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How not to Screw up South Sudan

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On Saturday the international community celebrates the birth of a nation, South Sudan. Credit goes to the UK government for its role as conscientious midwife in the long gestation of the world's newest nation. It has been a remarkable journey: from decades of wholesale ethnic cleansing of the non-Arab South by the mainly Arab North, to protracted peace talks, to a wobbly cease fire, to a joyous and near unanimous referendum of southern citizens, and finally to independence. British officials and politicians have been in attendance throughout, nudging the parties involved to abide by their commitments.

But what of the infancy and childhood of this newborn nation? We need a "well-baby" check list of policies we might consider, if we care about the health and prospects of South Sudan, or indeed any country in this volatile region. This is not to single out the UK, which has a relatively honourable track record: these suggestions apply to every industrialised country involved in the fate of so-called developing nations.

First, let's not prop up bandits and tyrants with 'hear-no-evil-see-no-evil' aid programmes. African citizens deserve the best of their governments, and we owe it to them not to look away when corruption or tribalism marginalise some ethnic groups. That means not over-praising what might be third rate delivery of justice, accountability and services. It is patronising to Africans to hold their politicians to lesser standards than we hold our own. If we judge the performance of the state in Europe to be inadequate because a region or social class is neglected, then the same standards should apply in Nigeria or Kenya.

Let's practice some joined up government of our own. Consider a scene from a novel by Elsbeth Huxley, written before the First World War, during Britain's colonial rule of Kenya. A white farmer is having a dinner party, and she goes around the table, asking her guests, one by one, why they came to Africa. To paraphrase their responses, they say either, "I'm here to take their natural resources," or, "I'm here to save their souls."

Not that much has changed. We can't decide whether we wish to screw Africa or save it.
So let the developed, industrialised world make a pledge not to dump our surplus agricultural production on African markets, thereby destroying their local producers. And let's stop averting our eyes when our companies practice lax policies on sourcing minerals from conflict zones.

Let's not bankroll dubious regimes who say they're on our side in the war on terror, just as we did during the Cold War, knowing they'll spend any aid or loans we give them building luxury offices for their elite or soccer stadiums or elaborate and environmentally harmful power generation projects, rather than delivering clean water to rural villages and paying their teachers and doctors.

Let's not offer bribes, sweeteners and finance packages so they can buy our military equipment, while their citizens still live in Stone Age conditions. Let's not offer our world-class training services to their security forces so they can terrorise their own citizens into submission with brutal efficiency. If we have to sell weapons, let's make sure our clients don't re-export them to dodgy regimes (note to the UK: let's bring our own law into line with arms export legislation in the USA, Germany and France).

Just because we aren't perfect, let's not selectively ignore human rights abuses, or the perpetuation of harmful traditional practices. If that smacks of inconsistency and hypocrisy, then let's strive to do the right thing as often as we can, and to abide by the international conventions we have signed.

All the while, let's stop pretending we don't dictate the terms of our aid. Instead of listening to the well-padded ruling elite, let's consult the plethora of worthy and brave local civil society groups about their development priorities. They often have a much better idea how aid can transform lives than their remote and cosseted politicians.

Let's not repeat the international community's mistakes in Sudan where we rewarded the Khartoum regime, despite its campaign of ethnic cleansing against its own people. Let's not bow to threats of violence when Khartoum pulls back from the brink. Most recently the rulers of what will become North Sudan have been hunting its non-Arab citizens from helicopter gunships, as if they were animals. Instead of punishing them for their unhesitating cruelty, we have been grateful to them for not going further. If a government signs on to international conventions, or if it agrees to a peace deal, then it should be held to its word. Let's apply that to ourselves, too.

Most importantly, let's not lose interest.

Rebecca Tinsley is the founder of the human rights group, Waging Peace. Her novel about Sudan, "When the Stars Fall to Earth" is available on www.Amazon.com