South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, is at a crossroads

A holistic approach is required to lay the groundwork for self-sufficiency, peace and sustainable development

July 9, 2024
Man with South Sudan flag painted on face

At the heart of South Sudan's challenges lies a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions.

Photo: UNDP South Sudan/Silvia Mantilla

South Sudan’s first Independence Day was imbued with a great sense of hope. I remember crowds cheering in the streets, waving the country’s new flag high. Thirteen years later, it is still the youngest nation in the world. Yet barely into its adolescence, it has already faced profound challenges. 

At the heart of South Sudan's challenges lies a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions. Given seven million of the country’s 12.4 million people are projected to experience crisis-level hunger this year, and nine million are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, the gravity of the situation cannot be overstated. 

One in 10 don’t have electricity. Seventy percent can’t access basic healthcare. These are fundamental human rights that the vast majority of people are living without. 

When I visited the country in March, I saw this firsthand. I met women and children displaced by conflict – some for the second time in their lives – in a Malakal transit centre. They had nothing and were fully reliant on aid. Their plight still lingers in my mind and heart. 

Humanitarian aid alone cannot untangle the intricate web of challenges facing South Sudan. A holistic approach is required, one that lays the groundwork for self-sufficiency, peace and sustainable development.

As it marks this anniversary, South Sudan finds itself at a pivotal moment in its journey towards nation-building. 

With the constitutional-making process underway and elections on the horizon, the efforts we make today will shape the trajectory of the country for generations to come. We must bolster institutions, foster stability, and empower young people—the driving force behind the nation's aspirations for progress and prosperity.

Central to this is the empowerment of women and girls, who face disproportionate challenges and vulnerabilities in the face of conflict, displacement, and climate change. Gender-based violence, child marriage, and maternal mortality rates are alarmingly high, underscoring the urgent need for interventions that prioritize the rights and dignity of women and girls.

When I was there, I met with young women in Malakal who explained to me the barriers they face on a daily basis, from fearing for their safety, to feeling unable to speak out about their hopes and aspirations or being denied work opportunities.

A young woman participates in UNDP-supported vocational training in Malakal, South Sudan

Photo: UNDP South Sudan

It should not be this way.

Our team is working hard to improve the lives of women and girls. I was impressed by courts in the capital Juba that focus specifically on addressing violence against women, set up with UNDP support. We are also working to ensure women's inclusion in peacebuilding processes, promoting gender equality and creating opportunities for women and young people to thrive.

But so much more needs to be done. 

With 75 percent of the population comprising youth, they represent both South Sudan’s greatest challenge and its most promising asset. Neglecting to invest in young people equates to neglecting the future of the country itself—a risk we cannot afford to take. 

Their voices must be heard, their aspirations nurtured, and their potential unleashed.

South Sudan is at a crossroads. 

With the right support, the country has the potential to create a future defined by hope, greater prosperity and stability for all. The alternative is a deepening of an already profound and protracted crisis. 

South Sudan cannot navigate this path alone. It requires the support of the international community to overcome the myriad of challenges it faces. Increased development support—the kind that helps people break the cycle of crisis and build safer, more stable, resilient, and more sustainable lives—is urgently needed.

My hope is to go back ten years from now and see the families I met at the Malakal transit centre.  By then, they will be peacefully settled, their children grown and healthy, and they have stable incomes and can access the services they need.

This is what development looks like.