnt a great deal. We have been part of Grow Africa’s ability to engage governments and the private sector in catalysing over $2 billion of investment into agriculture on the continent. We have supported countries who have wanted to access Green Climate Fund investment with developing their plans. We have worked to help those effected by violent extremism in the Horn of Africa and those funding efforts to counter violent extremism to figure out how to support community resilience. And through this work, some of which has been more effective than others, we have learnt a great deal about what it means to work in complex systems and navigate complex problems.

However, complex systems and problems are not just found in Africa, or even just in developing countries. Rather these are universal problems many of which, like climate change, transcend national boundaries. From police –community relationships in the USA, to anti-microbial  resistance, to the muddle of the NHS in the UK, or the challenges of rising inequality across all wealthy countries – we live in a world of complex problems. Indeed the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals, and their explicit application to all countries underlined the universal and ongoing nature of development.

And so over the next year we at Wasafiri want to explore how we can bring the approach we have developed, and the lessons we have learnt about working in complex systems to issues outside of Africa. Initially we will be exploring opportunities in the UK and the USA – opportunities where there are not simple solutions, where many different actors need to collaborate – and where that is not easy to do. It is in these messy spaces where we have to come together and create the path by walking it.

We welcome Marcel van Driel to Wasafiri as a new Consultant in Organisational Development for the Public Sector. Of Dutch origin and based in Lusaka, Zambia, Marcel is a specialist in the practice areas of agriculture, effective institutions and governance, with core skills in project design and management, strategic planning, monitoring, evaluation and workshop facilitation.

Marcel has worked as an advisor for Gesellschaft für international Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), seconded to the Local Government Association of Zambia (LGAZ); and the Government Service for Land and Water Management of the Netherlands Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Development and Food Quality (DLG).

He explains: “After obtaining a degree in Landscape Engineering, I worked for 7 years as project manager for land use and development. I worked on a feasibility and compliance study in Mali and was a planning advisor in Malawi. My work in Africa has made me knowledgeable about decentralisation and local governance – as well as allowing me to fulfill my passions for African nature and nature photography.”

Ian Randall, Wasafiri Executive Director and Principle Consultant, comments: “Marcel will be marvellous at helping African Governments with effective planning and the capacity to deliver real and sustainable results for their citizens.”

Read more about Marcel van Driel and download his CV on his page in Our People.

If you are interested in working with or for Wasafiri Consulting please contact our Head of Development, Dr Kate Simpson, on

Photo copyright Marcel van Driel.

22.9 million[1] people across Africa are living with HIV. The social stigma associated with HIV means that for many people living with HIV is not just about their health, but also about their livelihoods, their home, community and family. Reducing the social stigma of HIV supports those affected by HIV to gain work, earn a living, live with those they care about, talk about their status, access the care they need, and ultimately to live with HIV. In turn, this increases the willingness of others to get tested, to discuss HIV prevention and hence to tackle the spread of HIV.

Reducing social stigma is hard. In many communities, faith provides the backbone to people’s attitudes and behaviour and so faith leaders and faith communities have remarkable influence over beliefs around HIV. By refusing to acknowledge HIV or through messages linking HIV with morality, faith can drive stigma. Consequently CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) in partnership with GNP+ (Global Network of People living with HIV) created the ‘Stigma Reduction Initiative’. This programme was launched in Kenya, Ethiopia and Zambia and used a peer to peer approach, based on people living with HIV ‘surveying’ others also living with HIV about their own experiences of stigma, discrimination and faith. The findings from the surveys were then shared with faith leaders who were supported to develop action plans to reduce stigma and discrimination in their communities.

Katie Chalcraft of Wasafiri Consulting was asked to evaluate the impact of the Stigma Reduction Initiative. We found a notable improvement in the HIV-related knowledge, attitudes and practices of the faith leaders involved in the initiative in the 3 pilot regions. More specifically, among the people living with or affected by HIV involved in the survey in Adigrat (Ethiopia) and Ibenga (Zambia) there was a general decline in exclusion from from social, family and religious activities, and improvement in the psychosocial aspects of peoples quality of life and increased uptake of HIV testing in the target communities.

For more information about Katie Chalcraft and her work please visit her profile here

Lead for CAFOD on this work was Georgia Burford. To learn more about CAFOD and their work with faith communities and on stigma reduction visit here


I am writing this article with the assumption that many African Presidents (and their governments), with the exception of one or two cases, fail to achieve what they promise their people at the beginning of their term of office. This failure of leadership shows itself in the poverty that the African continent continues to suffer. The failure also shows itself in the untapped potentials (human and otherwise) of many countries on the continent. Rampant corruption is another indicator.

What then explains the failure?

If, for now, we work on the basis that my assumption that there is a failure of leadership in Africa is correct, what are some of the possible explanations for this failure? How can such failure be corrected or avoided?

As Dr Otto C Scharmer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) puts it, the failure of leadership (in reference to leaders anywhere in the world and in any sector) comes from two critical factors. Firstly, leaders are often unable to “access their own ignorance”. Secondly, leaders are unaware of the need – and often lack the skills – to engage in meaningful dialogue with those around them. Let me explain.

By “failure to access one’s ignorance” I mean the inability of leaders to know what they ought to know to be successful in their work. To be continuously successful, leaders must hear, see and experience what is truly going in the systems they run or manage. We all have our own leadership blind spots. Our challenge (and task) is to increasingly become aware of these blind spots so that we can access new data/information that should ignite new responses. One way in which leaders can access new data is by engaging in honest dialogue or conversation.

Believe it or not, although we hear and see that leaders are often in meetings, they rarely have dialogue with their equals. I am using the term dialogue in its etymological meaning – flow of meaning (dia – logos). In this context, true dialogue happens when leaders seek to co-discover or co-create meaning with their fellow leaders. Meaning is not always self-evident. It must be discovered. I have been privileged to observe those who serve Presidents or Heads of State in different parts of Africa through my work as an adviser to the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative and my own experience of having served President Levy Mwanawasa (Zambia’s third President). Through my work, I have learnt that those who work around Heads of State rarely engage the President or Prime Minister (or any person of power) as an equal. This situation tends to play at every level of leadership. Why might this be the case? The office of President or Prime Minister comes with such aura and some of form of mystery that, if not well managed, it tends to ‘drown’ or ‘swallow’ and even ‘smother’ the voices and thoughts of people around it. This, more often than not, happens under the guise of ‘respect for the highest office in the land’.

Respect for the President or Head of State emanates from what the office represents. It represents and embodies the ‘spirit of the nation’. It is the highest expression of the unity or oneness and collective will of a country. To this extent, then, the office of Head of State is sacred (deserving utmost respect). The office of President is even more mysterious in cultures and traditions were leaders are deemed “Father of the Nation” or “Father of our Liberation”; inviting reverence as the normal attitude and response before the leader. If this situation is not mitigate (by mainly actions of the leader himself or herself), those around the leader may not find it easy to pitch themselves as equals to the person who holds the high office. The job of those around the President is, subsequently, reduced to merely following presidential instructions. Presidential advisers cease being advisers and begin to compete on who carries presidential instructions, expressed or imaginary, the fastest.

Another way through which a leader can access his or her blind spot is through seeing and experiencing the system one is superintending. This means the President should find and establish processes and techniques through which he or she accesses the real world in which his or her citizens live. The visit of a President invites extraordinary efforts to make the place look ‘fit for a Head of State’. With the good intentions of being respectful to the President who embodies the spirit of the nation, people tend to go out of their way to welcome the visitor. As a result, the President tends to experience the life that his citizens do not live. He eats the food that people can afford only for important guests. He experiences surroundings that are far much cleaner than his people usually live in. People go out of their way to show respect for the head of state.

One of the jokes I have picked in the UK is that the Queen of England thinks all rooms outside her palace have the smell of paint. This is because rooms that the Queen visits are often re-painted just before she makes her visit to ensure that they are ‘royalty clean’. More often than not, Presidents have no idea what the real situation of most citizens is. Even those leaders who come to power on the strength of their ability to understand the people’s will and needs can fast slide into ignorance of what is truly going on. After operating and living in an ‘abnormally’ powerful and resource-rich environment for two to three years, leaders may tend to create a figment in their own minds. They take their circumstances as every person’s world. A few months of visiting only well adorned places, buildings that are properly refurbished, the natural environment that is nicely kempt (and often seen through tinted windows of a bullet proof Mercedes Benz car), and travelling without being hindered by traffic lights and on aircrafts that must wait for you; the President begins to think his personal efforts and those of government have paid dividend. Personal well-being becomes national well-being.

In conversations with fellow leaders (ministers and advisers), Presidents end up receiving half-truths and sometimes outright lies. My teacher, Lance Secretan – one of the world’s leading thinkers on the subject of leadership and bestselling author of numerous books, says, “The higher you go, the less truth reaches you”. People around the President tend to second guess what would please the ‘Boss’. From time to time, President Mwanawasa would invite me to Nkwazi (official residence) for lunch or dinner. Over a meal, he would ask me what my thoughts were about some of the issues that were going on in the country. He would often end with the question, “What do you know about what is going in the country that I should know?”  or “What is affecting our people that I should worry about tonight?” In those moments, I knew that the President was looking for ‘brutal facts’ rather than polite conversations that showered him with praises. He would often remark to me, “It is very difficult to have honest adult conversations when you are President. Many people I have a lot of regard for seem to lose their voice in my presence, what could explain this?”

President Mwanawasa yearned for peer challenge and rarely got it. I cannot count more than five names of people who I saw engage the President as equals. The rest grovelled and almost knelt before him. Their role was simply to oblige to the expressed or imaginary wish of the boss. Obliging is part of what it takes to work for a President, but it is only half the story. The other half is engaging the President in tough conversations so that he is well positioned and well informed to make the tougher and more critical decisions that the nation deserves and expects.

Dr Kaunda, the first President of Zambia, expressed similar yearning. He once shared with me that among the critical things he missed while he was Head of State was engaging in quality and honest conversations with colleagues. A few years ago, while I worked for Oxfam GB, I had the privilege of inviting Dr Kaunda to officiate at an Oxfam function in Lilongwe, Malawi. I flew from London to Lusaka in order to travel with the former President to Malawi. Recognising the status of Dr Kaunda, Oxfam flew the former President in business class while I travelled economy. He was the only one in business class that day. Thirty minutes after the plane took off from Lusaka; Dr Kaunda said to one of the air hostesses, “I have a friend sitting at the back of the plane. Kindly permit him to come and sit with me.” His request was granted expeditiously. I was delighted to sit directly opposite the former President.

I couldn’t resist asking Dr Kaunda, “With the benefit of hindsight, Your Excellency, what are the key lessons you picked from your time as our head of state?” He looked at me for a few seconds without uttering any word. He gave out his characteristic smile and then said, “My young man, that is a critical question”. He paused again. He then went on to share with me how difficult it was for him to have colleagues to genuinely think with. “There were a few exceptional cases, I must say.” He shared a moment when he met someone who was not willing to sacrifice the truth even if the President did not like it. “Soon after independence, a young Zambian judge ruled against the state,” Dr Kaunda began. “This was a case in which I, as head of state, was deeply interested. I felt that if the case was ruled in favour of the state, it would enhance our political independence from colonialism. The young Judge ruled against the state.” He paused, again, for almost minute. “When I had the opportunity to meet the young judge,” he continued, “I asked him why he had ruled against the state. The young judge said to me, ‘Your Excellence, while I understand and appreciate our nation’s political agenda, the law currently does not support what the state would like to do.’ I asked Dr Kaunda, “What did that make you feel?” He replied, “Young man, although I did not like the judge’s answer, I could not ignore his courage and was deeply humbled. Humbled, indeed. The young judge’s response made me realise the importance of working with people who are courageous and willing to tell the truth as they know and see it.” He remained silent for a while as if to let me internalise what he was saying. Dr Kaunda concluded, “A few months later, I invited the young judge to be our first indigenous Zambian Chief Justice. I knew that our judiciary would be in capable hands.” He was referring to Justice Annel Silungwe.

How can a leader constantly receive honest feedback?

In one of his articles to the Post newspaper soon after the inauguration of President Michael Sata (Zambia’s fifth President), Professor Hansungule stated that the one key quality of leadership in our time is the ability to listen to the people’s will. I totally agree with Prof Hansungule. However, the challenge lies in whether there are conditions in which the leader can engage in honest conversations so that he can access the will of the people. Anyone who has worked around powerful men and women can attest to how difficult it is to tell “the emperor that he is naked.” Prof Edgar Schein of MIT, under whose feet I have had the rare privilege of learning, says that there is one key lesson he has learnt in his more than 50 years of working with leaders in different parts of the world. The lesson is that unless the leader suspends, from time to time, social rules around his or her office, he or she would increasingly lose the ability to engage in honest conversation and feedback.

In most societies, if not all, there are ‘social rules’ or ‘socially acceptable ways’ or the ‘etiquette’ of how to communicate and relate with leaders. These rules are, in their original and purest form, meant to signify the importance of the role played by a given office. They are also meant to enable the office occupant perform certain roles with ease for the benefit of the constituency. What does suspension of social rules then mean? This is when a leader deliberately creates, from time to time, an environment or conditions were those around him or her can share what they think and feel without any inhibition. Some aspects of the Japanese culture developed its own practice of how to suspend social rules for the greater good of the military. It is called After Action Review (AAR). Upon accomplishing an operation, the commander or head of the platoon would call all those who were involved in the operation to conduct an AAR. During the AAR, social rules of the military (deep respect for ranks and seniority) would be suspended. The private soldier and the commander would temporarily have equal status as they review their actions. They both would have equal amount of time to speak and ask whatever (tough) questions they have. They would challenge each other’s views. At the end of the AAR, the truth was often found, enabling the military to learn from its actions for the future.

AAR is practised in some Japanese companies and other systems world-wide that have learnt the ‘ritual’. On a Friday, for instance, the managing director or head of department of a company would invite a cross section of staff – juniors and seniors – for a drink. As soon as staff step into a pub or bar, they are presumed to be drunk. This means that every member of staff, even before he or she sips his or her drink, can say to the managing director or any other staff, “I think that decision you made last Monday was really silly…” and gives reasons for his or her assertion. The whole drinking session, often without anybody getting really drunk, is a conversation about how serious issues affecting the company can be tackled and lessons learnt. As soon as the drinking session ends and the staff have stepped outside the bar, normal social rules or etiquette are expected to be in operation, irrespective of whether one is truly drank or not.

In December 2011, I was in Lusaka visiting my ailing father. One morning when I observed that he was not in so much pain, I asked him if there was any equivalent of AAR in our traditions and culture. He explained to me that among the Ba Bemba, for instance, were praise singers who had unlimited access to the palace. Although these singers were thought to compose and sing songs of praise for the king, they equally composed and sung songs of rebuking the King when he was perceived not to be running the kingdom properly. The King was not permitted to punish them even when they said something he did not like. Their ‘office’ was protected by tradition. My father explained that the skill of the praise singers lay in their ability to tell it as it was while still “saving the face of the King”. This means that the praise singers critiqued the King in the language that only those properly educated in this form of communication could decode. For the rest of the people, these were just ordinary songs. For those with ‘ears’, the King included, songs were sometimes tough feedback for the ruler.

Reflection points for our new national leaders in Zambia

There is a new air of hope in Zambia since the Patriotic Front swept to office. Generally, people have high hopes that the new leaders will make a difference. President Sata has made key and important pronouncements that if implemented should make Zambia one of the beacons of hope on a continent that seems to be stuck in mismanagement and, as the country’s current Minister of Finance would put it, ‘kleptocracy’ (theft). I offer the following as reflection points for our leaders in government, and perhaps, business and civil society:

  • Create opportunities where those around you can tell you what their honest thoughts are. The power of your office combined with our traditional respect for leaders will tend to prevent you from relating as an equal to those around you. From time to time, create conditions were others can communicate with you sincerely as a peer.
  • Surround yourself with men and women who have the courage to share what they think, feel and what they are learning from society, no matter how unpalatable that might be to you. Do not be shy away from employing those who are not enthusiastic about praising you.
  • Whenever you can, access the reality of the citizens’ living conditions when they are not camouflaged by the need to impress you. Find the time to see – by yourself – situations as they truly are. If you can, spend 40% of your time doing paper work in your office and 60% meeting and talking to people (customers, debtors and creditors in the case of business leaders) in their true or real environment.
  • Employ managers who are more skilled than yourself to take care of the managerial and administrative duties of your office. For the President, this means identifying a highly qualified and competent Chief of Staff and Senior Advisers. For Ministers, this means looking out (through the President) for true professionals for Permanent Secretaries and Directors of key public institutions.
  • Leaders need to create what one of my mentors and a celebrated author, Nancy Kline, calls “Think Environment”. Most leaders’ work situations are “Instruction Environments”. A Thinking Environment assumes equality between people, creativity in the search for solutions, and taking turns to make contributions. Failure to create a Thinking Environment leads to infantilisation of adults and poverty of ideas and the ensuing actions. A Thinking Environment leads to productive dialogue. When expertly facilitated, dialogue generates wisdom and new knowledge.
  • In today’s world, the currency is shared leadership. The era of single hero leaders or ‘lone rangers’ is gone. No single leader can find answers to the many complex challenges that confront our society. Collaborative leadership is the answer.

Blog written by Martin Kalungu-Banda. (The author of this article is an Organisation Development Consultant and author of the bestseller “Leading Like Madiba: Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela” and “It’s How We End That Matters: Leadership Lessons from an African President”).

As we head into 2012, Wasafiri is asking where tipping points might lie for tackling poverty and related crises.

The future is uncertain. Of that much we’re sure. We live on a small planet with 7 billion people competing for rapidly diminishing resources, clamouring for greater political participation and a higher standard of living. New technology is stirring revolution and geopolitical power is shifting dramatically – all amidst a changing climate and an unprecedented economic crisis.

Such an outlook suggests that crises from conflict to climate change will be unpredictable in where and how they strike, but that we can expect the world’s poor to bear the greatest burden.

Yet amidst this volatility, we believe that new opportunities for tackling such problems will emerge in 2012. And it is often out of the most chaotic and dynamic moments that energy for thinking and acting in new ways begins to emerge. Wasafiri operates at the heart of such moments, working with the people and organisations tackling poverty and related crises. From our privileged vantage point therefore, we take the plunge to consider where opportunities for change may emerge in the year ahead:

Myanmar – capitalising on recent developments to strengthen democratic reform and respect for human rights
Horn of Africa – defining a long-term approach to improving resilience and development in the aftermath of 2011’s worst humanitarian crisis
South Sudan – tackling tribal and political conflict and strengthening government reform in the world’s newest country to lay the foundation for long-term state building
Somalia – tackling the blight of piracy, fundamentalism and poor governance in the world’s most dysfunctional state
Climate change – prototyping new approaches to reducing vulnerability and mitigating the impact of climate change at a country level
African agriculture – accelerating development by growing private sector investment in support of national plans and priorities
Libya – establishing leadership and government capacity for rebuilding the nation
Rwanda – supporting Rwanda’s hunger for development and regional status by strengthening the institutions of government
Afghanistan – supporting the transition from foreign military occupation to Afghan owned social and economic development
Humanitarian leadership – tackling pervasive weaknesses in leadership and coordination, on the back of a resurgence of high-level support for improving the humanitarian system

We also think it worthwhile keeping a keen eye on;

Arab Spring in Africa? – the upheavals of the Middle East and North Africa may well spawn similar discontent further south, where dictators in countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Angola cling to power as protest movements become more determined
Yemen – a disastrous convergence of poverty, extremism, ethnicity and corrupt government is forcing a growing political will for change
Non-traditional actors – developing nations and the West will grapple with how best to work with the likes of China, India and Brazil to strengthen aid and trade while avoiding the pitfalls
Humanitarian crises – predictably, from hurricanes in the Pacific to famine in the Sahel (especially Niger), new humanitarian crises will curse the developing world, but at ever-increasing cost
Ownership of development – opportunities will lie in building the capacity of national governments to reclaim their own development agenda, shifting power away from the donors
Impact investment – the private sector will increasingly be challenged – and encouraged – to structure and catalyse investments to drive development
Youth engagement – harnessing the energy of young people will also loom larger on the agenda of poor countries plagued by unemployment and increasing numbers of dissatisfied youth

Above all, and turbulent as the world may prove to be in 2012, we predict all manner of new paths to generating concerted action to tackle poverty and related crises.

Bon courage to all fellow travellers!

I set off early, heading for the rocky summit of Jebel Mara.

The rising sun lit the vast granite outcrop overlooking South Sudan’s capital of Juba. The faint trail was engulfed in elephant grass, towering over me as I clawed and sweated my way upward.

I broke free momentarily of the jungle flanking the summit, and found myself face to face with a young South Sudanese man sitting back on his haunches, watching me silently. He was clad only in a pair of filthy shorts, and his muscled torso gleamed with sweat. About him lay a tumble of granite boulders, pitted with the fresh scars of his pickaxe.

We eyed each other for a moment, until his steady gaze broke into a wide grin. ‘I am Moses’ he announced in thick English. I sat next to him, thankful for the respite. The air rang with a rhythmic high-pitched ring of steel against rock, and I realised Moses was not alone.

‘This is how we make money.’ he told me as I peered at his crude tools. Just then the rumble of falling rocks startled me. From the bushes, two men, hard and lean like Moses, strained to roll giant boulders past us, blazing an earthen trail through the grass to the valley floor below.

‘We came to Juba to escape the war. Now we live in the caves.’ He told me simply, pointing to a distant hillside. His face was weathered, his hands gnarled and strong. As he continued I discovered that small bands of men like him lived rough, enduring rain, snakes and mosquitoes, spending their days dragging massive rocks from the face of the Jebel.

I learned that while the men scale the rocky ridges in search of boulders, their women work in the valley below. Their daylight hours are spent breaking the stone down into saleable chunks, painstakingly growing the piles that now line the tracks. It is relentless and backbreaking. Their children scamper amongst the rocks and muddy streams, quick to inspect any passing hawajas (white people) like me.

Moses told me that each pile sells for about one hundred dollars. This seemed to me a reasonable sum, until he mentioned that it takes at least two weeks to gather enough stone into a pile. And it might take up to three months to sell a single pile to any of the local businessmen – who sell the stone onto foreign construction companies at a hefty margin.

It dawned on me that this was truly a sentence of hard labour. There are no welfare programmes in South Sudan. No support for people displaced by fighting. No pension schemes, and very few jobs. If a family’s granite doesn’t sell, their only option is to head back up the hill and keep digging. Snakebite, malaria or injury would leave them with few prospects.

I realised that this is the nature of livelihoods in South Sudan. For some, this is what it now means to ‘earn a living’. Many of these same families survived years of conflict, constantly moving, living in the bush. The men no doubt carried weapons and most likely took some part in the war. And as I descended from the summit of Jebel Mara later that day, I wondered if perhaps some of them would rather still be there now.

It is difficult to grasp just how much we in the developed world take our roads for granted. Growing up in rural Australia, endless stretches of blacktop shimmering in the heat haze were an unquestioned necessity.

This is not the case in South Sudan. Roughly the size of France, it has a total of around 4,000 kilometres of hard-packed dirt road, in conditions generally ranging from poor to diabolical. There is a mere 100km of paved road, shared across the country’s three largest towns.

To put this into perspective, France itself has just over one million kilometres of road. (1,000,960 to be precise). All of it paved. Which is almost exactly ten thousand times the amount of tarmac in South Sudan.

Comparisons such as these can often mean little. But for any average South Sudanese farmer, living in just about any village in the country, it means an awful lot;

A road means he might be able to get his crops or his cattle to market without having to walk for days. This eases the burden on his family, especially his children who otherwise have to fetch water, tend the cattle and forage from a young age.

It means a greater chance a school can be constructed in his community, and staffed with trained teachers who are able to live in areas previously out of reach. This means it is more likely his children will receive an education. It means his wife has a better chance of delivering their next child in a medical clinic, rather than risking her life to give birth alone.

It means it more likely that a police post will be built in the area, which means that marauding attacks by cattle raiders or rebel groups will be less frequent, and less bloody. It means that he is more likely to actually meet those officials who represent him in the government. And he is more likely to have a say in the decisions they are making on his behalf.

You get the point. Roads are no panacea. But they do improve security, extend governance and reduce poverty. The UK think tank ODI recently reported that rural road construction provided widespread benefits to poor communities; expanding markets, improving access to education, strengthening livelihoods, increasing opportunities for women, and more.

The benefits have not been lost of the South Sudan Government. Kuol Manyang, Governor for the South Sudan’s largest state of Jonglei bluntly told me recently “In this state, roads are more important than schools. Without them we perish. And this government will perish also.”

Yet there are excellent reasons behind the virtual absence of roads in his state. Forty years of war aside, they are extremely difficult to build, and massively expensive.

Most of Jonglei is swamp. The rest is made up of the dreaded black-cotton soil, benign and forgiving in the dry, but turning into an evil sludge with the consistency of treacle the instant rains fall. Any road therefore has to be surfaced with gravel. Unfortunately this gravel, known as ‘murrum’ is only available in a handful of areas across the country. Every shovel load has to be painstakingly hauled over desperately poor roads that deteriorate further with the passing of each truck. Out here the circle is vicious.

This means that the average cost per kilometre of dirt road becomes anywhere between $30,000 to $200,000 depending on its remoteness. At close to one million dollars per kilometre, tarmac is not even an option.

I met Patrick Ivo, a South Sudanese engineer working in Jonglei. He told me that even the best ‘murrumed’ roads don’t survive the thundering rains which pound the landscape in the wet season. Without maintenance (which is expensive), they will last two years. He shook his head mournfully as he told me of thirty trucks, each laden with construction materials, lying marooned in the black-cotton morass less than fifty kilometres from the state capital of Bor. There they will stand until the rains cease in a few months.

Despite the challenges, there is cause for optimism. The UK funded South Sudan Recovery Fund is constructing 600 kilometres of road across some of the most conflict prone and inaccessible areas. The UK is considering investing further in a rural ‘feeder’ roads network, linking into the work of the Americans and Chinese who are pumping vast amounts into primary road construction. It will take time, money and commitment of the government and its partners. It will also require patience for rural communities. But change is coming.

Last week South Sudan’s largest state of Jonglei was again wracked by violence.

On 18 August, thousands of young men from the Murle tribe, armed with assault rifles, launched an attack on communities from the neighbouring Lou Nuer tribe, deep in the remote northern part of the state. The men first struck the village of Pieri, and moved quickly westwards, scorching a swathe through villages across 150 square kilometres. In their rage they abducted hundreds of children, torched thousands of homes and stole tens of thousands of cattle, the life-blood of the Lou Nuer.

When the dust had settled and the blood had dried, more than 640 people had been killed, with 750 wounded.

As one of the least developed states in South Sudan, Jonglei has long been marred by conflict. Life for many is precarious, burdened with crushing poverty, tormented by the threat of cattle raids and newly formed rebel groups. Add to this a ready supply of weapons and young men without work. The mixture is highly combustible.

So volatile in fact, that prior to this recent incident, over a thousand people had been killed in dozens of clashes between the Lou-Nuer and Murle communities this year alone. The August attack had simply been the latest in a surge of retaliatory violence that is not looking to diminish anytime soon.

This time, the response was immediate, but not sufficient.

Humanitarian agencies, despite having been caught up in the carnage, tended to the wounded, distributed food supplies and provided emergency shelter. Searches for the missing children were launched. An inter-agency assessment team, led by the South Sudan Government, was dispatched four days after the violence had ended. They resolved to deploy more troops to the area, establish reconciliation processes and improve local infrastructure.

Such promises restore confidence and stability if they are fulfilled. Failure or inaction however can do more harm than good. If for instance, troops are deployed without sufficient equipment or provisions, forcing them to plunder local communities (as is not uncommon), then the public is further traumatised. If peace processes rehash old tensions or yield few outcomes then the initiative is lost. If it takes years to construct new roads or dredge blocked rivers, then government credibility is damaged.

Violent incidents such as these reinforce the need for rapid, concerted stabilisation efforts, which tackle the immediate situation while building local resilience and laying the foundation for longer-term recovery. They must be ably led by the Government and its security forces, and supported by the international community.

For instance, at precisely this moment in Jonglei, a raft of integrated stabilisation initiatives should be underway; shoring up the capacity of the local police, supporting local citizens to voice their grievances, enabling officials to access remote areas, communicate with their people and visibly lead in recovery efforts. Homes destroyed in the fighting could be rebuilt with well run employment schemes, offering new skills and possibilities to youth who otherwise know only cattle and raiding. Restoring water-points, markets and local services could be a fulcrum for not only addressing immediate needs, but for including women, young people and traditional leaders in determining how to mitigate tensions and avoid future conflict.

Except this time, the response will be limited – at best. Humanitarian organisations are performing heroically, yet their scope is narrow. Government agencies suffer acutely from a lack of just about everything; skills, funds and supplies. International organisations are hampered by cumbersome procurement systems, inflexible funding mechanisms and programmes that take time to deliver.

There is no doubt that South Sudan is a uniquely challenging environment, from just about any perspective you care to take. Yet this recent attack in Jonglei brings renewed urgency to the quest for new approaches to establish much needed stability for the region.

‘Don’t be fooled by Juba, Hamish. The real South Sudan lies outside… you’ll see.’

In my first week, virtually everyone I met offered me this advice, and it sparked my interest in life beyond the capital.

Just days later I was in the north of the country, enduring a bone-jarring journey on the recently refurbished inter-state road between Wau and Kwajok, weaving and bouncing around bathtub sized potholes that threatened to swallow our vehicle. Kunal, a colleague from UNDP and South Sudan veteran, took great delight in my various reactions; ‘Enjoy it!’ he kept booming over the rattle; ‘this is one of the best roads in the state!’

Along the way we had passed hundreds of troops from the South Sudan Liberation Army (SPLA), manning checkpoints, hunched under trees and amongst the thatched huts lining the road. Their bedraggled appearance in an assortment of ill-fitting uniforms, often without weapons, did not inspire confidence. I’m told that it’s not uncommon for local communities to be better armed that the military. But in these parts, a uniform and a semblance of authority substitutes for a livelihood.

We arrived in Kwajok, the docile, sprawling capital of Warrap state. A look beyond the dusty air of calm revealed vast challenges for security, governance and development. Basic sanitation and services appear not to exist, living conditions for recently returned Southerners are bleak, newly installed power-lines lie broken and V8 landcruisers and air-conditioned offices were the only evidence of government. A second glance at the shops in the teeming market reveals a near monopoly by Ugandan, Ethiopian and Kenyan businessmen. There appears to be a vast population of unemployed youth, with ready access to weapons, facing few prospects and rising costs of marriage. A volatile mix in a state wracked by ethic division and violent incursions by rebel groups.

Serious as these challenges are, it is worth putting things into perspective. After all, as I had only recently learned, this region has been wracked with war for all but ten years since Sudan’s independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956. The question I found myself asking in Kwajok was what is the impact of decades of conflict, marginalisation, displacement and devastation upon this new country?

For a start, the need to address insecurity is all-encompassing. Entrenched poverty, deeply embedded ethnic and tribal tensions, weak and corrupt governance, scarce water and grazing land, a military which acts with impunity; there are many reasons for conflict to remain pervasive, despite the war ending with the north.

Then there is the question of state-building. How do you create a nation in this context? Where much of the population felt more secure during the war? According to a recent Danish assessment, the process ‘is virtually starting from zero, in a backdrop of serious demographic, ethnic, rural-urban and centre-periphery fault lines.’ And do not overlook the fact that, most, if not all, civil servants earned their jobs as bush-fighters in the war.

Finally, the socio-economic impacts have been simply devastating. South Sudan faces some of the worst indicators in the world; more than 90% of the population live on less than a dollar a day, 97% of people have no access to sanitation, 92% of women cannot read or write, 1 in 7 pregnant women will die of complications, 1.5 million people are food insecure… the list goes on. And it is staggering.

The enormity of these challenges began to sink in on the return flight to Juba, as the vast country below, cut off by seasonal rains for half the year, merged in the distance with the hazy blue horizon. At this point the significance of recent events struck me; relatively orderly national elections in 2010, a peaceful referendum early this year, followed by a surprisingly calm transition to independence in July.


It made me wonder if, in spite of massive obstacles to peace, nationhood and development, this place might just have a chance. It might be a faint glimmer of hope at present, perched atop a fragile foundation, but it is a glimmer nonetheless.