South Sudan Wants (Some) Foreign Aid Workers Replaced

As the world’s youngest nation, and one on the brink of famine, South Sudan doesn’t seem like it’s in a position to turn away international assistance. But that’s what some officials in Juba seem to want. In a circular dated Sept. 12 and made public Tuesday, the country’s Ministry of Labor ordered all non-government agencies ...

Giulio Petrocco/AFP/Getty Images
Giulio Petrocco/AFP/Getty Images
Giulio Petrocco/AFP/Getty Images

As the world's youngest nation, and one on the brink of famine, South Sudan doesn't seem like it's in a position to turn away international assistance. But that's what some officials in Juba seem to want.

In a circular dated Sept. 12 and made public Tuesday, the country's Ministry of Labor ordered all non-government agencies (NGOs) and private businesses in the country "to notify all the Aliens working with them in all the positions to cease working as from 15th October, 2014 forthwith." That sounds like a pretty clear order for foreign aid workers to halt their work in a country that desperately needs them.

Since news about the notice has spread -- and met with lots of angry backlash -- other South Sudanese officials have backpedaled. They're now saying foreigners only need to vacate jobs that South Sudanese have the necessary skills to fill. As Reuters notes, many countries in the region have similar policies favoring locals. And considering the dearth of trained professionals in South Sudan, most foreign workers might be able to stick around.

As the world’s youngest nation, and one on the brink of famine, South Sudan doesn’t seem like it’s in a position to turn away international assistance. But that’s what some officials in Juba seem to want.

In a circular dated Sept. 12 and made public Tuesday, the country’s Ministry of Labor ordered all non-government agencies (NGOs) and private businesses in the country "to notify all the Aliens working with them in all the positions to cease working as from 15th October, 2014 forthwith." That sounds like a pretty clear order for foreign aid workers to halt their work in a country that desperately needs them.

Since news about the notice has spread — and met with lots of angry backlash — other South Sudanese officials have backpedaled. They’re now saying foreigners only need to vacate jobs that South Sudanese have the necessary skills to fill. As Reuters notes, many countries in the region have similar policies favoring locals. And considering the dearth of trained professionals in South Sudan, most foreign workers might be able to stick around.

On Wednesday, South Sudan’s foreign minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, denied reports that foreigners would be expelled. "We would like to make a clear statement that there is no statement in the Republic of South Sudan saying that they are expelling foreign workers in this country," Benjamin stated. "The government of South Sudan is not expelling any foreign worker in South Sudan."

But human rights advocates see ominous signs in the circular. Since December, a conflict between two political factions in the South Sudanese government has turned into a bloody civil war between rival ethnic groups and displaced about 1.5 million people. International organizations warn that famine is imminent.

In response to the growing chaos, the Juba government has tightened control over civil society. Skye Wheeler, a South Sudan researcher with Human Rights Watch, said that the recent decree "was released in an environment of growing repression of freedom of expression." Several journalists have been harassed and detained and parliament has introduced a bill that would solidify the country’s National Security Service’s powers to detain people without due process. Another bill would severely tighten government control over NGOs.

In July, amid warnings about the famine threat, the government forbade nongovernmental and international organizations from making statements or predictions about the country’s food security. These are disheartening signs for a three-year-old nation that has yet to develop much of its body of law.

Anne-Marie Schryer-Roy, a spokesperson for Kenya-based aid organization Adeso that works in South Sudan, said: "We appreciate the South Sudanese government’s desire to promote local employment and local capacity." But "at a time when the humanitarian needs in the country are huge … the short notice might compromise existing programs."

Given the government’s dithering about the policy, it’s hard to know just what effect it will have, Wheeler said. South Sudanese officials have been known to issue directives that they don’t end up enforcing. South Sudan’s foreign minister said on Wednesday that laws delineating how to divvy up particular jobs between foreigners and locals "will be discussed later." That seems like a trifling matter for a country in the midst of civil war and on the edge of starvation.

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

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