We are on the verge of seeing the birth of a new African nation, one that will have emerged through the will of its people. It will be a time of optimism, a time of risk, and a time of opportunities that we should not miss.
As is often the case, the challenges faced by the Sudanese Red Crescent will be a microcosm of the challenges faced more broadly across Sudan. One management structure – with land, assets, staff and statutes – has divided into two. We are fortunate that we do have in the Sudanese Red Crescent a partner that has thought through these issues and taken a proactive, measured approach to the steps of a civilised separation. As international partners, our first opportunity was that of constructive engagement in the process of division that helped keep a focus on the inevitable advantages of close partnership between north and south in the future.
Our second opportunity was in our unique role in the task of nation building itself. It has been over 150 years since the idea was first proposed to form auxiliary, voluntary organisations that could mobilize in times of conflict to provide assistance to the wounded and non-combatants, and since that time, the idea has evolved to encompass responding to natural disasters, infectious disease control and basic health, and care in the community. Now, in the 21st Century, a strong, independent and neutral Red Cross or Red Crescent National Society is an important ingredient of any healthy, modern state.
The weaker a country’s social welfare systems, and the poorer the infrastructure, the greater the need for these societies to play a role. And in South Sudan, with some of the most alarming literacy, maternal mortality, child immunisation, and chronic hunger statistics in the world, having volunteers trained to help communities through threats of drought and flood; to help protect people against the threat of epidemics; and promote basic health and care in the community, can play a significant role in the welfare of this new state.
But National Societies, like states, can fail due to poor leadership; due to dysfunctional international partnerships and funding arrangements; and through lack of access to national resources. As international partners – as much as we can – we must help put this new National Society onto a good footing, to help it negotiate responsible partnerships and to develop the capacity to provide essential services over the long term.
The third opportunity that we will not let slip is continuing in our partnership with the north. The south may enjoy a period of fresh hope in the coming year, that will probably involve an array of international partnerships; but for the north, the separation may seem to cast a deeper shadow on future prospects. Yet the north will also face major transitions in the coming year. Crucially for the Red Cross Red Crescent, the north is also host to some of Sudan’s starkest humanitarian challenges. In Darfur 4.2 million people required food assistance in 2010, and in the east malnutrition rates are consistently above emergency level. Our Sudan strategy must therefore be holistic, encompassing north and south, and recognising that both contexts deserve and require the promotion of humanitarian values and the community based services a National Society can offer.
The final opportunity I would like to mention is that of making use of momentum and media interest. The statistics from Sudan over the past thirty years have been horrifying: two million killed between 1983 – 2005; four million displaced during those same years; over five million requiring food assistance in 2010; the lowest routine immunisation coverage in the world; the highest numbers of displaced people in the world. Over 90% of women in South Sudan cannot read or write.
This is not the sort of sudden onset disaster that occurred in Haiti and Japan and triggered generous, spontaneous support from around the world. It is a more complex, structural vulnerability, but one no less worthy of attention and investment. And throughout this year, as international interest stirs – and hopefully continues – around Sudan, we must take this chance to mobilise the investment needed to give the Sudanese the chance of a safer, more peaceful future.
Alasan Senghore is the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ director for Africa.