International aid is an important part of the political economy of South Sudan and interacts with government, including state and local structures and authorities, in a continuous and evolving manner. Innovation, cooperation, mistrust, and conflict have characterised the relationship between the broader international aid community and the structures that produce and exercise authority in this diverse land. Since the 2013 civil war, though, this relationship has been dominated by mistrust as the international narrative towards South Sudan has shifted from one of collaboration to one of suspicion and the government has sought to use international resources in support of its political and military objectives. With a seeming lack of shared goals, international actors have called out the government for human rights violations, including impeding access to humanitarian aid and targeting aid workers and civil society representatives.
However, with the signing of a revitalised power sharing agreement in September 2018, there is occasion to consider how international aid providers work with, through or around the government in ways that maximise the positive impact of aid inputs and minimise the risk of harm. Based on primary and secondary sources, including the extensive literature surrounding lessons from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) period, this paper analyses the relationship between the international aid community and the government in South Sudan in order to: (1) identify the opportunities and risks that donors and implementing partners face when working alongside, through or around the government; (2) consider the long-term implications of working alongside, through or around the government; and (3) offer lessons about minimum standards, conditions and good practices to promote conflict-sensitive engagement between the international aid community and the government in the current context.
Aid actors have struggled to find the right approaches to engaging with the government in South Sudan. While some diplomats have asserted that the government is not a credible partner, there are significant political factors that reinforce their authority, not least of which is recognition from regional and some international partners and the UN system. Where government actions impede aid objectives, attempts to push back on government authority have often fallen short. In such cases, the government has effectively worked to undermine the generation of momentum and pathways for collective action, through for example, pressures on humanitarian leadership and outspoken advocates. Government control over humanitarian access leads to government influence, if not control, over aid provision, and it is likely that Juba will continue attempts to align aid resources with their political strategies. As humanitarian and development programming rely on local level cooperation, aid actors, at a minimum, will continue to seek government engagement and develop relationships with government officials within the communities where aid is delivered. None of these trends are unique to the current context, and there is a significant history of international aid engagement with authorities in South Sudan that influence the parameters and expectations of these relationships.