Opinion, Travel Essays

South Sudan, Invest in Lasting Peace

What comes to mind when you think of South Sudan? Crisis, refugees, casualties, corruption, and starvation likely top the list. You also probably think hopeless. You rarely think investment potential. But South Sudan represents an opportunity to move from aid to trade, and with the help of creative philanthropists and frontier market investors, this could happen over the coming decade. What is being proven elsewhere in Africa is that we must move beyond traditional aid models and increasingly focus on direct private capital flows into locally sustainable solutions.

The world’s youngest state is a chance to reimagine aid as a catalyst for innovation and partnerships. A vast country of 644,000 sq.km. – roughly the size of Texas – with possibilities for solar energy, health innovation and agribusiness development. Where some see only problems, others recognize untapped human potential in a country with over 11 million and at least 30 million hectares of arable land, less than 5 percent of which is currently cultivated.

Don’t get me wrong, South Sudan unquestionably needs a hand up right now, and those providing aid are bringing help that is desperately needed. Sixty years of war has left a devastated infrastructure and traumatized population with some of the worst health indicators on Earth. But, this new African nation can easily become yet another ill-fated example of reliance on foreign aid. In 2014, foreign aid totaled US$1.8B out of a total GDP of US$13.0B, with the U.S. being top donor at US$645MM. It’s no secret that long-term aid creates devastating dependencies and economic distortions that hinder the natural social, economic and human development of a nation. South Sudan can avoid the well-worn dependency trap and chart a path towards growth and prosperity, but the trick is that the work must start now. When it seems most impossible.

In his compelling 2012 New York Times op-ed, Bishop Elias Taban, a recognized national leader in South Sudan, called upon his people to turn sword to plough and for the American people to walk alongside his countrymen and women to ensure the world’s newest nation survives infancy. Three years later, however, the nation continues to struggle through cycles of conflict while the West, trying to help, repeats the failed approaches of the past.

Instead of sizeable, cumbersome block grants only accessible to international NGOs with huge operational infrastructures, we should instead focus on scaling systems that are locally owned and driven. Venture philanthropy is conducive to such an approach; based on venture capital principles and placing value on social return alongside economic return. It is a growing and compelling way to promote development in environments where large-scale commercial investment is limited.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) developed a small but groundbreaking program called Development Innovation Ventures, which pioneers venture philanthropy through foreign aid. It is an investment in potential – not aid – and is simply a smarter, more accountable way to support growth. By investing in Solar Sister, USAID will bring solar lighting and mobile phone charging technologies to people across South Sudan, where 50 percent of the population uses firewood or grass as the primary source of lighting and 27 percent have no lighting at all. An example of applying market-based principles that catalyzes nimble, creative, and sustainable solutions, instead of grant making from afar. Venture philanthropy amps up accountability, requiring rigorous due diligence, clear objectives, mentoring, technical expertise and well-defined performance measurements. Rather than directing funds toward dire problems, this approach directs funds toward the most effective, revolutionary solutions.

In addition, along a narrow red-soil road in Yei, South Sudan, is the EPC Clinic: a sustainable primary care clinic addressing preventable diseases affecting the surrounding community. This clinic sees 600 cases a month and operates with a local staff, independently of donor funds. Deep within a teak forest on the outskirts of Yei is the Nehemiah Secondary School: a top-notch secondary program educating the future leaders of South Sudan and funded by a local trucking company, not an international NGO or foreign government. These are examples of the future of South Sudan and are manifestations of the vision cast by Bishop Taban in 2012; scalable local innovations in the most difficult circumstances.

There are numerous other local solutions, which may not be as well known, but are working and need our attention and support. Well-structured, direct investments offer these ideas the potential to flourish. We should seek them out and align our skill sets and capital to their vision.

Investing in local solutions is an investment in lasting peace. It is the role the U.S. must play if we wish to chart a path towards healthier, more sustainable long-term development. Some will say that any investment in such a fragile context is unwise. It’s certainly no easy task, but it’s an investment worth making. For South Sudan, it requires leaders with the willingness to put nation before personal ambition and redirection of public spending into development rather than security. For the U.S., it requires patience, the willingness to reimagine aid and getting past the notion that we know best. We must walk toward the future alongside South Sudan with humility and have the courage to deploy strategies that ignite local innovation, foster independence and promote self-reliance. It isn’t going to be fast and it’s hardly simple, but it’s certainly not hopeless.

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Travel Essays

Crossing the White Nile

By some standards I was raised in humble circumstances, by others I was raised in stark privilege and opportunity. This duality is something I struggle to reconcile, but regardless of perspective, I’ve seen first-hand how education, a bit of ingenuity and shit-ton of hard work can take you to places you never dreamed possible. One odd job at a time, if that’s what it takes.

Places like riding shotgun on a questionably legal motorbike in the East Texas piney woods. Places like sleeping under a desk in architecture school to sleeping on a couch at the United Nations to putting my soul into hibernation while playing the advertising game. Places like the joyful vulnerability of motherhood and the immense sadness of losing a father too soon. Places like learning the art of negotiation in Geneva from a professor with wet, quivering lips to learning the art of traditional healing from a medicine man in a hut along Lake Bunyonyi. Places like atop 16,000 feet while looking into the eyes of my partner in this life, as a killer clot threatened to take him from us. Places like South Sudan in the midst of civil war to see something most say is impossible. Places like a twin-engine prop plane crossing the White Nile.

I spent only three short days on the ground in Yei, South Sudan, a spot of relative calm in a nascent nation taking two steps back. I had the unique opportunity to deposit a pint in a bankrupt blood bank, looked up at the stars from the floor of a teak forest, scrubbed in for hernia surgery on a teenage boy and sat under a mango tree with a ninety-three year old blind woman who has lived long enough to see peace in a land where most have only known war. There was black market fuel bought in recycled water bottles and dinner in an Ethiopian restaurant with no food. A mature male goat was exchanged in sincere appreciation for a well that now gives life-saving water, the sun rose over the Yei River and I held my ears as the man in the next guesthouse coughed up a lung for at least an hour each morning.

I did not, under any circumstances, eat termites.

I played sidekick to a dear friend who lives by “whatever it takes” and has drilled over 600 wells in his adopted land. He stops at nothing to embolden others and issued me a challenge, one I willingly accepted and I am undoubtedly stronger for.

A great man and his wife were my generous hosts. I saw how they uplift their community in the midst of desperate times and make the things happen that others say are impossible. They left me speechless.

When it was time to leave, we had to travel a few short miles on the “good side” of the road to Juba to get back to the airstrip. A few dozen miles ahead had recently become a path even the UN won’t travel, but we were still a fair distance away. Two uniformed soldiers motioned us over as we crossed the bridge on the outskirts of town. I held my breath as the truck edged to a stop. From the passenger seat, I looked briefly toward the soldiers out of the corner of my eye and saw a wild emptiness in the eyes of the taller one. This was the moment I had feared most. What did they want? I tried not to look directly at them as they uttered a few indecipherable words in Arabic. What they wanted I don’t truly understand, but after a few moments they let us pass. As we inched forward, I saw another soldier a few yards behind them with an automatic machine gun and full ammo belt aimed at the bridge.

Less than an hour later I was flying over the White Nile listening to a Western middle-aged-mother-of-two playlist on my tattered headphones. I asked myself the question, “How in the hell did I get here and what does it all mean?” How I got there was by invitation from a dear friend who told me to come see something miraculous for myself. So that’s what I did and I would do it again, for what I gained far outweighed one fearful moment.

The White Nile is one of the two rivers that come together form the main Nile, the longest waterway in the world. It is called the White Nile because of its milky waters created by the light-grey clay sediment it carries as it flows north. I now sit at a table in a guesthouse on the peaceful side of the White Nile, twenty-four hours after lifting off from a red-soil airstrip in South Sudan. I am swimming in the ex-pat bubble trying to separate and appreciate each and every experience I had on the ground there. I ask myself why I was given this place in the world and exactly what I’ve been put here to do. You see, I can simply lift off in a twin-engine prop plane and fly across the White Nile, because I won the latitude lottery. I have the privilege of spending a day across from a clay tennis court while drinking bottled water; pondering the places life takes me, making obscure references and posting pictures of a milky river in East Africa.

I wasn’t given the clarity of purpose many enjoy, but life is after all an iterative process. However, I do have clarity on one important fact – health, well being and prosperity are universal human rights worth fighting for. From this truth comes The Cassiopeia Project, a quest to uncover, invest in and bring forward innovative, locally-driven programs working to advance human potential.

Because…

We should be undeterred by things others consider impossible. We should be willing to wrestle with life instead of sitting on the bench. We should seek out and uplift great people and great ideas. We should make investments worth making. We should because we can fly over the White Nile.

I might just be crazy, but maybe, just maybe, I’m not.

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