This week, Southern Sudanese voters have cast their ballots in the long-awaited referendum which will confirm the independence of South Sudan. So far, the process has been greeted with cautious optimism. Despite widespread pessimism just a few months before, there has not yet been widespread bloodshed.
There are many excellent analyses of the Southern Sudanese march towards independence. But one story which caught my attention, below the headline reports from the streets of Juba, were the polling stations opened in eight countries — including the UK — allowing the Southern Sudanese diaspora to vote from abroad.
I’ve written elsewhere in a more research-based context about the role of out-of-country voting in post-conflict reconstruction. It’s certainly important not to over-exaggerate the impact or the participation — of the diaspora in the referendum vote itself. Yet the Southern Sudanese independence process seems to me to also demonstrate a very simple political point. Asylum works — not just as sanctuary, but as the essential precursor to a solution.
The Southern Sudanese diaspora have gained enormously from their time in exile — in terms of education, political organization, financial capital — and it is this diaspora that have the capacity build a new South Sudan. Many have returned — or are planning returns in the near future
Yet the long road to a peaceful and prosperous independence for Southern Sudan isn’t fully travelled yet. There are prophecies of war: political stability is not assured. Poverty is certain. It’s here that asylum — and the eventual dual citizenship that often follows — play a crucial role in giving Southern Sudanese professionals the confidence to commit to reconstructing Sudan — because it makes it a choice to return.
Sitting in a small office in Kampala a few months ago, I heard stories about the Southern Sudanese officials preparing for government — while revising for their Dutch citizenship tests, or securing a home in Uganda. These are the ‘just in case’ stories. Given South Sudan’s recent history, it’s hardly surprising that even the architects of the new state make their back-up plans. After all, UNHCR has kept its camps in northern Uganda open in preparation for a post-referendum influx.
My point is that it’s the choice — the mobility — that migration and dual citizenship have brought to many Southern Sudanese that will help to make possible its development. Would you return to a country emerging from crisis — even if it was your country — without an exit route?
Yes, those without diaspora connections may resent the South Sudanese who return with ‘a hand on their foreign passports’, just as in Afghanistan. And yes, the return of a wealthy, educated diaspora with political connections can spell trouble — just look at Rwanda. But it also spells hope.
This is why we should protect asylum — and defend it from those who argue it’s too generous, too susceptible to abuse. A few decades of hospitality seems a small price to pay for a stable, secure Sudan. If South Sudan is successful, much of that success will rest upon the shoulders of many South Sudanese who are also Britons, Americans, Australians, Germans…
Let us hope that Southern Sudan might offer a rare instance of refugee protection successfully offering the means to a hoped-for end: a sustainable and safe return from one “home” from the sanctuary offered by another.
Some interesting responses from the humanitarian sector to the widespread media criticism of their Haitian efforts. This — from the `Active Learning Network in Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action’ (otherwise known as ALNAP) — and this — from Andrea Binder at the Global Public Policy Institute — are among the most interesting of the pieces to have dropped into my inbox this week.
Many humanitarian professionals are frustrated at what they perceive to overly negative media coverage — and no doubt this is justified to a degree. But interestingly, there seems to be a universal recognition among humanitarians that humanitarian aid isn’t sufficiently connected to the people it aims to help. And ultimately, this brings us back to the argument I made earlier in the week. If you want to build towards a successful reconstruction — and prevent future “natural” disasters — you can’t separate humanitarianism from politics and power.
Struggling to get up and get on with some work this morning, I did at least have the excuse of listening to this Radio 4 programme on Humanitarian work in Haiti.
The charge, that humanitarian efforts to begin reconstruction in Haiti following its January earthquake a year ago have failed to meet reasonable explanations, has been repeated in several places recently. The general argument’s familiar too. There’s a plethora of books, media articles, academic papers, policy documents, all seeking to work out what’s wrong with humanitarian aid.
My own experience of NGO conferences and workshops makes pretty clear that there’s a very healthy internal mini-industry engaged in dissecting and critiquing its own humanitarian practice. I’ve also no doubt that just as Darfur and the Indian Ocean Tsunami saw the “Collaborative Approach” replaced by the “Cluster Approach”, experiences in Haiti — and possibly in Pakistan — will drive development of the next approach to humanitarian aid.
Yet as a relative outsider in the humanitarian world, I’m increasingly sceptical as to the real degree of difference between these successive strategies. Yes, a bewildering array of acronyms, benchmarks and standards may have produced a more coordinated response to emergency relief, improved humanitarian accountability and perhaps even enhanced global humanitarian capacity — though the results are clearly imperfect at best. I also think these processes and protocols also offer the humanitarian industry — and, make no doubt, it is an industry — a technocratic language through which it can demonstrate its status as a 21st century profession and protect its own territory.
Certainly, that today’s international humanitarians are professionals is undoubtedly an achievement — there is no question ad-hoc amateur distribution of aid belongs in the past. However, in focusing on endless variations on logistics and co-ordination, I worry that we’re intentionally distracting ourselves from the politics of rescue.
Many humanitarians claim their work is beyond politics. But humanitarian emergencies — and the disasters that prompt such interventions — are inherently political. Distributing food, shelter, medical care to every “victim” of the disaster or conflict equitably and without discrimination is a political statement, not just a benevolent act. The labels of “victim” and “aid worker” themselves are all about power — and so all about politics.
And we’re fools if we don’t think recognize that it’s politics — and not aid logistics — that ultimately stand in the way of Haiti’s sustainable reconstruction. A weak state, an impoverished political economy… Humanitarian aid can and does save lives. But it is politics that builds a future.
Unfortunately, it is also politics that requires hard choices to be confronted that we’d rather avoid. Who wants to be reminded about the inequalities in trade, debt, opportunities that explain why some states can’t cope with crises and conflict while others have the capacity to do so? (Who remembers the Chilean earthquake in February 2010?)
Which is why I suspect that come the next disaster, the humanitarian agencies will make there appeal, and the media and the government will praise the British public’s “unprecedented generosity”. And nothing much will happen at all.