South Sudan’s Road to Peace: High Stakes for Its Children

As South Sudan struggles to find a sustainable road to peace, attention should focus on the most vulnerable victims of the conflict: the nation’s children. The recent crisis has displaced half a million people within South Sudan and more than 110,000 have fled into neighboring states. A staggering 80 percent of those refugees are children.

The ongoing violence escalates an already troubling humanitarian situation. South Sudan is desperately poor with more than half its population living on less than $1.25 a day. Hunger is widespread, with approximately 4.4 million people—of which many are children—considered food insecure and requiring humanitarian assistance. But the conflict is not only denying children basic nutrition, it is also affecting their lives in other fundamental ways. Thousands of children and youth are out of school as a result. This is deeply worrying both because it both impacts South Sudan’s ability to prosper in the long term but also is more immediately damaging as it affects children’s ability to deal with the physical and psychosocial impacts of the conflict.

With one of the youngest populations in the world—more than 70 percent of its citizens are less than 30 years old—the future of South Sudan depends in large part on its ability to educate its children and youth and provide them an opportunity to break out of the cycle of poverty in which their families reside. Since the Comprehensive Peace Accords (CPA) in 2005, which established the Government of the Republic of South Sudan (GRSS) and paved the way for independence in 2011, some progress has been made in education. Recognizing the scale of the challenge, the GRSS has articulated a strong commitment to education and has developed an ambitious and comprehensive plan to improve its education system. From 2005 to 2010, South Sudan moved from a point where dramatically few of its children attended to school to one where enrollment increased 20 percent a year, bringing an additional 1.5 million children into the school system. These gains are considerable given the difficult circumstances of prolonged conflict and the challenges of building institutions and establishing a new nation state.

The task of educating South Sudan’s population remains formidable, however. South Sudan has some of the worst education indicators globally. Estimates suggest that around 1.3 million—approximately 50 percent—of primary school-age children are currently not in school. Out of 123 countries with comparable data, South Sudan ranks second to last in terms of providing children access primary school. At the secondary school level, the nation ranks last. The probability that a primary-age child living in South Sudan today will enroll in higher education is a dismal 1 percent. Moreover, many children who enroll in school never complete their education. Students leave school at high rates throughout primary and secondary school, with an average 26 percent of students dropping out at each grade level. Finally, the education challenge is not limited to the young. Sixty one percent of adult men are illiterate and a staggering 85 percent of women.

Girls, poor children and children living in pastoralist communities face particular challenges. Of all of the out-of–school children in South Sudan, approximately two-thirds are girls. In the country as a whole, less than 600 girls are enrolled in the last grade of secondary school.  Early marriage and other sociocultural practices act to inhibit education for girls and result in gender disparities. Approximately 70 percent of the 1.3 million out-of-school children in the country are from pastoralist families. Children from the wealthiest families are 32 percent more likely to begin primary school than their counterparts from the poorest families. Compounding the problem, children that are lucky enough to be in school learn very little. Estimates by the World Bank indicate that less than 8 percent of students tested in grade 6 were able to achieve higher than 50 percent on a basic mathematics test.

Turning the tide in education for South Sudan will require addressing a number of barriers. One key issue highlighted in this year’s EFA Global Monitoring Report is the availability and quality of teachers. The chronic shortage of qualified teachers is a serious challenge in South Sudan that directly impedes learning. The average ratio of students to teachers in the country is 50 to 1, reaching as high as 145 to 1 in the conflict-affected state of Jonglei. For trained teachers, the country average jumps to 113 to 1.  Female teachers, important to improving education for girls, represent just 12 percent of all teachers.  Recognizing the scale of the challenge, the government has focused on increasing the size of the teaching force. However, only around 40 percent of teachers in the country have been trained and many lack the support and qualifications necessary to provide quality learning.

The international community has shown great readiness to help this new nation develop and improve its education system. Committed donors have provided strong financial and technical assistance but support for education seems to be waning. Aid commitments to South Sudan were 1.4 billion in 2012/13, a slight increase from the previous year, with approximately 10 percent allocated to education. While aid to education grew around 16 percent from 2011 to 2012/13, estimates for 2014 indicate that education funding will be only be half of the 2011 levels.

Renewed commitment and continued support is needed to limit the impact of recent conflict and to prevent reversal of important development gains. South Sudan provides a particular challenge to the aid community requiring both humanitarian and development support.  Given the unique and fragile context, flexible financing and strong donor coordination will be needed. Pooled funds, used to enhance coordination and delivery among donors by aggregating resources and programming, have been utilized to improve the currently fragmented aid delivery to the country. The education sector could benefit more from these mechanisms, however. Only 5 percent of education aid is channeled through pooled funds compared to 21 percent for health. While proposals have been made and steps are underway to establish a pooled fund in education, the process has stalled since the start of the hostilities. Let’s hope the country’s renewed commitment to peace will also translate in renewed efforts on the part of the government and the international community to provide the nation’s children with the educational foundations for more prosperous lives.