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.

This is an historic time for the war ravaged country of Somalia. The comparatively smooth transition to a new government headed by ex-peace activist and educational campaigner turned president – the 57 year old Hasan Sheikh Mohamad – has generated a new wave of optimism for the region’s future. This buoyant mood builds upon the rapid progress being made in the fight against radical Islamic group Al Shabaab, who until late last year, held much of southern Somalia under its sway. Now, thanks to unprecedented regional military cooperation bringing together Ugandan, Burundian, Kenyan forces, with Ethiopian troops, Somalia’s iconic capital of Mogadishu has been reclaimed, and the prized southern port city of Kismayo has all but been recaptured. Al Shabaab are well and truly on the back foot, and their future looks bleak.

And Somalis are seizing the moment for themselves. Members of the diaspora are flooding back to the country from as far afield as Australia, Norway and the United States, bringing with them a spirited entrepreneurialism and cash. Capitalising on the growing stability, new enterprises are springing up across the battle scarred streets of Mogadishu. Freshly painted coffee shops, newly constructed hotels, and electronics stores laden with the newest appliances from Dubai all are materialising from the rubble that has defined the past 20 years.

Of course, much remains to be done to ensure this brief moment in time heralds a sustained recovery from a history bleached by entrenched conflict, crippling corruption, and oppressive regimes. Somalia has often been described as ‘the world’s most failed state’, a label which rightly angers many Somali’s nowdays. Yet there is no denying that the region remains dangerously fragile. The biggest risk is that this volatile time of political transition sparks more fracturing rather than unification, incites new conflict rather than peaceful settlement over timeworn issues.

The balance hangs in the hands of the Somalis themselves. Yet the regional powers have a critical role to play in ensuring their support is not driven by self-interest at the expense of wider stability. And the international community, in Somalia’s case a growing range of actors with increasingly diverse interests, must remain consistent and coherent in its support of the country’s rebirth.

My role as Senior Stabilisation Adviser for the British Office for Somalia, sees me heading a team at the sharp end of the international community’s assistance to the region. We are charged with working in areas newly ‘liberated’ by military forces, helping to restore stability, and create the conditions for longer term recovery.  It is certainly no easy task, yet the early signs of progress are appearing – we are supporting Somalis to establish local administrations, implement community security programmes and rebuild basic infrastructure like roads and markets.

Yet one-off stabilisation projects will only go part way to solve the problem. The real challenge in such a fragmented, fractured landscape, to Somalis and internationals alike, is to find new ways of forging concerted action. Action that brings together the Somali businessman from London keen to invest in his old neighbourhood, with the newly appointed District Governor, with a group of young unemployed men, with the women from the local market, with the head of the African Union military unit, alongside the police commissioner… to decide for themselves what the real problems are, and how they are going to solve them together.

Crack that, and the rubble of Somalia’s history may just be swept aside once and for all.

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.

I stepped from the aeroplane into a thick haze of humidity. Its warmth enveloped me in greeting, rich with the scent of the wet season. Heavy, grey clouds lounged low in the sky, soon to deluge the city of Juba with its daily downpour.

‘Welcome to our new country!’ beamed the customs officer, reaching over the heads of the newly arrived throng for my travel permit. He flashed me a wide, toothy smile, appearing genuinely pleased to see me. I was not expecting this. Where was the surly glare I had experienced in Kinshasa? Where was the suffocating security of Kabul?

The world’s media was anxiously hopeful in the run up to South Sudan’s celebration of independence on July 9. Fears of violence and unease over the many problems still unresolved were all underscored by a deep incredulity that this day had actually arrived for a region wracked by war for much of the past fifty years.

I arrived just days later, and the elation was still plain to see in the customs officer’s greeting. The mood was also evident on the streets of Juba. Amidst the pools of murky water and mounds of rotting garbage, precarious wooden scaffolding encased new buildings being constructed. Gleaming solar powered street-lights flashed by as we drove past road crews busily marking lines on a newly paved road.  About me, four-wheel drives bearing logos of aid agencies and government ministries weaved and jostled their way through the pedestrians. The world’s newest capital is bursting at its seams.

Ive been dispatched as the UK’s Stabilisation Adviser, charged with continuing the work of Adrian Garside, who by all accounts was universally admired, leaving me with substantial shoes to fill. As such, I’m to oversee the £50m Sudan Recovery Fund and £10m Community Security and Small Arms Control programmes. Both were established to tackle the pervasive conflict that continues to threaten South Sudan’s stability.

Thankfully, two former Helmand comrades are to join me; Phil Weatherill and Mike McKie will be embedded within UNDP to manage the programmes across four of South Sudan’s most violent states. They will have the unenviable jobs of ensuring that roads are built, police posts established and warring communities brought together in some of the remotest parts of the country.

It’s clearly going to be a massive challenge, one fraught with dilemmas, uncertainties and setbacks. It also strikes me that ‘stabilisation’ in South Sudan wont look like stabilisation elsewhere, and that this journey can’t be constrained or configured by what failed or succeeded in other parts of the world. Whatever its course, it will certainly be one buoyed by the optimism and energy of a newly forged nation excited for its future.