In South Sudan, famine chokes a fragile new nation

February 22, 2017
UN peace keepers provide security as the World Food Program drops food in Bentiu, South Sudan in 2015. Photo courtesy of the World Food Programme.

Editor’s note: This post is part of a weekly series on fragility and hunger, rooted in themes from the 2017 Hunger Report: Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities.

By Derek Schwabe

War-torn South Sudan, the newest country in the world, has rapidly descended into what is expected to be one of the most widespread and lethal famines of 2017. The United Nations has formally declared an emergency famine warning for the north-central part of the country, where people are already dying of starvation. The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that a total of 5 million South Sudanese people are facing hunger and malnutrition, with at least 100,000 in danger of starving to death. South Sudan is consistently listed among the world’s most fragile countries. According to the 2017 Hunger Report, fragility is a leading causes of extreme hunger worldwide, with more people dying from hunger and disease in conflict zones than from violence.

The newest nation in the world, South Sudan was born out of ethnic tensions, struggles over scarce resources, and a heightening pressures of climate change. The hopeful spirit of unity that filled the nation when it gained independence from Sudan in 2011 all but evaporated in less than two years, as civil war consumed the fledgling country, and reality quickly set in that statehood would not remove its endemic challenges: economic stagnation, poor governance, corruption, and deep-seated hostility among its 60-or-so ethnic groups.

Humanitarian organizations, led by UN agencies including WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and UNICEF, have been largely blocked from accessing South Sudan’s most desperate communities. Soldiers on both sides of the conflict have reportedly attacked aid workers in their efforts to reach victims, many of whom are isolated in remote areas. WFP has issued an urgent appeal to all parties to protect humanitarian actors as they transport life-saving food aid and other provisions. The government has since promised these organizations “unimpeded access” to famine-ravaged areas—a promise it has broken before.

Jeffrey Gettleman, a New York Times reporter based in South Sudan, has cited fragility as the main cause of the famine:

“The problem is it’s a weak government and you have tens of thousands of young men who know little else than war and killing…But it's a political problem. It's the fact that much of the country is resisting the government and that the government is responding very brutally. So until you address that, I don't think there's going to be a lot of relief in the humanitarian area. And I think that's the biggest problem.”

The 2017 Hunger Report: Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities warns that fragility—generated by conflict and worsened by climate change—is the single greatest threat to the world’s otherwise achievable vision to end hunger and extreme poverty by 2030, as outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals. A more robust, pro-active approach on the part of global leaders will be critical to catching and mitigating would-be crises like South Sudan before they reach famine level. This requires stronger, more deliberate U.S. leadership in working with fragile states, increases in official development assistance to conflict-affected countries, and a more flexible and responsive international humanitarian system that is capable of acting quickly and sufficiently to meet the growing need.

The U.S. government’s innovative Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) is a good example of a tool that has improved the ability of humanitarian groups to see the warning signs of famine sooner, and organize a more rapid response. Last month, FEWS NET announced that 2017 will bring unprecedented levels of emergency food assistance needs, exacerbated by conflicts and drought in South Sudan and three other African countries: Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen.

We’ve received the warning. It’s up to world leaders to allocate emergency resources and act early, even as they monitor and attempt to quell conflicts in other fragile states.

Read the 2017 Hunger Report to explore the specific ways the United States and the world can act more responsibly to prevent hunger and malnutrition in fragile states.

Derek Schwabe is a research associate in Bread for the World Institute. 

The newest nation in the world, South Sudan was born out of ethnic tensions, struggles over scarce resources, and a heightening pressures of climate change.

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