How much does it cost to stop a cycle of violence in South Sudan? It’s less than you might think…

Sylvia Brown Conflict, Fragile contexts, Innovation

What’s the biggest barrier to community-led peacebuilding in South Sudan? Often, it’s simply that volunteer peacebuilders can’t get the transport they need to reach the warring parties. In a blog for the International Day of Living Together in Peace, Sylvia Brown explains how an investment of just $28,000 can calm an inter-community conflict – and protect lives and livelihoods.

Women leaders from Rumbek in South Sudan discussing their peacebuilding work. (Picture: Sylvia Brown/Oxfam)

Decades of conflict during South Sudan’s war of independence and subsequent power struggles, have led to a collapse in peace, trust and social cohesion between the villages, payams, counties and tribes that make up the country. Memories of family members killed, and innocent lives lost, are still fresh.

While much of the conflict in South Sudan is a result of national political and power struggles, a significant amount is due to inter-communal disputes over cattle, land and other local issues. These have become far more violent than they used to be because of the widespread availability of guns. In the past, disputes were fought and settled using spears, but since the war the civilian population is heavily armed with deadly AK-47s.

Such violent conflict causes huge loss of life, economic collapse, and widespread destruction. Conflict was responsible for 55% of the displacement of people in South Sudan from their homes and sources of livelihood in 2023. When people are displaced from their homes, emergency humanitarian aid has to be flown in to prevent starvation. In 2024, 7.1 million people out of South Sudan’s total population of 12.4 million are projected to face crisis-level or more severe acute food insecurity during the lean season from April to June.

In Rumbek, a string of local conflicts takes hundreds of lives

Rumbek in Lakes State is in the middle of South Sudan. Although most people are from the same Dinka tribe, conflict between neighbouring counties erupts regularly. The underlying cause is poverty, but it is often triggered by cattle-rustling, land disputes, disputes over marriage and pregnancy out of wedlock, and constant cycles of revenge killings.

‘When peace committees receive news of a problem, they travel to the area immediately, to discuss the problem with those involved and resolve it early, before it can escalate’

When conflicts break out, anyone from the opposing district can be a target, including women, children and older people. These are extraordinarily violent: typically, between 300 and 600 people will be killed in each conflict. The fear and insecurity this generates shatters livelihoods. Fisherfolk cannot go to the river to fish; farmers cannot cultivate their crops; women farmers cannot take produce to market; and motorcycle taxis cannot drive down the road. Children are taken out of school and rural people move to the town to seek security from the armed forces.

To address this, Oxfam has been supporting community-led peacebuilding in the Rumbek area for seven years in partnership with a local civil society organisation, the Disabled Association for Rehabilitation and Development (DARD).

Peace volunteers must move quickly to halt the cycle of killings

Oxfam and DARD work with local government, traditional chiefs, and payam and boma (the smallest administrative level) peace committees, made up of locally influential women, men and young people. The peace committees work on an entirely voluntary basis, devoting themselves to rebuilding peace, trust and social cohesion among the people in Rumbek and neighbouring areas.

When peace committees receive news of a problem, they travel to the area immediately, to discuss the problem with those involved and resolve it early, before it can escalate. When violent cattle raids occur, they organise community peace dialogues for resolution and reconciliation, to prevent cycles of revenge killings.

But to do this lifesaving work, the volunteers need to reach the warring parties. The problem is that poverty is so high in Rumbek that nobody has the money to pay for transport themselves. No one has a car and few people own a motorbike. Lack of transport is thus the biggest barrier to peacebuilding in Rumbek.

That’s why Oxfam and DARD support the volunteers by paying for the transportation costs, as well as refreshments for peacebuilding meetings. They also support community peacebuilders by organising training in peacebuilding and mediation. This vital work has been made possible with the support of players of the UK’s People’s Postcode Lottery and the Danish development agency, Danida (see below).

So how much does it cost to support peacebuilding?

On average, it costs $28,000 to resolve a significant inter-community conflict. This includes the costs for pre-meetings with each community separately to understand their perspectives; meetings with the young people in the cattle camps; separate meetings with injured families and other groups that might potentially derail the process; trust-building visits between the chiefs of each community; the costs of bringing large numbers of each community together in a formal, mediated, peace dialogue; and a traditional reconciliation ceremony. It also includes Oxfam and DARD’s staff costs, and the cost of the community mediator and the spiritual leader for the reconciliation ceremony.

However, there are also enormous savings from the fact that humanitarian aid is not needed when a peace process is successful; savings from livelihoods that are not shattered and need to be rebuilt; savings from property that is not destroyed; and stability for children who do not miss out on schooling. There are also incalculable savings from the emotional trauma and the breakdown of community bonds that come with conflict.

“Peace committees are a very important mechanism in maintaining peace because they resolve conflict at the level of communities, [and] they coordinate information regarding cattle rustling and other indicators of conflict,” says Mayen Chol, Oxfam’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Governance Officer in Rumbek. “The community find them to be very effective because they come from them, all the sectors of the community are represented, and that’s why people listen to them.”

A fragile peace that needs more support to be sustained

There has been relative peace in Rumbek for almost two years, thanks to the dedication of the community’s peacebuilders and the support provided by DARD and Oxfam. But two years is not long enough for peace to be embedded and sustained, there is still a high risk of violent conflict.

Isaac Makur Marol, a county administrator in Rumbek East County, says: “There were a lot of conflicts because almost all the payams were fighting among themselves. Now, the fighting has stopped but we are not sure if this fight may continue because we don’t know what these people are thinking about.”

Rumbek’s local government, chiefs and peace committees say that peace is their first priority and they want support to sustain their peacebuilding efforts. But they also want support to help young people in the cattle camps transition into alternative livelihoods so they move away from cattle-rustling and violence as a way of life. These young people need farming tools, irrigation water and training in cultivation – which the community does not have the resources to provide. Supporting this work is drastically underfunded, and we need more support.

Oxfam’s Mayen Chol says: “According to the people that interact with us in most of our meetings and most of our trainings, we need to prioritise peace by supporting community peace dialogues and supporting other livelihood activities in order for youth to be disengaged from the cattle camps.”

Support for peacebuilding has already created a big peace dividend in Rumbek. Building on this work by adding livelihoods support would help the community to embed peace, prevent further conflict, and lift people out of extreme poverty. It would be nothing short of transformational. However, it is often difficult to find long-term funding which blends community-led peacebuilding with livelihoods support. Most of the funding to South Sudan is life-saving humanitarian aid, which while urgently needed, often does not address the root causes of humanitarian crises.

John Maker Deng from Oxfam’s partner DARD sees real potential to expand and have an impact in other areas of South Sudan and give particular groups such as young women more of a voice. “We want to increase the capacity of young women in terms of political [engagement],” he says

It is possible to replicate this community-led peacebuilding approach in other areas of South Sudan. Oxfam’s experience shows that with sustained support, the cycle of violence can be stopped, and local lives and livelihoods can flourish.

Author

Sylvia Brown

Sylvia Brown is Conflict and Peacebuilding Senior Adviser at Oxfam GB

Funding raised by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, awarded by Postcode International Trust, helps to support Oxfam and our partners’ peacebuilding work in South Sudan. More information about the work made possible thanks to the support of the players of People’s Postcode Lottery can be found here.
This vital work is also supported by the Danish development agency, Danida.

Find out more about the International Day of Living Together in Peace here.

We are looking for new funding partners to join us. If you are interested in partnering with Oxfam, we’d love to hear from you. Please email philanthropy@oxfam.org.uk and find out more about partnering with us