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'On 9 July 2011, several hundred thousand people gathered in a dusty public square in Juba, South Sudan, to witness the birth of the world’s newest nation, writes Jeffrey Marlow in Geographical, the magazine of the RGS-IBG. The Republic of South Sudan has since tried desperately to develop itself, no feat for a nation suffering from food shortages, in need of basic infrastructure and experiencing insecurity along its border with Sudan to the North. 

So, a year on, how has the country faired? We ask Gemma Hay, who recently spent a year working as an aid worker with Tearfund in the young nation. She tells of the struggles and successes that come in trying to build a country from an area previously marginalised.

Gemma studied Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London and returned to complete a Masters course in Practicing Sustainable Development.

So, as a Geographer what interests you most?

Livelihoods are the main thing that I am interested in – families that live on the margins, grow their own food and sustain themselves from day to day. A livelihoods approach asks: how can they go from that to a more secure platform of living? That is the type of geography that I was interested in. That lent itself well to the humanitarian work that I was doing in South Sudan. So, for me it was more about how these day-to-day community-based livelihoods linked to food security.

And what is the current on-the-ground situation in South Sudan?

South Sudan is a conflict affected country. There is a long-term disaster with lots of mini crisis that occur. A lot of conflict breaks out. When I was there, all of our field sites were evacuated at one point or another because of conflict. And there is also flooding, which can force us to evacuate people as well. So it is a very interesting environment. It is these sorts of things that distinguish the humanitarian work we were doing from the more stable practice of sustainable development that occurs in areas without continued conflict and disaster.

South Sudan has faced both flooding and drought. Is this linked to climate change?

Well, in 2010 there was lots of flooding. In 2011 there was not enough rain. Then in 2012 the rains came early. For these three years the crops were devastated because of flooding, drought and farmers’ confusion about when exactly to plant.  Who knows whether that is climate change or not?

What I do know is that every year in South Sudan there is a recognised ‘hunger gap’ - the point when last year’s harvest has run out but before this year’s rains have come to grow more food. This hunger gap is exacerbated by the cows being taken away to graze in cattle camps in the dry season. Cattle rearing is the most common livelihood for communities in the most marginalised areas and, if the children cannot drink milk during the dry season, this leads to cases of severe malnutrition. It happens year after year.

What can be done to help this situation?

Water management is really important for subsistence farmers, so Tearfund (the NGO Gemma worked for in South Sudan) builds bore holes to access the fresh ground water. The bore holes are built with a small concrete channel to collect spilt water into a pool that livestock can drink from. It is a good, simple way of preventing the men from taking the livestock away to cattle camps in the dry season. This helps reduce malnutrition from a lack of milk.

But the areas we went to are massively, ashamedly, underserved in terms of fresh water. It is staggering. People normally get fresh water from rivers and open wells, where they will just dig holes in the ground. The wells will be unprotected, which often leads to outbreaks of disease. However, there is an issue of potential contamination if the water is transported from one place to another, which can increase the chance of disease. This makes   education in hygiene and sanitation just as important as building boreholes. 

So, is this a problem with a lack of infrastructure?

Because South Sudan is a new country and was previously neglected, infrastructure is a massive issue. The country is roughly the size of France but only has 100km of road. There are no reservoirs and hardly any bore holes, which are not a long term solution since they require a certain level of expertise to maintain them.

In Juba, the capital city, there is no real infrastructure for safely treating and transporting water, which is pumped straight from the Nile River without any filteration processes. Occasionally, our water tanks would run low and sand from the river would rush into our sinks and toilets.

How can this infrastructure be improved?

It is tough. It is such a basic country and people do not have the necessary skills to maintain infrastructure such as bore holes. Plus there are not any trade routes open to get spare parts to the most remote areas. There are not any functioning canals, reservoirs or dams. Because of all these things, because of the lack of infrastructure, they have to start with the basics. Getting those things in place costs a lot of money and is a considerable logistical feat – watch this video.

If South Sudan had investment from China, for instance, they might be able to develop infrastructure for agriculture and for transporting water across the country. In the meantime, the challenge is a question of moving away from dealing with immediate needs, towards the provision of long-term solutions.

Development involves different players (NGOs, government, communities, businesses…). Is there ever conflict between different types of organisations?

You will find that when you are overseas, aid projects are heavily influenced by donors, so it is important that the donors are given correct information about the needs on the ground and align their donor priorities accordingly. Most donors will only give you one year of funding at a time, so as an aid-worker you can get frustrated seeing programmes which need three or more years secured funding to really make a difference to people’s lives. It is difficult to plan sustainable development programmes if the donors are not on board with that.

There is often a kind of tension between an NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) wanting to do a long-term food security programme, for example. But the donor might not agree that this is a priority. So that is a difference in interests between players that needs to be negotiated. 

Would you say that there is such a thing as a ‘typical day in the life of an aid worker?

Not really. It depends what projects you are working on. One thing I did was to go into the field for about three weeks, training South Sudanese staff in how to carry out surveys. We were interested in people’s knowledge, their attitudes and their practices – it is called a KAP survey for short.

We surveyed a large sample of our whole programme – we knew that it was statistically rigorous. I love doing proper research. It is really satisfying to see the results of the development projects and be able to tell our donors (who funded the projects) and our staff about the progress being made. It gives them a bit of a boost.

Is life as an aid worker like it is in the movies? Non-stop action? Constantly on the move? 

It is definitely like that. You have got your Land Rovers and your chartered flights. It really is how you see it on the television. You are in this tiny plane, flying over a vast country - it is a massive privilege. But that is only one aspect of humanitarian work.

There are so many aspects behind the scenes that you do not see. For example, if you work in humanitarian conditions then you will often have ‘rest and recuperation’ holiday periods every six and 12 weeks – to get out of the field, leave the country and just relax. Many people go on holiday but I just wanted to come home to the UK.  

And was it weird making that transition from South Sudan to life in London?

It was more difficult than I expected. Just simple things like seeing different faces on the street, having clear water come out the tap, the toilets flush working. It just feels so nice.

Now that I am back for good, I do think about South Sudan a lot more. I think about the issues that I was faced with there and things that I could have done better. Water, infrastructure, livelihoods – how can we fix these problems properly? I feel that those things plague me more now that I am back for good.

Further reading

Gemma blogged about her experiences in South Sudan. For any aspiring aid workers, she recommends reading Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryle WudDunn’s Half the Sky.  “It is a very real account of the struggles of development on the ground,” she says. “One of the most inspiring books I have read.”

Gemma was interviewed in July 2012.

Gemma Hay's biography

Gemma graduated with a BA in Geography from Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL), in 2008. After graduating Gemma worked for the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) before undertaking a part-time MSc in Practicing Sustainable Development, also at RHUL. After graduating from her masters in 2011, Gemma went to South Sudan to work as a relief worker for Tearfund. While in South Sudan, Gemma provided support for Tearfund's Health, Nutrition, Water and Sanitation, and Food Security programmes across 3 states in South Sudan. Gemma has now returned to the UK to pursue a UK based international development job.