e-South Sudan: The Battle to Connect a Country
Published on October 21, 2021
In 2011, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation after a referendum was held on its independence from Sudan. Although the vote was largely peaceful, South Sudan still struggles with many of the same problems that plague other new countries, including poor infrastructure and political instability. Following the peace agreement that ended its long civil war, South Sudan attempted to transform itself into a functioning democracy with an effective central government and connected citizens.
However, the country’s distance from the world’s foremost IT hubs, combined with limited resources and security concerns, has made it difficult to develop its digital sector in tandem with its traditional economy. While these challenges will undoubtedly impact the country’s ability to progress as an independent nation, they can also make it difficult to implement government initiatives on a national scale, especially those that rely on advanced technologies such as the Internet and social media platforms.
The challenges of a new country
Since independence, South Sudan has been struggling with poverty and civil war. Its economy is shattered, and many of its citizens lack access to even basic services. Its president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, has begun setting out an ambitious agenda for the country that includes moving government functions onto digital channels. His vision is shared by groups such as UNICEF and Digital Globe, which hope to use satellites and web services to help citizens access clean water, jobs and education online. But these development projects face several critical challenges. Data for 2020 indicate that South Sudan doesn’t have a national portal and backend systems automating core administrative tasks, which are fundamental in improving the availability of public services and promoting transparency and accountability within the public sector. But this is not the only problem.
When South Sudan officially gained its independence on July 9, 2011, it had one of Africa’s largest oil fields. But with so many internal challenges – including internal government corruption and the widespread civil war – South Sudan has been unable to provide consistent electricity or Internet connectivity for its citizens. More than 37% of the population don’t have access to electricity, which in rural areas is significantly lower (35%) than in urban areas (55%).
A low phone penetration level (45%) is also a significant structural barrier, specifically in rural areas and among women. Without consistent electricity, phone usage, or Internet connectivity, those who own mobile phones cannot access any governmental services online, which many other African countries have already achieved. Moreover, the low quality of the education and training system also creates significant challenges to the digitalization process.
According to the World Bank Human Capital Index 2018, South Sudan ranks in the bottom ten among the 157 countries. Different factors such as high repetition rates, teacher shortages and underperformance contribute to the poor quality of education in the country. In addition, there is a major shortage of technical skills where only a small part of students study science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This represents a significant constraint to taking advantage of digitization happening globally. According to the EGDI index, South Sudan ranks last compared to all 193 other countries analyzed.
South Sudan’s Digital Future
In order for South Sudan to achieve its full potential, it’s going to need a strong government commitment—and large amounts of money. While both may be in short supply for quite some time, it is achievable. The goal of e-Sudan is to make state services accessible through technology and open data. This will give citizens all over South Sudan access to education records, health reports, and other documents that are vital but often difficult or impossible for people living outside urban areas to access without travel.
For many developing countries, technology and legacy are both the greatest opportunities and challenges at the same time. However, for South Sudan, there is no pre-existing infrastructure on which to build. This makes it easier to start building from scratch the digital government that the new country needs. In order for technology to be effective, its government needs physical and digital connections between countries and within cities so that it can meet both regional and international standards.
To conclude, the government needs to address the ongoing instability and conflict; structural barriers (poor network coverage and limited access to electricity); socioeconomic barriers (chronic underdevelopment and low literacy rates); and, to a lesser extent, behavioural barriers (lack of knowledge of available services.)
Considering South Sudan’s sheer size and the vast number of citizens, digital government is far from being an easy task. A cohesive e-governance plan that takes into account all layers of political bureaucracy will need strong leadership and support. This mission won’t be easily achieved, but with careful planning—which is where e-government starts—and by prioritizing access for all segments of society, South Sudan has every chance of forging ahead in its quest for inclusive ICTs.
About the Author
Mohammad J Sear is focused on bringing purpose to digital in government.
He has obtained his leadership training from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, USA and holds an MBA from the University of Leicester, UK.
After a successful 12+ years career in the UK government during the premiership of three Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, Mohammad moved to the private sector and has now for 20+ years been advising government organizations in the UK, Middle East, Australasia and South Asia on strategic challenges and digital transformation.
He is currently working for Ernst & Young (EY) and leading the Digital Government practice efforts across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and is also a Digital Government and Innovation lecturer at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po, France.
As a thought-leader some of the articles he has authored include: “Digital is great but exclusion isn’t – make data work for driving better digital inclusion” published in Harvard Business Review, “Holistic Digital Government” published in the MIT Technology Review, “Want To Make Citizens Happy – Put Experience First” published in Forbes Middle East.
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