USAID: War Puts South Sudan Closer To Humanitarian Disaster

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Secretary of State Kerry is in South Sudan as part of a U.S.-led effort to end its civil war. Steve Inskeep talks to Raj Shah, administrator for USAID, about America's efforts to prevent famine there.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. This next conversation underlines the human cost of civil war in South Sudan. Secretary of State Kerry is in that country today. He wants the president and former vice president to stop fighting. Kerry at least wants armed groups to allow in boatloads and truckloads of food. We spoke with Rajiv Shah of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which a famine early warning system.

RAJIV SHAH: Satellite data, computer modeling, food pricing data from markets all around the country, and we're showing right now that this summer, we expect a very, very dire situation, with nearly 50,000 kids at real risk of famine and death.

INSKEEP: Satellite data. You're looking down and basically trying to see how many acres of food are planted right now.

SHAH: Absolutely. And right now, big parts of the country are having the planting disrupted because of the violence.

INSKEEP: USAID has been active in South Sudan since before it became a country in 2011. The U.S. was encouraging democracy. Now there's a more urgent need: 3.7 million people who will soon be starving if they don't get food.

SHAH: We know that there are food markets in places like Jonglei and Upper Nile that are simply barren of food. Our own partners are asking to be paid in food, as opposed to cash.

INSKEEP: Because even if they had the money, they could not get the food.

SHAH: In certain parts of the country, that's now true.

INSKEEP: Have your own operations in South Sudan been disrupted?

SHAH: Absolutely. We know humanitarian workers have been targeted and in some cases recently killed. We are working and negotiating, but part of why Secretary Kerry is going to South Sudan is to make the case that we need some access to affected communities right now. There are specific actions the government of South Sudan can take that will help to save tens of thousands of children's lives over the course of the next six months. They need to take those actions right now.

INSKEEP: When you say we need access, what exactly does that mean on a day to day level?

SHAH: That means we have barges ready to go, stocked with food that need to get up the river and they need access to the river. That means we have convoys of food and other humanitarian supplies that need safe access through the basic road infrastructure that exists. And that means that humanitarian workers and U.N. agency employees need absolute protection and security, and right now, the opposite is taking place.

INSKEEP: We're talking about urgent issues here, but of course, they grow out of larger problems. You have a new country that in theory should be developing a democracy, and the political process is broken down. For close to a decade, USAID has been directly involved in trying to develop democracy there. In recent years, it's been involved in trying to draft a constitution, has had contractors on the ground working directly with the government. What hasn't worked?

SHAH: Well, I think that government leadership is the most important variable to creating prosperity and peace and democracy in South Sudan. And at times when President Kiir has shown that leadership, we've seen progress. But when the military process breaks down, when the peace process breaks down, when they start fighting each other over oil and other natural resources you simply cannot have development. And you cannot have prosperity when they're destroying themselves by fighting each other.

INSKEEP: Well, that's what I want to get some insight on. We have this country where the president, Salva Kiir, had some kind of dispute with a vice president, now a former vice president. It's the kind of political dispute you might have in any country. It's the kind of thing that you would hope would be mediated through the political process. Clearly, the political process broke down. Where did it break down?

SHAH: Well, over time, the people of South Sudan have been through an extraordinary amount of violence, suffering, human rights abuses and atrocities. And so, even today, and even before this period of violence, much of the government has been focused on, and it has invested in their military, their defense forces, sometimes to the exclusion of building strong political processes and investing in health, education, road infrastructure, the basic building blocks of a more inclusive economy.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

SHAH: But this going backwards on the political process and literally fighting each other at this point is creating immediate and dire consequences, and is unwinding what progress they had made.

INSKEEP: Is there anything to learn from this experience, as USAID focuses on other troubled countries where democracy promotion can be really difficult?

SHAH: I think the big learning is - there's been a debate in my field at work in development of humanitarian affairs for a long time about whether or not politics matters. And to me, development of humanitarian outcomes, the effort to end extreme poverty in vulnerable parts of the world is fundamentally a political process.

INSKEEP: I think I hear you saying that the old way of thinking might have been the government in this country is a catastrophe. We're just going to work around it and help people. But the new thinking is it doesn't work, it doesn't make sense.

SHAH: You need an all-hands-on-deck approach. President Obama has made this a priority for our country. Secretary Kerry is going to bring about peace and to bring the atrocities to an end, and USAID is fully committed as part of that team.

INSKEEP: Does this mean, in part, that Secretary Kerry can say to the president of South Sudan, look, we're providing a lot of the financial support for your government, you need to fix this situation or we cannot continue supporting you?

RAJ SHAH: Absolutely. We have a desire to insure that our resources deliver results. And in this case, in the next six months, the most important results are preventing children who had nothing to do with this conflict from dying because they don't get enough food to eat.

INSKEEP: Administrator Shah, thanks very much.

SHAH: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's head of the United States Agency for International Development.

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