Resilience in South Sudan: surviving today, hope for tomorrow

Jessica Fullwood-Thomas Gender, Humanitarian

Jess Fullwood-Thomas reports back from South Sudan on Oxfam’s work with local partners rebuilding livelihoods, tackling gender inequality and promoting good governance.

I’ve recently returned from South Sudan where Oxfam is supporting communities to cope with the ongoing crisis that has left four million people displaced and thousands killed. The last four years have decimated a country that only a short time ago was brimming with the promise of independence and shaping a future on its own terms.

The challenges of planning for the future in a humanitarian crisis

Finding longer term solutions in a context where one million people are on the brink of famine is always going to be challenging. Whilst our humanitarian imperative to save lives today remains key (for more on this read a recent blog from South Sudanese Oxfam humanitarian worker Cecilia on her work on the ground) we also recognise the need to look for more durable and cost effective solutions. We have to help people keep going, but we also need to give them hope for an alternative future and equip them with the skills and knowledge to embrace it when peace finally comes. That’s why Oxfam is partnering with South Sudanese NGOs; Church & Development, UNIYDA and Nile Hope to deliver a programme that aims to enhance the ability of communities to both absorb current shocks and cope better in future crises. Some might say, is such programming – with its longer term lens –  possible in this kind of situation? Certainly, it is not without challenges and we are having to learn and adapt along the way – but we are seeing that it is possible.

Our four-year innovative programme is delivering life-saving interventions alongside longer term support to people’s livelihoods. Activities like cash-distributions and public health messaging are running at the same time as goat-restocking, vocational training and improved irrigation infrastructure for farming. People’s immediate needs are being met whilst also enhancing livelihood activities that give them the knowledge and opportunity to earn money and produce for themselves. In a camp in Malakal, we’ve helped form blacksmiths collectives who are in turn providing fuel-efficient stoves for start-up bakeries. Meanwhile, farmers are working closer together to pass on the knowledge of previous generations, as well as adopt climate-smart techniques like portable solar powered irrigation pumps. New shops are producing and selling soap after receiving training from members of a group that had already had great success in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. This soap making means a livelihood for the workers and improve sanitation behaviours in the wider community. 

Our four-year innovative programme is delivering life-saving interventions alongside longer term support to people’s livelihoods.

The situation on the ground is highly challenging. Humanitarian access is restricted as large parts of the country are cut off by fighting or flooding. People are regularly displaced making it tough for organisations to plan work over the longer term and the operating context makes it difficult for NGOs to hire and retain staff, procure quality goods on time and deliver work within budgets that are see-sawing alongside the volatile economic crisis and associated rapid inflation. Fluid conflict dynamics on the ground mean we have had to be responsive and flexible in our programme plans

This can involve anything from undertaking re-targeting of activity participants (as people are displaced or move away), to changing locations and types of activities as access and availability of goods fluctuates; we have also had to renegotiate access to programme areas as the conflict ebbs and flows. Finding viable, achievable options in this operating reality requires stretch, creativity and a re-evaluation of risk appetite by donors and aid agencies in order to deliver. It also requires a shift in power to more local leadership and context specific solutions that focus on the wellbeing, dignity and agency of the people we work with who, themselves, want to find an alternative pathway.

Incremental changes and encouraging signs of impact

The goal is to enable the people we work with, and the systems they live in, to better manage current shocks so their immediate problems are decreased, but also to make it easier to cope in the future. This might look like people with livelihood skills or portable assets being able to restart income generating activities if they are displaced again. It can also be demonstrated by improved agricultural yields through better use of technology (especially important when markets are frequently cut off by fighting).  Meanwhile, accountable local decision-making groups help with community dialogue, peace negotiations and regeneration plans. As one participant said to me, ‘when you have a skill you can work for yourself’ and be independent.

The changes are small and incremental. We can only help a fraction of the people who are in need and it is going to take longer than four years to achieve sustainable change. But we have to start somewhere. This programme is helping people right now, as well as helping Oxfam and other organisations to learn about what it takes to deliver development progress in protracted crises. We have learnt the importance of finding the right champions if you want to set up local governance groups that have legitimacy and acceptance. This is vital for people to be willing to engage, build trust within the group and make them accountable. Our collective farm plans have been redesigned (and redesigned again) as irrigation assessments highlighted issues of how to pump and distribute water linked to gravity and water tables. And again, when despite positive soil samples showing the potential for good productivity, community’s security concerns (distance from their homes and proximity to neighbouring rival settlements) meant the search for the right plot of land took time and sensitive consultation.

We are still learning and adapting, but we are already seeing encouraging signs of impact. Our collective farms are producing vegetables for markets that lack both supply and diet diversity. They are providing work for farmers and supporting collective action and social cohesion within newly forming communities. Women bread-makers are, maybe for the first time, earning an income which builds their own resilience but also helps to feed their community. We are also shifting norms. Mary*, a resident in one of the Protection of Civilian camps we support, told me how pleased she was that her daughter now sees her going to work and contributing to the household. These changes, she said, mean her daughter knows she can do anything she wants when she grows up. More broadly, the programme is trying to promote shifts in wider norms and behaviours through work on gender justice and convening spaces for improved local governance, community dialogue and conflict mitigation. Community mobilisers are delivering a fascinating set of activities working on gender equality where couples set goals for their household and understand how they can work together, share decision-making and take joint ownership of their plans. It specifically aims to increase women’s voice and influence within their household as well as their ability to play an active role in public life and community governance.

It’s a big and ambitious programme, but the fact we are already seeing such strong results is a great sign.

Can resilient pathways be built in South Sudan?

South Sudan is still in the grip of a catastrophic crisis and as the lean season peaks large scale humanitarian support will be needed to prevent countless more deaths. Yet in amongst the desperate needs, change is happening and people are getting stronger. Small green shoots are growing into juicy tomatoes and rosy red onions. Meat and milk is re-entering the market, while households and communities are working together to set their vision for the future and taking steps to work towards it. Just because the road is long, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start the journey. Oxfam, our partners and the people we work with are walking that road together. Together, we are learning as we go what it will take to help people provide for themselves, prepare for peace and transform their own realities.

Oxfam and our partners are working across South Sudan to save lives and help people build for the future. The activities described in this blog are carried out with the support of UK Aid.


Danny Sriskandarajah