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Lessons from South Sudan: Changing Expectations & Strengthening Systems

By Samson Hailu Bekele, Co-CEO Water For People

South Sudan is the world’s youngest country and one of the most diverse in Africa—home to more than 60 major ethnic groups. The world’s longest river, the Nile, runs through the capital, Juba.

Twelve years ago, the country won independence from Sudan, ending Africa’s longest-running civil war. Conflicts within the new government led to another civil war that ended in 2018, but not without a severe famine that put thousands at risk and fighting that displaced millions.

These two civil wars have put South Sudan behind in terms of national infrastructure—from transportation to electricity to water. The average life expectancy for a woman in South Sudan is 57 years, and for a man, 54. There are high poverty rates, and the risk of waterborne diseases is high.

Earlier this year, Cate Nimanya (Africa Regional Director, Water For People) and I visited with the team at Aqua-Africa in Juba and Nzara to see the operating environment. As an organization that is always learning how to ask the right questions, we wanted to better understand how South Sudan is progressing in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) areas like development and governance. Aqua-Africa is a U.S. and South Sudan-based NGO focused on delivering sustainable solutions that fundamentally transform communities. Their mission is to provide reliable access to clean water, sanitation, and power to communities in South Sudan—leading to their vision of a nation where communities expect access to water, sanitation, and power as part of their lives.

One of the things I really like about Water For People’s Destination 2030 strategy is the recognition of the importance of local, national, and global working together. At the local level, we invest in services and people, but that’s really a drop in the ocean in the great scheme of things. If nations are going to make much more rapid progress, we have to help the countries where we work set up sustainable universal services by strengthening national systems. Going a step further, our strategy challenges us to influence globally outside of our countries of operation by sharing the lessons that we learn from our local and national impact pathway work. Our support for Aqua-Africa fits well within this global influence strategy.

 Up until recently, Aqua-Africa has only seen themselves as a service provider. But now, they’re realizing that’s not going to be enough to create the impact they want to see in South Sudan. They have to understand their own government’s policies and programs and then use their experiences and services to strengthen the system, which means more actively participating in national-level WASH conversations. This is where our learnings over the last few years can support them.

When the United Nations established the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, they set those goals for the entire world. The goals are for wealthy countries like the United States, which still has over 2.2 million people without access to running water and basic plumbing, as well as for the fragile and conflict-afflicted, or those working toward national reconstructions similar to what’s happening in South Sudan today. The commitment, passion, and drive of NGOs like Aqua-Africa teaches older non-profits like ours new lessons in approach and collaboration.

Water For People and Aqua Africa staff alongside Nzara community members.

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