In South Sudan, USAID’s Pandemic Programming Yields Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World
This post was written by the Policy LINK team.
Physical distance, lagging health services, uncertain livelihoods — long before COVID-19 made these threats daily mainstays for much of the globe’s population, they had become de rigueur for South Sudan’s 11 million people. Less than a decade old, the landlocked country had already suffered a devastating famine that, at its height, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), threatened some 50% of the population with starvation or, at best, food insecurity. Couple that with a civil war that claimed 400,000 lives and sent five times as many fleeing the violence — joining the swelling ranks of the region’s refugees and internally displaced — and the prospects for collaboration, learning and adaptation in South Sudan would seem dim.
Yet, even as they struggle with the triple challenges of COVID-19, food insecurity and threatened livelihoods, community leaders in South Sudan’s hardest-hit areas have been working to ensure that residents’ needs are understood, clearly articulated and centered within the so-called “resilience” programming of their government, its international donors and the range of local institutions, implementing partners and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in the country.
Enter the USAID Policy LINK program. Over the last two years — despite the challenges of the pandemic and the lingering impact of South Sudan’s civil war — the Feed the Future-funded activity shepherded a months-long effort to collaborate with community leaders in four counties, learn from them how best to capture their priorities and adapt this learning for a virtual forum that, for the first time, saw representatives from Aweil, Torit, Wau and Yambio speak directly to a government minister, the head of the United Nations office in South Sudan and senior representatives of bilateral donor agencies — including USAID.
Scaling USAID’s community-level work and elevating the voices of local leaders are part of Policy LINK’s push to cement the agency’s leadership role in South Sudan, especially in opposition communities largely excluded from donor development efforts. Leveraging that donor assistance to promote more inclusive, participatory, locally-led development is among Policy LINK’s long-term aims. To get there, the program had to sustain high participation at town hall meetings, where residents prioritized recommendations to donors, government, policymakers and their implementing partners. To work effectively with all of these stakeholders, Policy LINK had to incorporate three top-line lessons across its programming.
Lesson 1: Local Knowledge (and Relationships) Matter
For many communities with a substantial donor presence, there was a perception that aid workers cycle out after a year or less. This left little incentive to invest in relationship building. Unlike many donor-funded projects, Policy LINK focuses on building the leadership capacity of local actors, boosting opportunities for intracommunity collaboration and contributing to learning that can be applied to donor efforts. At the same time, Policy LINK’s staff on the ground are from the region and have established longstanding relationships.
Lesson 2: Institutional Relationships Are the Key to Local Knowledge
These relationships, though they are often with individual community champions and local leaders, are ultimately forged through the institutions closest to these communities. These institutions, after all, are better placed to understand who to reach in local communities, as well as the modalities for reaching them. Town hall meetings, for example, were publicized by local institutions, which also convened the gatherings and ensured that they served as “safe spaces” for community input.
Lesson 3: Not All Institutions Are Alike
The most active and trusted partner institutions consist of players from across community sectors, including youth, adults and elders — female and male — from traditional authorities, local government, civil society and the private sector. Given their multisectoral representation, these players can help forge agreement on how their combined assets can be supplemented by the donor community and government to build resilience before, during and after a shock or stress.
Taken together, the above lessons helped guide the Policy LINK-led process leading up to last year’s Annual Learning Forum, which attracted record numbers of community leaders and donor and government representatives, despite its virtual format. But the forum was the culmination of an all-team effort that included Policy LINK and other stakeholder representatives in South Sudan, Kenya and the United States.
As one activity in a global program — which currently includes geographic buy-ins in Bangladesh, East Africa, Ethiopia and Ghana — Policy LINK’s work in South Sudan draws on a considerable knowledge base and pool of resources. A dedicated design team, for example, was able to produce a series of illustrated metaphors (e.g., “community first but not alone”) while a Nairobi-based communications team, working with a videographer who traveled to South Sudan, oversaw production of four “Faces of Resilience” videos that were aired at the annual forum.
This whole-team approach mirrors Policy LINK’s commitment to practice internally the behaviors and approaches that it uses with its partners and clients, to be creative and resourceful in finding local solutions and opportunities, and to build a culture of continuous learning and growth. It’s also an example of the impact that USAID, through its Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, has maintained during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Launched at the beginning of the health crisis, Policy LINK’s work in South Sudan may offer a pathway beyond COVID-19 adaptation and toward a more sustained approach for bringing together diverse actors in a physically isolated world. Although that isolation is sure to ease, much of what the pandemic has taught us about engagement in challenging environments will remain.