Local governance in South Sudan and Afghanistan

Conflict, Governance, Humanitarian

Annabel Morrisey is Programme Coordinator for the Within and Without the State programme which aims to improve the quality and effectiveness of civil society programming in fragile and conflict-affected settings. Here Annabel reflects on a recent visit to South Sudan and compares the issues faced by civil society there as opposed to Afghanistan.

I recently came back from a two week visit to South Sudan where I spent time with the Within and Without the State (WWS) project team in Juba. It was my first visit to South Sudan, and first country visit in my new role as Programme Coordinator for WWS. Having spent the last two years focusing on development programming in Afghanistan working with local governance projects (one of which is also a WWS project), the comparison between the two countries and contexts was fascinating.

South Sudan is the world’s newest country having declared independence from Sudan on 9 July 2011 and as such it is still experiencing the early stages of ‘state building’ in terms of local government’s ability to respond to needs such as healthcare or education. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has dominated the international agenda for almost fifteen years and has seen heavy and vested investment since the international invasion in 2001. Both countries, however previously operated under predominantly tribal forms of local governance. This has formed strong community
based systems on which we have attempted to build.

In 2003 the World Bank in partnership with the Afghan Ministry for Rural Rehabilitation and Development launched its flagship National Solidarity Programme which mapped out and funded the creation of local governance structures at the village level known as Community Development Councils (CDCs). This initiative has enabled communities to recognise their own and utilise external resources in ways that are transparent, accountable and inclusive of women.This initiative has enabled communities to utilise external resources in ways that are transparent, accountable and inclusive of women. 

Although there are challenges, these local structures have been widely accepted as legitimate entities by the Government of Afghanistan and the international community and have enabled greater interaction between villages and local government. Oxfam along with a range of local and international NGOs has been facilitating partners of this initiative supporting the formation and continuation of local structures since its inception.

WWS in Afghanistan has been able to utilise these local structures and develop them through its focus on inclusive conflict mediation at the local level. By leveraging the role of the Ulema (influential religious leaders) WWS has worked in partnership with members of the CDCs to include local influential women in dispute resolution; something very unique in the cultural context of Afghanistan. Nationally, WWS has adapted its programme following the National Unity Government formation in 2014, to identify appropriate entry points in the national peace process for civil society
influence. This is vital to ensure that the voices of civil society and importantly women’s rights organisations are not compromised or left out of any peace negotiations. Through establishing a peace process discussion forum between civil society, the High Peace Council and Office of the President; the Government of Afghanistan has been sensitized to civil society’s role and added value in supporting an inclusive peace process.

South Sudan at its current juncture in history is in a process of transition with continued fluctuations in conflict escalation. WWS in South Sudan has adapted to the emerging changes in state building, establishing local non-formal governance structures at the Payam (district) level. Although Payam Development Committees (PDCs) are recognised by the constitution, Oxfam’s partners have spent substantial time working alongside local communities and government officials to raise awareness of PDCs and define their scope and responsibilities as the officially recognized liaison between
local government and communities, amplifying the voices and needs of local communities through the social contract model.

It is impressive to see how the South Sudan team has been so adept in taking advantage of the Local Government Act, which is codified but not yet implemented or widely known about, to pave the way for structures such as PDCs that can be scaled up when the time is right. Similar to Afghanistan, the establishment of these Payam level governance structures is now on the World Bank’s agenda in partnership with the Government of South
Sudan as the focus of state building moves more and more towards local governance.

women have traditionally been left out of decision making In both contexts, despite the differences in religious and cultural underpinnings, women have traditionally been left out of decision making. Oxfam and local partners have challenging these norms over time to ensure that women have a place at the table. Similar to Afghanistan, in South Sudan Oxfam worked with religious leaders to leverage their
influence to ensure women’s equal involvement in decision making processes.

Observing these two country contexts at very different moments in terms of conflict escalation and international investment in state building, it is clear that there is no logical flowchart or roadmap for community development and local governance. Oxfam has learned the importance of taking a longer term perspective on change in both contexts, taking time to understand and work with the existing and developing grassroots structures. Through improving these structures in groundbreaking ways by focusing on inclusiveness WWS is paving the way for the future and has demonstrated agility in
identifying and supporting mechanisms for interaction between communities and the state.

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Photo: A meeting between MPS and villagers in Wulu, Lakes State, South Sudan, facilitated through Oxfam’s Within and without the State programme, which is funded by DFID, 2012. Credit: Crispin Hughes/Oxfam

Author: Annabel Morrissey
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.