Panelists Agree that the State has Not Collapsed in South Sudan

February 24, 2015

South Sudan earned the top position in the Fund for Peace's Fragile States Index 2014. During a panel discussion at the School of Public Policy (SPP) at Central European University about state-building and state-collapse in South Sudan on February 20, there was widespread agreement however that what has taken place in South Sudan since December 2013 was not state collapse, but something much more nuanced.

Cherry Leonardi, senior lecturer in the Department of History at Durham University, noted that there have been many times in Sudan's history when the central state authority has collapsed. "People in South Sudan themselves don't talk about periods of state collapse. The government has always been present for them on the local level," she observed. Leonardi said that there has been an ongoing process of state formation in South Sudan dating back to the middle of the nineteenth century.

Nicki Kindersley, a PhD candidate at the Department of History at Durham University, criticized the widespread view that there is no national identity in South Sudan. "I challenge that position," she said. She agreed with Leonardi that the government is felt most strongly at the state level. She went on to observe that local militarized states are more entrenched than before the crisis in December 2013.

Echoing the views of the other panelists, Durham University History PhD candidate Sarah Marriott agreed that the state has not collapsed in Western Equatoria State. She spoke also about the pervasive frustration with the blanket approach to South Sudan that is impeding development in the area. It is because of this approach that donor/investor money is often being diverted for humanitarian aid even in those parts of South Sudan where services are running, such as in Western Equatoria. Marriott noted also that there is a tendency in South Sudan to see "development as something coming from the outside rather than being state-provided."

CEU PhD candidate Ferenc David Marko opened his remarks by noting, "The concept of failed states is a failed concept." Despite this, it is a term that is still routinely used, especially by people in the donor community. Ferenc said that categorizing the state as a complete success or a complete failure was inaccurate and unhelpful. "Even within South Sudan, there are effective and less effective state institutions," he observed.

The panelists responded to a number of questions, many from people who had spent extensive periods in South Sudan themselves. Among the topics they addressed in the question and answer period were the reasons that international donor agencies are attracted by quick fixes; the strong support for democratic values in South Sudan; and the role that universities could potentially play in South Sudan as "spaces where real discussion and debate takes place."

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