Introduction to South Sudan

Greetings from Upper Nile State, South Sudan. I recently arrived in Maban County after a couple of weeks of quarantine, and I’m spending my time getting familiar with my surroundings and the excellent staff at my organization. 

Some readers may already have an understanding of the work I’m doing but in order to give others an introduction, I think a short history lesson would be beneficial. So I will spend a bit of time on the history of this region, on South Sudan in general, and then provide some background on humanitarian work more generally.

So first let’s talk geography – the world’s newest country, South Sudan, is located in Central Africa bordered by Sudan in the North, Ethiopia in the East, Kenya, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo in the South, and Central African Republic in the West.

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of conflict. A full history of this conflict is out of the scope of this post,but the new Republic of South Sudan has 10 states, with Upper Nile in the far Northeast. One important thing to know about the Upper Nile State area (including Maban County) is that the region has always been extremely isolated. First from the capital and government of Sudan (in Khartoum) and now from the federal government in South Sudan (in Juba). There are no passable roads to this region from the capital, and Maban County can only be reached by air.

Maban County is home to four refugee camps housing approximately 165,000 refugees, mostly from Sudan. A majority of these refugees have been living here since 2011 when the conflict that led to independence forced them to leave Sudan. They are from several different Sudanese ethnic groups and have been fleeing various conflicts in the region for decades. Many of these refugees spent time in Ethiopia prior to South Sudanese independence and have rarely lived outside refugee camps.1

The state across the border from Upper Nile – Blue Nile, Sudan – is still experiencing conflict, and has been for decades, due to its strategic importance and lush landscape. The promise of reform and a better life for South Sudan after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005 remains unfulfilled.2 While the goal of independence was obtained, the infrastructure required to govern a country is still a work in progress. Civil war followed independence and in many areas of South Sudan – conflict between ethnic groups, militias, and government forces continues. 

There are various statutes and charters that provide for refugees across the globe, but I will save that overview for another post. For now, I am going to focus on providing a general overview of humanitarian versus development work, and the current state of humanitarian work in South Sudan. In general humanitarian aid tends to focus on the individual – it has the goal of saving lives and alleviating suffering during or immediately after a crisis. Development programming (delivery of training/materials/etc is referred to as programming) on the other hand is focused on responding to structural and systemic issues. 

When a humanitarian crisis occurs anywhere – whether it is based on war, conflict, natural disaster, etc. – the first stage is the “emergency” (humanitarian aid) phase. This phase prioritizes providing people with essentials like food, water, shelter, and safety. If you’re from the United States you may be familiar with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) which steps in when there is a hurricane, fire, flood, etc. – think of the emergency stage like this part of the immediate response.3 

Much of the programming in South Sudan is overseen by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A variety of other organizations also work in partnership with the UN, implementing different types of programming based on their capacity and experience. This includes education, healthcare, protection (including access to counseling and social work), peace and reconciliation, etc.

The current situation in South Sudan is not a standard humanitarian emergency and is referred to as a “protracted crisis,” meaning that it has gone on for an extended period of time (in this case more than 10 years). In this type of long-term crisis, there are some organizations still providing humanitarian aid like food, shelter, and protection (think World Food Programme), while some organizations (including mine) are shifting towards providing what could be described as “transitional” services. 

Transitional programming is a bit harder to define but as the name suggests it tends to be a transition between humanitarian aid and development programming. My organization for example provides psychological counseling and also physical therapy – both of which have emergency aid implications (dealing with and preventing additional trauma) but also longer term development affects (preparing people for the future). 

For those who were following my work in Burkina Faso, with the Peace Corps – this would be considered development programming. The goals of this type of programming are usually described in terms of self-sufficiency and are tied to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

You can see a huge variety of goals here, and different organizations work on different components (though many of these goals overlap). So when a crisis has gone on for a long time, there may still be a need for humanitarian aid, but there is also increased need for development programming – this is where the transitional programming starts working towards longer term goals.

Transitional programming is a bit less formally defined than humanitarian or development programming, but our goal is the same –  to put ourselves out of work. The hope is that conflict is resolved, disasters are cleaned up (or preferably prevented), homes are repaired, food sources return, that everyone can access education, get good jobs, etc. The diagram above provides a depiction of where Transitional Programming fits into the bigger picture of international aid and development – it overlaps both and also serves as a stepping stone to more long-term sustainable development programming.

So why do these categories of programming matter? For the beneficiaries (people in need) they really don’t, but because my organization is transitioning from emergency programming towards development programming, some strategy and planning is required. Organizations who arrive to assist in an emergency have different goals than those solving longer-term problems. This is where I come in – my role is to look at the programming that my organization is doing, evaluate what is working well, where we could improve, and make recommendations. By working with staff to observe the programming my organization does (now primarily Education and Protection/ Psychosocial Support), together we will be able to prioritize goals and action steps moving forward. 

As you can see, there is a lot of important context to the humanitarian work being done in the region of South Sudan. In future posts I will provide more background on humanitarian sectors, historical context, and (for those of you here for the nitty gritty) my day-to-day experience.

Shukran! (‘Thank you’ is the only Arabic I’ve picked up so far.) 


  1. Danish Demining Group. “Displacement, Disharmony and Disillusion: Understanding Host-Refugee Tensions in Maban County South Sudan,” (2015): 2-7.
  2. Ibid.
  3. FEMA also provides assistance and guidance for international emergencies as well at times, specifically for natural disasters.

Published by Bethany Woodson

Just a couple of aspiring activists out here in the world trying to learn something.

3 thoughts on “Introduction to South Sudan

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