Blog / / 12.21.20

If Not Now, When? : South Sudan Slips Back Into Famine

By Oliver Windridge, Senior Advisor at The Sentry for the UK.


This month, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification initiative (IPC) has announced the results of its latest inquiry into food insecurity in South Sudan, and the conclusions are stark. The IPC has found that several South Sudanese counties are in its very highest level of food insecurity, meaning famine. The reasons for this terrible situation are myriad: ongoing conflict combined with COVID-19, flooding, and invasive locust populations have all played significant roles. But underpinning all these factors is a hijacked system of governance that leaves South Sudan unable to address or respond to these challenges, so its people continue to suffer. While the people of South Sudan fall into internationally recognized famine, the kleptocratic South Sudanese regime continues to loot, leaving the country paralyzed at a time when it needs strong, transparent leadership the most.

This month’s IPC review highlights—once again—conflict as a leading driver of catastrophic food insecurity in South Sudan. As set out recently by the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (UNCHRSS) and the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) in its recent alert on illicit financial flows out of South Sudan, one of the main drivers of the conflict in South Sudan is endemic corruption at the very highest levels of South Sudanese government. Corruption-fueled conflict can lead directly to severe food insecurity, as the UNCHRSS found; its recent report described how starvation has been used as a method of warfare in South Sudan by both government and opposition forces,  including in areas that are now in the highest level of food insecurity according to the IPC.

While humanitarian aid is absolutely necessary to address the immediate need, as millions face hunger, more must be done to tackle the underlying causes of food insecurity in the medium and long term, to ensure that famine is not in South Sudan’s future. The issue is complex and will inevitably require more than one response, but South Sudan is blessed with significant natural resources, including oil, minerals, and gold, that could offer the South Sudanese people the best possible chance to avoid food insecurity. But with the kleptocratic regime controlling these resources, South Sudan will continue to lack the domestic resources to respond.  Transparent democratic mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that South Sudan’s resources benefit its people, and not just an elite few. Countries that act as safe harbors for stolen money and assets must renew efforts to identify, freeze, and seize illicit funds originating in South Sudan and to deploy targeted network sanctions against individuals and companies involved in serious human rights abuses and corruption, using the US Global Magnitsky sanctions regime, the UK Global Human Rights Sanctions regime, and the EU Global Human Rights Sanctions regime. Regional partners, whether in the private or public sector, must step up and impose rigorous and effective anti-money laundering regulations to stem the illicit financial flows out of South Sudan.

While conflict, COVID-19, floods, and locusts may be a once-in-a-generation combination, the underlying kleptocratic regime poses ongoing and systemic challenges. The broken foundations must be fixed in order to address both the immediate needs and the long-term prospects for South Sudan. And with the country currently in the grip of a reported famine, the question must be asked: if not now, when?