Hungriest place on earth no longer: US projects help poor town in Southern Sudan build peace

Monday, October 4, 2010

US helps Sudan town move past ‘hungriest place’

AKOBO, Sudan — International officials once visited this straw-hut town to examine skeletal children and make plans to combat a brewing famine. Now six months later, fears of mass hunger are gone, and U.S. officials are instead hailing a program they say builds peace.

Youth in this muddy town near the Ethiopia border were until recently viewed as a catalyst for conflict in an area of Southern Sudan known for violence. But the youth are now taking part in U.S.-funded construction projects that have seen a community center built and a fence erected around the unpaved airstrip — to prevent cows from wandering into the path of aircraft.

U.N. and U.S. officials championed the approach to resolving local conflict and building peace in this historically tense, heavily armed outpost during a weekend visit.

“It is not only a sign of stability, but a sign of hope for many youth who used their energy to mold blocks rather than engaging in cattle rustling,” said County Commissioner Goi Jooyul Yol, the top official in this sprawling county.

The Akobo projects present just a small sliver of good news in a region beset by poverty. More than 4 million people in Southern Sudan need food aid, and the U.N. estimates that more than 90 percent of the region’s 8 million to 13 million people live on less than a $1 day. The literacy rate is 15 percent. Life expectancy is 42 years.

Still, the U.N. and U.S. say the Akobo model is worth replicating across Southern Sudan, where intertribal violence is a widespread threat to this Texas-sized region likely to become the world’s newest country next year.

Southern Sudan holds an independence referendum Jan. 9, and keeping the peace across the new country will be a key challenge.

“You should have seen Akobo a year ago,” said Marv Koop, the chief of AECOM in Sudan, the company the U.S. government hired to carry out its aid programs here. “Scorched huts in the outlying villages, people squatting under trees. There’s a big difference between the situation then and now.”

An Associated Press reporter visited Akobo in April and saw skeletal infants and sickly looking elders. Lise Grande, head of the U.N.’s humanitarian efforts in Southern Sudan, called the village back then “the hungriest place on earth.”

Since then the rains have come, and Akobo’s dusty earth is now a sticky, muddy black that is almost impossible to drive through. Today Grande says “the people of Akobo have turned their community around.”

Over the last several months, youth have been making the cement blocks to build a new county headquarters complete with wireless Internet and solar panels paid for by USAID, the U.S. government aid arm. Workers also constructed a courtroom used for weekly sessions convened by traditional chiefs.

The approach pioneered by the U.N. and USAID in Akobo addresses what are viewed as the two key triggers for conflict in the area: disempowered youth who lack educational opportunities but have ready access to weapons, and a fledgling government ill-equipped to deliver services and security across its sprawling terrain.

USAID has spent more than $2 million in Akobo County in the past year, making it the focal point of its efforts to improve community security in the run-up to the January referendum.

Goi, the commissioner, said many community members pitched in last month to help build the fence around the unpaved airstrip. The project, also funded by USAID, was completed within a week.

The top U.S. diplomat in Southern Sudan, Barrie Walkley, said Akobo should be proud of the results.

All of these projects, the officials say, provide incentive for townspeople to improve their lives through paid labor and small business instead of cattle raiding and the armed resolution of disputes.

In 2009, more than 900 people were killed in Akobo County alone, mostly due to armed violence related to cattle raids by idle youth using AK-47s leftover from Sudan’s 21-year north-south civil war.

This year, Akobo has seen only 15 deaths related to conflict, and some of the same rival youth who were stealing each other’s cattle are now being supported to form a for-profit group for development projects.

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