Sudan's Youth Build a Better Future, One Brick at a Time
Sept. 15, 2010
Situated at the fulcrum of a remote and volatile conflict corridor, the young people who live in Sudan's Akobo County have been the focus of recent efforts by USAID to bolster community security in the run-up to southern Sudan's referendum on self-determination slated for January 2011.
For many youth in Jonglei state, where Akobo is located, Sudan's precarious peace has been slow to yield security or development. With few opportunities emerging since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005, a large class of disaffected and disempowered youth has turned to cattle raiding for money. And they are being drawn into conflict over natural resources with neighboring communities- a trend made worse by the ready supply of small arms and the local government's limited capacity to enforce the rule of law.
USAID's program here is providing training and employment opportunities for youth to deter them from cattle raiding and other activities that involve violence. It is also helping to expand the presence of local authorities who can help prevent or defuse conflict, as well as bolstering civil society organizations so they can make a positive, peaceful contribution to help Sudan develop.
Rehabilitating the county headquarters in Akobo is the cornerstone of these activities. In January, 52 youth received training to make compressed-soil blocks, which are used for building construction. Many of the participants-from the Lou Nuer and Jikany Nuer ethnic groups- trekked from remote cattle camps that are often the epicenters of deadly conflict. Working together, they made 14,000 blocks in just over two weeks. Some of the youth were then employed to rehabilitate the dilapidated Akobo County headquarters office building using the blocks.
Standing in a freshly dug hole that equaled his lanky height, trainee Gabriel Gatluak stretches out his mud-covered arms, lifts his face toward the sky, and wearily smiles ear to ear.
"I am so happy to be working and contributing something to my community that will last a long time," Gatluak says. "We are really digging deep into our soil and building peace in Akobo now."
The county headquarters project addresses two key conflict triggers in southern Sudan-disempowered youth who often have limited access to education and economic opportunities, and ready access to small arms; and local government that has the commitment but not the capacity to deliver services and security across a sparsely populated and sprawling landscape.
Until the county headquarters building was rehabilitated this year, Akobo County authorities had to operate out of an 80-year-old colonial relic that lacked reliable power and basic furniture.
USAID is currently helping the youth form a for-profit business association to begin additional projects to develop this severely poor area, including the construction of a center that is currently underway for "traditional authorities," a term that includes chiefs, elders, and local judges who play an important role in peacebuilding efforts.
USAID's support has coincided with a decrease in violence and tension throughout Akobo. Despite April's national elections, and competition over scarce dry season resources after a particularly bad rainy season, Akobo County Commissioner Goi Jooyul Yol noted initial signs of success.
"Last year, there were over 900 deaths in Akobo County due to ethnic violence, and so far this year there have been 10 deaths," Goi said. "The security situation has vastly improved, and USAID's work with youth, traditional authorities, local [NGOs], and local government has been a major factor in creating a more stable environment."
Although these initial results appear promising, extending and reinforcing this positive momentum will be critical for long-term stability.
During a recent visit to Akobo, Ken Spear, the head of USAID's transition and conflict mitigation programming in Sudan, said: "We've cut a small path to walk through a dense forest, which has created much excitement and brought other actors to the task. But it will take even greater effort and resources to ensure that the forest doesn't reclaim the path, and to construct a proper road in the coming months."