Children being educated in South Sudan Source: Educationforall blog.
The UK House of Commons International Development Select Committee has recently produced a report on the prospects for peace and development in South Sudan.
The new post-independence environment and the heightening of tensions between the two Sudans, with the possibility of a return to an all-out war, have undoubtedly renewed focus on the role of the international aid donor community and in particular the UK.
Recent reports have painted a bleak picture about the negative impacts of the oil shutdown, with many commentators warning of a large scale humanitarian crisis in the loom. More than a million people have been newly displaced after fleeing the fighting and are reliant on humanitarian assistance. This, combined with food insecurity and mass returns of refugees, is leaving thousands of people struggling to ensure sheer survival.
Meanwhile, it is expected that this could worsen drastically with restricted access due to the weather and poor infrastructure. Limited accessibility hinders the delivery of aid to those in need on the ground.
The continued escalation of tensions in the north-south relations have helped create a new sense of urgency among the donor community - but with the daunting scale of the development challenges faced by South Sudan, it is clear that there is a vital need for the international community to remain engaged in South Sudan.
Studies on the progress towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have revealed that South Sudan is falling far behind in achieving most of the targets - for instance, the country is affected by mass poverty with over 50 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
South Sudan also faces significant challenges in education - having some of the lowest primary school enrolment rates, highest dropout rates and widest gender disparities. Young girls are particularly affected by the lack of education opportunities, with only 9 percent of girls who enrol in grade one complete primary school.
The renewed instability and the possible resumption of direct conflict between the two Sudans have prompted the international community to intervene in an effort to promote peace. The United Nations has threatened to impose economic sanctions if the two neighbouring countries fail to resolve their issues peacefully.
With no resolution in sight for now, the re-emerging of the conflict between the two Sudans poses an important test for the international aid donor community. The clashes in the border regions have only exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation which has prompted calls for more humanitarian aid.
UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs in South Sudan Lise Grande Source: Gurtong/ Waakhe Simon Wudu.
As many commentators have pointed out, the recent events have called into question the ability of the international community to react quickly and effectively to the humanitarian crisis that is rapidly unfolding in South Sudan.
But if, as it seems, many donors will in response to the ongoing crisis in South Sudan refocus their resources away from long-term development programmes to meeting more immediate humanitarian needs, there have also been fears expressed that this would risk seriously undermining fragile but hard-won MDG gains achieved in South Sudan.
Indeed, focusing on humanitarian needs at the expense of more long-term development assistance appears to be the preferred course of action of the UK (though, importantly, this approach has not necessarily been shared by other donors). In giving evidence to the parliamentary Select Committee, the UK Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell has made it clear that "if the current shutdown persists, this will entail a substantial redirection of resources away from the longer-term priorities set out in the South Sudan Development Plan".
The implications of this shift in future UK support are potentially far-reaching, as the UK is one of the largest donors to South Sudan with plans to spend around £360 million between 2011 and 2015. It has been reported that programmes in the education sector, such as the investment in building centres to train teachers, are among those that would be put on hold.
While it is evident that humanitarian needs are great in South Sudan, and the outlook remains grim, the ways in which different international actors are responding to the evolving context in South Sudan needs considerable more discussion.
In taking a stand, the UK has sought to send a clear message that it "cannot bankroll South Sudan through this austerity period". As its economy remains highly dependent on oil revenues, which are estimated to account for 98 percent of the country's income, the South Sudan government has been faced with substantial budget shortfalls from the loss of oil revenues.
The absence of alternative sources of funding or resumption of oil production has forced the government to adopt severe fiscal austerity. Yet, despite the potential for spending on basic services such as health and education to be halved over the next year, spending on security and the military continues to take up a disproportionate amount of South Sudan's budget.
Notwithstanding the current austerity budget, the South Sudan Government should be asked to make more efforts to mobilise and allocate domestic resources for basic service provision. However, while the UK is to some extent right to expect greater quid pro quo from the South Sudan Government in terms of shifting some of its budget to basic service delivery, it also needs to recognise that even when accounting for the oil revenues, the country would still face a huge financing gap.
Also, as the figures above demonstrate, enormous challenges remain for South Sudan. The potential shift in donor resources - cutting long-term development assistance with donors being driven by humanitarian concerns alone - poses a significant risk of backsliding on the fragile progress that the country has made since gaining its independence.
In light of this, long-term development assistance remains as critical as ever to accelerate progress towards many of the MDG goals. The international community's support should not be an "either emergency or development" issue, but must recognise that Sudan will need a commitment for both with the provision of humanitarian aid and assistance to support longer-term development.
Finally, the debate over where the international community should focus its assistance raises a wider issue. Notwithstanding the increase in cross-border violence, there is a major opportunity for donors developing funding mechanisms post-independence to focus on improving their coordination in South Sudan.
A recent report points to the uneven aid allocation in terms of sectors and activities and has highlighted the need for particular attention to be paid to cooperation between donors operating in different sectors. While this would be beneficial in and of itself, greater donor cooperation could also help reduce the perceived need for an "either or" approach in relation to providing development and humanitarian aid.
The international community must seek to carefully avoid the window of opportunity to make meaningful progress towards the MDGs and build a better future closing in South Sudan. One of the ways to do so will be by taking a balanced approach between support for emergency humanitarian needs and continued long-term development assistance.