Photo courtesy of Martin Hay

Friday, 17 January 2014

New name, new "job", new websites!

Since leaving South Sudan I got married, worked for UNICEF UK and started a PhD researching street connected children.

My name is now Gemma Pearson. I am studying for my PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London in partnership with StreetInvest, a charity which trains outreach workers to work with street-connected children in over a dozen different countries.

My academic profile page can be found here. I am blogging with other PhD students on issues relating to street-connected children and research which can be found here. I am also tweeting @GemKPea.

If you have any questions about my time working in South Sudan, or about my research with street-connected children, you can contact me on

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

South Sudan marks challenging first year - Africa - Al Jazeera English

South Sudan's first year of independence has been a roller-coaster. I arrived in South Sudan to a massacre in Jonglei State, followed by a series of retaliatory attacks between December and March - violence not seen in South Sudan since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.

Rapid inflation ensued since trade with Sudan became more difficult and South Sudan cut off their oil pipelines. One of our staff told me that in November, $100 would cost her 250 South Sudanese Pounds (SSPs), in May it would then cost her 500 SSPs. When I left South Sudan in June, we were discussing our second pay increase in the space of 6 months for our national staff - our cluncky donor budgets couldn't seem to keep up with the rising commodity prices.

Meanwhile, no one seems outwardly concerned. It's only when you press people that they'll tell you that they're worried about the price of things, and the increasing level of violence in Juba.

Now I've left South Sudan, I wonder what is happening now. You know, the stuff you don't hear on the news and that you only find out  by walking around and talking to people. I wonder how I can stay connected with what is happening in South Sudan while letting myself move on to something new.

In the meantime, Al Jazeera is proving helpful. A recent report:
South Sudan marks challenging first year - Africa - Al Jazeera English

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Diamond Jubilee

Why is it that when you're half way across the world you find yourself cooing over the Queen and welling up to 'Land of Hope and Glory'? I'm not ashamed. I really enjoyed our Jubilee celebrations.

The local staff looked on curiously as we mixed up cakes, pinned up bunting and dressed up tables with copious amounts of tea and coffee. People of all nationalities joined in our Jubilee celebrations and I was pleased to see cake bridging cultural divides, as always.

It was slightly odd celebrating the Queen and Britain with people from India, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Sudan and Uganda, all countries that the UK have become embroiled with throughout their colonial history. I'm not sure if I was the only person who felt self-concious of this fact. We had a couple of self-confessed Irish Republican and British Anarchists at t heparty but they didn't seem to mind us manifesting our admiration of the Queen as long as it was accompanied by Pimms and cinnamon buns.

So, I stuck up some Wiki-Royal facts, we played a Royal Family quiz and played William Walton and Elgar on our Ugandan friend's super loud speakers.

It was nice to have a reason to celebrate and host people at our compound. Here are some pictures:

Yes, Claire is wearing a union jack flag and union jack sunnies, and yes, Lucy did also get me with her "Royal" stickers. Thankfully I don't think there's any photographic evidence.
Here's Lizzy (our Zimbabwean colleague) enjoying her Pimms.
Some of Claire's beautiful bunting in situ.
James, our Finance Manager, getting involved with the party... well sort of. I think it clashed with some football or other.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

New 'official' map 'proves hostile intentions', says Sudan

The argument over border demarcation is on-going and shows no sign of compromise, but can South Sudan’s creation of their own ‘official map’ be a ‘violation of the UN Security Council’, as the Sudanese Foreign Ministry Undersecretary claims?

S. Sudan's VP, Riek Machar, sitting in front of the new proposed map of South Sudan
On 4th May, South Sudan presented their own map of their nation, a visual representation of their imagined rights and entitlements over the land formerly known as ‘southern Sudan’. This map depicts currently disputed border regions inside the South Sudanese boarder and, presumably, is the map that South Sudan want to bring to the negotiating table at the next round of discussions with Sudan and the AU. This map includes the recently SPLA occupied area of Heglig. The occupation of Heglig, officially in Sudan, took place in March and South Sudan withdrew troops 3 weeks later following heavy international criticism.

Following South Sudan’s occupation of Heglig in March 2012, the AU drew up a speedy and urgent agenda to advise on addressing the outstanding areas of contention between Sudan and South Sudan namely; disputed boarder regions, oil exports and citizenship. South Sudan and Sudan were given three months to resume talks and settle disputes or else risk ‘appropriate measures’. The agenda has been approved and backed by the UN Security Council, who have threatened ‘sanctions’ on the two countries if they do not meet their three month deadline.

On the face of it, it seems like South Sudan is happy with the agenda and prepared to go back to the negotiating table, as is signified by their withdrawal of troops from Heglig. Sudan, however, is more suspicious – they do not believe that three months is a long enough deadline and they mistrust the entities within the AU who put the agenda together. Furthermore, representatives of the Sudanese government feel like the AU agenda reads too much like ‘western language and ideas’. Neither countries have much confidence in the other’s commitment to real compromise or fair negotiating.

Despite this, Sudan is appealing to the UNSC, stating that by drawing up their own national map, South Sudan are launching a “shameful attack on the territory and the sovereignty of Sudan”, which is absurd in the light of the aerial bombardment which has been carried out by Sudanese Antonov planes on South Sudanese territory since November 2011.

Maps are important and powerful tools which represent agreements and entitlement and every nation has the right to negotiate their borders and sovereignty over land. It seems to me that Sudan doth protest too much to South Sudan putting their contestations in picture form. This map is not a violation of space and no one has been harmed in the making of this map. The map is not internationally recognised, so South Sudan cannot occupy and govern land in accordance to their new map – so where are the hostilities? What do Sudan suppose South Sudan will do on the basis of their new map other than challenge Sudan at the negotiating table? South Sudan must defend their proposition if it is to become internationally recognised, but by simply drawing it up, nothing has been violated.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The space between Relief and Development

I came to South Sudan in September 2011 and it took me only a month and a half to realise that many donor agencies pay too little attention to the complexities of relief and development challenges in South Sudan.

I work for a humanitarian organisation which has been in South Sudan since 1998. We respond to disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti and the Tsunami in Sri Lanka, and it is easy to see that the situation in South Sudan is quite different. There is no 5 year relief plan followed by a swift exit for agencies in South Sudan – the emergencies are endemic and triggered by a multitude of inter-related and compounding issues.

However, after all this time, after 14 years of operation in South Sudan, many institutional donors still insist on providing only one year humanitarian funding. Furthermore, donors often prefer to fund only one sector (Health, WASH or Nutrition etc.), preventing the implementation of integrated approaches to alleviating South Sudan’s many challenges. To run an effective and integrated programme of activities in an area of South Sudan it is necessary to have three or more donors contributing to that programme, necessitating three times as much reporting and three times as many staff to synthesise the financial, logistical and programmatic data whilst subsequently packaging it under three different donors’ reporting requirements.

There are other challenges as well. Annual funding involves extensive annual reporting, meaning at any one stage throughout the year reports are being prepared for an array of donors. Furthermore, since funding only lasts one year, finances have barely been released before it is again time to start planning for the next proposal. The constant uncertainty over funding can result in service delivery gaps, as many organisations do not have enough core-funding to support programmes during the time it takes for donors to consider proposals and release funds. Field-staff await redundancy letters at the end of each funding period, creating stress and tension amongst teams and making it difficult for NGOs to retain good staff and preventing NGOs from reaping the rewards sown into their staff through capacity building and training.

But the difficulties are not only institutional. It is almost impossible to deliver a project with all the necessary stages; needs assessment, community participation in planning; community cooperation; and, community ownership over joint inputs such as boreholes, latrines and health clinics, within the year timeframe that the funding allows. As Oxfam states in a 2011 South Sudan briefing paper, Getting it right from the start, these sorts of community engagement activities – those which are necessary for development initiatives to succeed – take time.

In South Sudan we still do not know what ‘normal’ rates of malnutrition are nationwide, but year upon year, communities’ malnutrition rates still exceed SPHERE Standards. Sporadic, violent and very complex conflict continues within South Sudan and between South Sudan and Sudan, displacing hundreds of thousands of people annually. In an environment where conflict of this sort is an annual occurrence it is difficult to encourage communities to invest in livelihood strategies. But, equally, stability will not arise from a South Sudan where 48% of the country is moderately or severely food insecure and 85% of Basic Services are delivered by an NGO community which is bound by inefficient funding structures. There is no panacea for addressing the vast developmental challenges faced by South Sudan, and NGOs alone are certainly not the answer. However, a strategic and intentional move by donors along the continuum from humanitarian towards long-term development assistance is fundamental for ensuring that no more money is wasted on quick fixes nor reductionistic donor priorities.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Crunchy local delicacy

A couple of times during the rainy season the place becomes over-run with these flying creatures. They look like ants, but with larger and more elongated abdomens, and they have 4 clumsy wings which they use to flap about in a haphazard manner. In the space of only a couple of hours, these insects swarm in, flap around the light-shades and drop their wings. Here's the little critters in action: 

Here's a bunch of the wings, sadly discarded:

Our IT Officer tells me that if you head down to the market at the right time of year, you can buy these insects in deep-fried salted form. He informs be that they're 'crunchy and delicious'.

Friday, 4 May 2012


If you've read other entries to my blog you'll be aware that I was meant to be working in Jonglei State, but when I came out to South Sudan my team had been evacuated to Juba because of a pretty nasty inter-tribal attack by the Murle tribe on Uror County, traditionally Lou Nuer territory. The team went back to Jonglei State in January and I am now permanently based in Juba (for reasons not interesting enough to be explained here). During this attack approximately 600 people died and 8000 homes burnt, as well as injuries and child abductions.
Map of South Sudan, its states and its counties
In December the tribes from Uror County (Lou Nuer) decided to retaliate; an estimated 6000 young men marched into Pibor County (also in Jonglei State) and wreaked havoc on the (Murle) populations there, killing and burning as they went. The government and UNMISS intervened and sent the 6000 youths back to their homes, after which the Murle retaliated again in a number of smaller attacks on Lou Nuer and Dinka communities.

Since this time, and perhaps also due to international pressure, the government decided to carry out a voluntary disarmament campaign. The government gave the communities until the end of April to hand over all their weapons, otherwise 'non-lethal' force would be used. Now April is over, 'non-lethal' force is being used on the people in Jonglei State, including women and elderly.

The South Sudanese army, the SPLA, has been in charge of disarmament and has met some resistance from a particular Nuer spiritual leader and the "Nuer White Army". These citizens argue that disarmament isn't fair unless it is carried out everywhere, all at once. A Dinka staff member, whom I work with, says that he disagrees with the disarmament if his tribe is disarmed first. Perhaps he is remembering the 1991 massacre of Dinka people in Bor, carried out by a rebel army led by Riek Machar (the current Vice President). I can't blame him for his concern; 2000 people were indiscriminately slaughtered in Bor in 1991, thousands more injured, up to 100,000 people displaced and an estimated 25,000 people died following the event due to famine after losing their homes and livelihoods. The scale of what happened in 1991 was epic, but a similar thing is happening now.

Reports from cattle camps, nutrition surveys and food security surveys show high levels of malnutrition and food insecurity amongst those currently displaced by conflict all over Jonglei State. When villages are raided, crops are burnt, grain is left behind and cattle are stolen. The loss of these livelihood assets is compounded by the poor rain that was received in 2011 which weakened cattle and harvests. In a couple of months, the rains will start again and roads will no longer be passable to get to those in need. Many agencies are so overwhelmed by the recent emergency that it is already becoming too late to procure seeds for this coming rainy season, since planting must start this month or the next.

I spoke to one of our nutrition project officers in Uror County who came to Juba for a short visit, she told me that the levels of malnutrition are evident, "almost everyone qualifies for our programme, a mother will come to us and it won't be just one child who is malnourished, it's all of them".

In the meantime, South Sudan's attention is drawn to the conflict on the border to Sudan. While this happens, guns are re-entering Jonglei State through Ethiopia, and there is more circulation of weapons within South Sudan, especially in the states that border the North. As this happens, Riek Machar tours the states if South Sudan to promote peace and apologise for the Bor massacre.

Disasters happen every year in parts of South Sudan and its easy to see how the international community lose interest; "another famine in Jonglei, that's happened before", "poor leadership, we've seen it", "financial crisis caused by asset mismanagement, well it's all their own fault, really". But when you find yourself living here, working with it and hearing about, with the knowledge that you're partly responsible for assisting those affected, it can be fairly overwhelming.

A South Sudanese women celebrating the independence of South Sudan from Sudan, July 2011