I have finally gotten my visa!! My colleague went to Kampala for some business and took my passport and paperwork with him to the South Sudan Embassy. He had no trouble at all procuring a 6-month visa, even though I was not physically present to apply. It took about 10 minutes on 2 separate days, even further highlighting the night and day difference between dealing with government officials here as opposed to in fully, or even semi, functional, orderly states. This whole thing has got me thinking, or supplemented the thoughts that already rumble around in my head, about government – its role, responsibility, in relation to the people it governs, specifically in a 3rd world context.
Some things are obvious. It’s obviously not a good idea when it comes to moral governance to funnel finances, whether foreign aid or tax monies, to personal Swiss bank accounts and build palaces all over the world while the country’s citizens have no access to clean water, healthcare, or education. That’s an all-too-common tale around here, sadly. Most recently, the South Sudan President requested his ministers to return approximately $4 billion in stolen funds. A few weeks after the petition went out, there was a possible coup attempted on the Presidential seat, which the President now denies. Coincidence? There’s such grave and ingrained corruption within the institutions and offices themselves that one who steps into a governmental position almost can’t help but be swept away by the corruption current. That’s not at all making excuses for such behavior. It is inexcusable, unjustifiable, heart-breaking. A person possesses a conscience, and it is his/her responsibility to maintain that conscience and not sear it. But dishonesty is so pervasive in the system that it becomes normal, natural.
There was a man employed by the Ministry of Finance in a certain nearby county. He had previously worked as the finance manager for an international NGO. When he took up his new post, various government employees would come asking him to fabricate receipts for them, leave expenses unrecorded, falsify financial files. When he refused, he would receive death threats, AK-47s pointed at his head (most government officials are previous soldiers, which reveals a lot about their in adequacy and incompetence as government officials), and malicious questions like, “Who are you to refuse me?” He ended up quitting his job because he could not surrender to such sleaze.
A recent situation with anti-retroviral medications points yet again to this government’s inadequacy in caring for its people. There is an HIV/AIDS treatment center in Yei. For several months, the center was out of ARVs (they have finally arrived several weeks ago, thank you Jesus!). That wasn’t the biggest frustration. It was the fact that these said ARVs were stocked and ready to go in Juba (100 miles away) but they weren’t moving because there was no money for fuel for the vehicles. Let me add in there that the Ministry of Health in Juba is air-conditioned, walls lined with flat-screen TVs, and stuffed with South Sudanese doctors who’ve received their qualifications abroad but, instead of practicing in a country where there’s 120 doctors and 100 nurses for 8 billion people, are sitting behind desks and collecting monthly paychecks, watching TV. And there’s no money for fuel to transport life-savings medicines 100 miles?!?!? If that doesn’t make you scream….Not only that, but the Yei treatment center is staffed by one brilliant, caring clinical officer…and that’s it. He’s responsible for the care of all the HIV/AIDS patients in the county, about 2,000 people. Why only him? Because the rest weren’t being paid and so were forced to quit their jobs. The government hospital staff here hasn’t been paid since August.
I don’t know how to process this and understand it. Maybe it’s the decay of the human conscience, stimulated by the rotten state of all the consciences around you, and that of the institution you’re in. Maybe it’s an entitlement mentality – “I fought for this country, running around in the bush for years like a vagabond, starving, so now I’m gonna get mine. I deserve it.” Maybe it’s just plain “I don’t give a crap about those peasants out there.” The predominant idea in this culture is that the only way positive change can be effected is to get rid of the bad leader, and the only way to get rid of a bad leader is to wait for him to die. Sounds funny, but people in power here stay in power for decades. It’s too risky to challenge then and the political systems to do so are not in place. If there is a challenge, it’s extreme – a coup or a war – which brings about more destruction and disarray to fledgling and already fragile states.
Then you’ve got the foreign aid monster. I haven’t conclusively solidified my own feelings or opinions about it, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me, as I’ve lived in a 3rd world country that is teeming with international aid organizations, whose national budget is a large percentage foreign aid, that foreign aid does more harm than good. When Western governments and aid organizations donate money to, say, South Sudan, there’s hardly any accountability demanded (which is why most of it ends up in personal pockets). Most of these organizations are just trying to meet annual expenditure quotas in their various program sectors in order to keep the money coming in, whether those programs are actually working or not, beneficial or not. There was a situation where an organization, in having to spend its funds, bought Landcruisers (worth $50,000 a pop) for use by numerous government welfare “programs” in different parts of this country. Well, these vehicles went to private use by government ministers, and most of these “programs,” some fictitious, some real, didn’t receive anything. The aid organization didn’t evaluate its distribution and asked for no accountability on the funds.
I’ve seen organizations dump funds into this place like it’s a landfill. Forget about capacity building of the people or sustainability. It’s not even in most organizations’ frame of reference. So few have this as a core value or do this as a specific focus in their programs/projects; it’s as if they have never heard the words and don’t know the meanings. Hand-outs don’t work. It really is the new form of colonialism, ownership, and control on the part of Western powers. It’s at best insulting to the people’s knowledge and capabilities, and at worst, destructive of their spirits, their potentials, their self-worth, their dignity.
As an example, a few years ago, an organization constructed a secondary school in a certain village around here. They did not consult the community about where a school was necessary, not inquiring what the people needed….thinking they already knew. So the school stands unused, crumbling, a monument to Western arrogance and waste.
Now, digging wells, constructing clinics, educational facilities has its place and its benefits. And the sad reality is, if NGOs don’t do it, who will? I mean, one of the biggest towns in this country (Yei) doesn’t have a single paved road.
So you’ve got corrupt governments and shady foreign aid machines, all impairing the people from all sides. Should international aid agencies completely pull out and leave this country to its own devices, at the mercy of government officials? How can you ultimately pave the way for change and improvement if ministers keep eating the funds? Even the most well-functioning NGOs, who build capacity and communicate with the people they are seeking to aid, can only get so far. If the government keeps swallowing funds meant for infrastructure, education, healthcare into palaces, flat-screen TVs, and vacations at 5-star hotels, then the best sustainability and capacity building efforts will not go very far. Who’s at fault? Maybe everybody.
South Sudan has been independent for a little over 1 year. It is floundering, almost sinking, but did anyone expect anything else? The country has been ravaged by wars for all but 7 years of its post-colonial existence. It has to find its feet and then learn to stand up on them. Corruption in governmental institutions is a hard-to-kill, slow-dying, very resilient and aggressive cancer, and eradication just takes a lot of time. International aid organizations can help in this process, as opposed to hindering it, by truly partnering with government officials, communities, individuals in their respective project areas and ASKING them what is needed, INQUIRING about what they want, as opposed to just imposing their own ideas of what “these poor people” should have. They can also help by inscribing sustainability and capacity building of the local people into the core value and focus of their mission statements, and actually work to work themselves out of jobs and turn projects over to local hands in a certain amount of time. This is the only way the people themselves will be empowered to take ownership of their own communities and those communities’ issues and motivated to labor for improvement, as well as dignified and honored in the process. The age of money dumps and hand-outs must come to an end.
Governments are responsible – to straighten themselves out and become functional entities of support for the people. NGOs are responsible – to not bulldoze over communities with their do-good intentions which leave people stripped of their dignity and ability to bring about change themselves.
Anyways, this is what’s been in my head lately…