International cooperation is a permanent clash between broad, unspecified political goals and a system of narrow, actor-specific agendas using those broad goals to advance individual interests. This is true of transnational diplomacy, war, development cooperation, and any other such area. They all have in common that seemingly straightforward decision making hides the amalgamation of organisations, experts, schools of thought and political pressures that led to that decision in the first place, and that is responsible for subsequent execution. Such dichotomy often explains the failure of these broad goals, which tend to become hostage to specific interests. Not only does the mix of underlying agendas bias or even corrupt the formulation of general objectives, it also hampers implementation in subtle yet decisive ways. The broad agendas that do end up successful- such as the eradication of small pox in the 1970s, or the creation of the European Communities, guaranteeing long-term peace and stability on the continent- do so because they are consistent with the specific agendas, creating a natural path towards success of both. Such cases are rare. All too often, specific interests trump any general objective. One of the many recent examples has been the tragic case of independence and subsequent state building of South Sudan.
The independence of South Sudan was an event driven by international pressures. After the 2005 Naivasha Agreement, Western nations piled on to defend the right to self-determination of the predominantly Christian population. Not only was South Sudan on the African continent’s fault line between the Muslim, Arab controlled north and the Christian, pro-Western south, its creation was also a direct challenge to the virtually blacklisted al-Bashir government in Khartoum. Once the political door was opened to potential independence, UN agencies, NGOs, government representatives and the private sector joined the fray with an enthusiasm perhaps only surpassed by state building in Afghanistan. The broad goal was independence and freedom for the South Sudanese. The narrow goals in the background were those of the international state building and development sectors celebrating a new project to stay relevant and access public funds. The excitement among those licking their lips at the prospect of being involved at building a country from scratch was palpable. When the 2011 independence referendum came knocking, the outcome was a done deal. Years of Western money and political pressure had guaranteed success. The results, with 98.83% voting “yes”, may have been a percentage typically only seen in North Korea, but it did not matter to Western press or politicians: the people had spoken, freedom had prevailed.
Up to this point, broad objectives and narrow interests had coincided: many actors, both local as well as global, benefitted from independence. Local politicians saw the opportunity to seize power, whereas global politicians could claim once again to be arch angels of democracy and human rights. Local enterprise counted on an influx of foreign capital, global companies were hoping for large infrastructural and resource extraction contracts. Local civil society expected greater freedom to pursue their agendas, global NGOs were looking forward to an inpour of government funding and donor drives. And indeed, funds did come, accompanied by a bombardment of governmental development agencies and NGOs from all over the world. As a result, the process was generally considered a success by 2011, and with high expectations of a bright future. Political and funding goals had been met. Employment and budgets in both Juba’s governmental departments as well as those of the international NGO sector had increased dramatically, and UN and EU consultants were flying up and down at the cost of their usual, exorbitant daily fees.
Once independence had sunk in, however, broad and specific agendas started diverging. The general agenda of building a functional state had always been an incredibly long shot. Besides significant oil reserves, the South Sudanese economy mostly relies on unproductive agricultural activities. Basic infrastructure is among the worst in the world. The country’s weak political and social institutions are mostly driven by foreign support, rather than domestic expertise. The country is landlocked, heavily relying on its northern rival for its access to the rest of the world. Internal conflict, including long-simmering ethnic and economic tensions, were left unaddressed for much of the post-Naivasha period. In other words, for the Republic of South Sudan to ever become a success for its own population, a tremendous local and global effort would have been needed. Once the excitement surrounding the referendum had disappeared, global politics responsible for the broad objectives moved on to new focal points, leaving South Sudan in the hands of dispersed, decentralised and uncoordinated narrow interests. Funding levels and political support continued to be enough to maintain the Sudanese development industry that had been built up so eagerly, but were completely insufficient to reach a long-term, sustainable level of statehood and stability.
When in December 2013 civil war erupted, it should have come as a surprise to no one. The writing had been on the wall for a long time. Moreover, the responsibility of this failure lay firmly in the hands of the international community so eagerly pushing through an unsustainable agenda in the first place. In order to satisfy narrow agendas, they supported an unachievable broad goal. They- both the international private sector as well as the public sectors and the development industry- benefitted politically and financially, while doing so under the guise of human rights and welfare concerns. Now, they express disappointment at the failures and hardship suffered by the local population, but where are the mea culpas? Where are the statements from donors, NGOs and transnational institutions admitting that they got it wrong?
Last week, De Volkskrant published an article on how Dutch development aid to Sudan over the past ten years had been wasted. The Netherlands, one of South Sudan’s most important donors and advocates of independence, spent over half a billion Euros on local development and financial support. This was mostly steered towards social needs and humanitarian assistance, and very little was dedicated to more fundamental issues necessary to achieve the broad objectives of sustainability. The Dutch government turned its attention elsewhere after formulating the general aims, leaving policy making and funding decisions in the hands of narrow interests, i.e. those of specialised NGOs and experts. The broader vision was lost, and interested parties had free reign over directing the flow of the significant financial resources that had been made available. Any organisation defends the importance of their own field of expertise, regardless of the wider picture. When central coordination weakens, those with the best lobbies prevail.
One of the main lessons from the case of South Sudan is the importance of making sure that broad goals are consistent with specific interests. Moreover, global actors need to respond to local realities, and not attempt to set the agenda. If those criteria cannot be guaranteed, then the mission is doomed to fail. Complex human- self-interested- systems then take over, and start nibbling away at the foundations necessary to achieve the stated objectives. When De Volkskrant wrote that Dutch development aid has “gone up in smoke”, they only got it half right. It has gone up in smoke from a local perspective. In that sense the case of South Sudan has been a massive failure, with the Sudanese suffering the consequences. But large amounts of that €500 million ended up in the pockets of Dutch development experts and organisational overhead, to whom the operation was successful: it has provided employment and political relevance to such organisations worldwide. This divergence between broad and narrow interests has led to a conflict ridden country, in which the local population is paying the price for poor international decision making. Not to worry though, as Western nations will undoubtedly be sending their humanitarian experts and NGOs back to help the suffering locals once again in these times of need. After all, that is what friends are for.