Why Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus Matters: Addressing Hunger and Conflict in South Sudan

Photo: Terminal Dr Juba South Sudan

By Cyrel San Gabriel

Famine and civil war have persistently plagued South Sudan. While the international community continues to provide food, medicines, cash transfers, and livelihood programs, a long-term, strategic approach is needed to help the affected South Sudanese bounce back from such a tragedy. Humanitarian response, development, and peacebuilding programs have to work in synergy to build the nation’s resilience to both natural disasters and violent conflict. The humanitarian-development-peace nexus in aid programming can be most effective when the local people take the lead.  

South Sudan became the newest nation in the world when it seceded from Sudan in 2011. The country, with an approximate population of 11 million (as of 2020), depends heavily on its oil resources for income. As a newly independent nation, South Sudan faces various challenges such as limited government services, lack of access to clean water and healthcare by half of the population, and unequal distribution of resources. In 2013, civil war erupted between the government and the opposition group. In 2020, a coalition government was formed wherein the two rival parties conceded to a power-sharing agreement. The civil conflict, compounded with severe drought followed by widespread flooding in 2019, has caused dire food shortages in South Sudan, leaving around half of the population in situations of hunger and starvation. 

Several aid agencies provide humanitarian assistance to the hunger-stricken nation, including USAID, UN World Food Program, UN Children’s Fund, and Catholic Relief Services. While the cash-vouchers and air-dropped food items have alleviated hunger for a while, there is a great need to redesign aid programming by integrating humanitarian response, development, and sustainable peace to build South Sudan’s resilience to the impacts of conflict and natural disasters. Humanitarian response is not enough to break the cycle of poverty and conflict. 

Without peace and stability, South Sudan cannot get out from the curse of hunger. Conflict has disrupted the already meager food production in South Sudan. Both the government and the rebel groups divert their productive resources into military resources. The South Sudan government uses its financial and human resources to pacify rebellion instead of investing in health, education, and economic improvement. The rebel groups, on the other hand, particularly the young men join the militias instead of spending their time in education and economic activities. Since the young men are preoccupied with militia exercises and fighting (primarily due to pressures from their tribal groups and partly due to the lack of income opportunities), they lose the opportunity to gain knowledge on farming and other productive activities. In South Sudan, young men have been attracted to join militant groups because of the promised economic incentives by their tribal leaders should they won the war and the assurance that their basic needs will be met by looting other people’s houses. Most of the resources destroyed by armed violence in South Sudan are houses, leading to massive displacements and worsening humanitarian conditions. The human capital, therefore, needs to be economically empowered so that they do not have to resort to fighting. Economic empowerment therefore should be a significant element of aid programming.

Though there is considerably plenty of agricultural land in South Sudan (about 75% of the country’s total land mass), a percentage of the lands are occupied by the former or current rebel groups. Thus, it is important that with the new coalition government, equal land redistribution is addressed. Land reform is a long-term approach to agricultural sustainability. This will require political stability and strong governance.

There is also plenty of human capital in the country, however, the labor pool may lack the proper farming skills since they are culturally used to cattle raising. A big percentage of their productivity has been diverted to either fleeing from war or fighting. Thus, investments are needed to train the Sudanese on modern agricultural farming practices, particularly in situations of drought and climate change. Infrastructures for rainwater catchments and storage facilities should be built as an alternative water resource during periods of drought. Instead of building fences around farmlands, fences for the cattle can be built, or at least local authorities should require that cattle always be under the owner’s direct control, so that it does not destroy the crops of neighborhoods. 

Due to the risks of sabotage, looting, and fighting, the presence of UN peacekeeping force is very important in sustaining the cereal production. Given the high unemployment rates and extreme poverty, some groups still resort to criminal activities. As a longer-term approach, once the Sudanese communities have reached a certain level of food sufficiency, increasing trade can be made by building road networks and giving greater access to credit. 

Without sustainable development strategies, South Sudanese cannot transition from food depravity to self-sufficiency. Aid agencies should divert a significant portion of funding to South Sudan’s greatest potential resource to make the country self-sufficient—the agriculture sector. About 75% of land mass in South Sudan is suitable for agriculture (AfDB, 2013); however most Sudanese resort to cattle raising rather than agricultural activities. Only 4% of the arable land mass is being used for agriculture (Dorosh et.al., 2016). Aside from cattle raising being part of traditional Sudanese tribal culture, agriculture production is more costly and risky for a farmer. A farmer, for example, needs to invest in fencing the farmlands because of the cattle that could feed on his crops. South Sudan’s agriculture sector is also constrained by primitive technologies and limited farm-to-market roads.  

In the short-term, instead of shipping food supply from the US, food supply can be bought from nearby neighboring countries. South Sudan is a landlocked country, surrounded by Sudan in the north, Central African Republic in the west, Ethiopia in the east and Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda in the south. Transporting goods from far countries is costlier because it entails higher logistical and administrative costs passing through these countries surrounding South Sudan. A caveat here is that these surrounding countries should be incentivized for them to boost their agricultural production and provide cheaper food products for South Sudan.

The funds for shipping can be used instead in medium-term investments for sustainable food production. In 2009 (four years before civil war erupted in 2013), South Sudan was able to produce cereal to feed 75% of its population. About 25% of the cereals were imported. In 2013, however, the cereal production declined, the consumption doubled (primarily because of the returning refugees after the 2011 Independence), and the import increased to 50% (Dorosh, et.al. 2016). However, imported goods have increased the food prices and a household is unable to afford high prices due to low or lack of income. Contrary to the general assumption that international trade decreases prices, according to Dorosh (2016), “many governments continue to maintain national food stocks, both as operational stocks for public food distribution and as emergency reserves.” In the case of South Sudan, which is surrounded by low-income countries from which it imports its food products, the low-income countries in general tend to “intervene and utilize food aid and public commercial imports that can destabilize market and discourage private trade” (Dorosh et.al., 2016). 

Local production of cereals, including maize, millet, rice, sorghum, and wheat, should be strengthened given that South Sudan has 75% of agricultural land. However, there are some challenges that must be addressed, such as drought, lack of farming technology and skills, and limited farm-to-market road networks. 

Community-led development is key to effective transformation and sustainability. The strategies presented here underpin the humanitarian-development-peace nexus which emphasizes the importance of local leadership in building resilience. The local leaders are the best resource in terms of local knowledge and political solutions. This nexus dialogue therefore proposes a structural shift on how aid is planned, financed, coordinated, and delivered. There is no sequencing in humanitarian response, development, and building peace. They should complement each other and done side by side, with the voices of the most vulnerable people—women and children, people with disabilities, the elderly, and those in extreme poverty—brought into the table. 

Conclusion. Humanitarian-development-peace nexus matters in addressing hunger and conflict in South Sudan for in the absence of one element in the nexus, the country cannot completely pull itself together. Planning for humanitarian assistance is not enough. A long-term approach to development and peacebuilding should be considered at the outset of humanitarian response. There is no really exact sequencing, but all these three elements should be built into aid policy and programming with the local people at the driver seat.    


AfDB (2013). South Sudan: An infrastructure action plan: A program for strong sustained economic growth. Tunis-Belvedere, Tunisia: African Development Bank Group.

Dorosh, P.A., Rashid, S, & van Asselt, J. (2016). Enhancing food security in South Sudan: The role of markets and regional trade. Agricultural Economics, 47(6), 697-707.