I approached Juba with trepidation. In the few years since I last came it has become the capital of the world's youngest country and everyone that visits keeps telling me how quickly it is changing.It was also the city chosen by the African Union to commemorate World AIDS Day earlier this month.
It only took the few kilometres from the airport to my hotel to notice that where previously you would see dozens of military men and checkpoints you now had policemen in impeccable white uniforms. A multitude of hotels, restaurants and bars has popped up to cater to the needs of UN and NGO officials. Each one that I visited was owned and staffed by foreigners from neighbouring countries - Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia - all of which aided South Sudan in the struggle for liberation. No doubt the relative peace and stability, however fragile, have attracted foreign investment to this unrecognisable city.
Day one was marked by a visit to the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) which has spent a lifetime in the bush fighting for independence. Uniformed services have a significantly higher prevalence of HIV in South Sudan than the general population and we were there to discuss a programme to support their access to HIV services. We were received by the newly appointed Minister of Defence and SPLA Affairs, General Kuol Manyang Juuk. He has the reputation of being one of the toughest commanders in the liberation struggle and I had no idea what to expect. To my surprise he immediately acknowledged the significant problem that HIV represented and confessed that even though it was a stated priority of his government he knew he had not done enough about it in his previous role as Jonglei State Governor. He was also sceptical as to what we might have to offer that would protect soldiers whose perception of risk and whose value of today versus an uncertain tomorrow has been shaped by years of fighting.
Day two was dedicated to meeting with the health authorities of South Sudan and the very nascent community based organisations (CBOs) involved in the AIDS response, and day three to meeting with international donors. The two days painted a consistent picture: a very medicalised HIV response delivered almost exclusively through UN agencies like UNDP and UNICEF and international NGOs, with very little money and effort going into building government institutions and none at all going into building the vibrant civil society that this new country desperately needs.
Even the Global Fund, built on the principle of 'national ownership', is caught in this trap: not one South Sudanese pound from HIV funding to the country was invested in local civil society this year. The vision and the symbolism of the Alliance for Community Health Initiatives (ACHI) - a local CBO and our independent linking organisation in South Sudan which has been seven years in the making - is radical due to its rarity in the world's youngest country.
The HIV conversation that took me to Juba was overshadowed on day two by a much louder conversation and a sense of crisis: a 50% devaluation of the South Sudanese pound had been announced. A public outcry followed, the government backtracked and the governor of the Central Bank was summoned by Parliament to explain. International partners were outraged as this had been agreed as a critical step in the overall cooperation framework.
The African Union chose South Sudan to deliver its message to mark World AIDS Day on December 1st. It was a message that put African responsibility at the centre of the HIV response and the necessary global solidarity in the background. It didn't quite acknowledge that strengthening civil society is not a luxury but a necessary part of nation building.
What this country needs, what this HIV response needs, is hard work, respect, trust and investment in a cadre of old and young South Sudanese leaders - those who stayed, those who left and have come back - to rebuild the country's government, private sector and an empowered civil society. I'm proud that we are doing that through supporting ACHI, and through them in turn a group of nascent community based organisations. But this needs to become the norm, not the exception. Other strategies might seem less risky in the short term, but we know they don't work in the long run. As a brilliant colleague from the ministry of health told me during the visit: "peace and stability, they are challenging... but independence? Ah that's a much longer battle".