When the UK government announced cuts in overseas aid spending amounting to £ 4bn, the move sent shock waves through South Sudan, which is one of the world’s worst countries. poorest in the world.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the government was looking to provide “taxpayer value” in places like South sudan, where the UK was the country’s second-largest donor.
The sentiment in the capital of this impoverished nation, Juba, is markedly different.
The people who run international and local aid organizations – as well as those who rule here – are deeply afraid.
“We consider it so unfriendly and inhuman to cut aid at this particular time. This is the time when we need the world’s attention like never before,” Humanitarian Affairs Minister Peter Mayen Majong said. .
He said he had been informed of sections in a letter dated April 27, but which the UK has yet to provide details.
“We asked what was wrong with our relations with the British government? We felt it was time to double their efforts,” said Mr Majongdit.
According to agencies like the UN Food Program (WFP), this country of 11 million people is “on the brink of famine”.
More than two-thirds of the population is severely food insecure, with around 100,000 people living in isolated areas currently considered to be at risk of massive famine.
The deteriorating conditions on the ground come at a time when agencies like WFP are cutting emergency food rations as donors cut budgets.
The UK has cut its contribution to emergency food aid by around 30%.
“Where we are trying to avoid famine we have had to prioritize and in other areas where people are a little better off we have had to reduce their rations,” said Matthew Hollingworth, National Director of the Food Program. global.
“So we actually take from the hungry to give to the hungry and it’s never an easy decision to make, but it’s a decision we have been forced to make this year.”
The government of South Sudan has accomplished little since gaining independence from Sudan 10 years ago.
It relies almost entirely on international aid agencies and their local partners to provide basic food and government services.
Almost continuous periods of civil war and political and tribal conflict claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and two years of unprecedented rains destroyed infrastructure and farm and grazing land.
The international community is now spending billions of dollars to avert a complex humanitarian catastrophe, but any discussion of the British cuts in South Sudan has not been welcomed by many here.
A number of British aid recipients have told us that they are not allowed to speak to us.
We have received an e-mail from the British Embassy warning international aid groups of “any interaction with the media, in particular Sky News, which are in South Sudan”.
The email asked humanitarian partners to “refer any interview requests to (name withheld) or me to notify the FCDO (Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office) accordingly.”
“There is only one way to interpret this,” said the director of a humanitarian agency in Juba. “The UK is embarrassed by the cuts and would prefer people not to know the details.”
Along with cuts in aid to WFP, Sky News understands that a key £ 120million a year program called HARISS or Humanitarian Assistance and Resilience in South Sudan has been “indefinitely delayed”.
In addition, £ 6.9million has been cut from the budget known as the Common Health Fund (HPF), which supports rudimentary health clinics in eight of South Sudan’s 10 states.
In a letter explaining the cuts, which was forwarded to Sky News, HFP director Stefan Lawson said the cuts were “painful” but were lucky compared to the others.
“As I’m sure you know, even though any cut is painful, it could have been a lot worse (and it was worse for other CTF-funded programs in South Sudan …”
In response, the director of an NGO told us “the result (in South Sudan) is simple, people will die”.
Some organizations have lost all of their funding, such as Windle Trust International, which operates in areas the UK government claims to have prioritized.
The UK-based charity has set up a teacher training program in South Sudanese schools and a mentorship program for girls in high schools, but has lost around £ 400,000 in expected funding.
The UK has made significant contributions to African aid over the years and in a statement to Sky News, the FCDO said this would continue to be the case.
“While the seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to make difficult but necessary decisions, the UK aid budget this year will still be over £ 10 billion,” he said. he declares.
“This year, the UK will spend almost half of its bilateral aid in Africa, focusing its support where human suffering remains most acute and ensuring that the UK is able to exert maximum influence as that force of good.
“Our assistance will include support to get girls in school, tackle the causes and consequences of climate change, and support economic development to build the business partners of the future.”
Aid partners and officials in South Sudan see it differently, with an NGO leader estimating the UK cuts “at around 55% in total”.
What the UK is doing in a country where millions of lives are at risk is actually asking other donors to step in and make up the difference.
It is an act of brinkmanship that will earn him few friends.