The scenes of celebration relayed around the world from South Sudan as it became the world’s newest independent nation last weekend were very moving.
It was clear that the people share a palpable sense of the opportunities that nationhood will provide.
But how best can newly independent South Sudan break with its war ravaged past and chart a new course that realizes that opportunity and create development and shared prosperity for all?
It’s absolutely clear that education is a vital building block for that future.
South Sudan starts its life as a new state close to the bottom of the global league table for educational opportunity, especially for young girls. It has some of the world’s lowest primary school enrollment rates, highest dropout rates, and widest gender disparities.
I saw these challenges first hand during a visit in June.
I witnessed teachers struggling, albeit with an enthusiasm and energy I envied, to teach classes of two hundred children under a tree; without access to basic notebooks and pens, let alone the classrooms, text books and learning materials which most educators take for granted.
I also saw how in the absence of school furniture, children bought and carried their own plastic chairs to and from school every day.
So daunting challenges are set against immense opportunity.
It reminded me that since the 2005 peace agreement, the primary school population has risen four-fold, by over 1 million children. And I spoke to families returning to South Sudan (nearly 1 million since the independence referendum) for whom getting an education for their children is their number one priority.
In response, the government is recruiting more teachers, building classrooms, and many children are getting their first textbooks. And I was delighted to see that Save the Children and other organizations are helping.
So there are definite signs of progress. But there’s no denying the challenges are huge and that the government’s targets, including achieving universal primary education, are ambitious. But those challenges also reflect the aspirations of the country’s leaders and the heartfelt belief of its citizens that their future will be best secured through education.
Seizing that opportunity will require not just national political leadership, but sustained support from the international community.
Countries emerging from armed conflict need secure and predictable long-term development financing, backed by support for peace and security.
Unfortunately, we’re still not very good at providing fragile states with either enough support or ensuring that sufficiently long term, and without a step change in our approach; its unlikely that the situation in South Sudan will be any different.
In the first few months of South Sudan’s newly acquired nationhood, the international community needs to make a concerted, co-ordinated commitment to support education with the creation of a consolidated pooled fund, with a specific funding stream for education and the development of an aid partnership with a guarantee of long term, predictable support.
Such an initiative will match the passion, commitment and promise of South Sudan’s people and lay the foundations for turning this fragile state into a human development success story.