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Spotlight on the Start Fund

Mitigating conflict in Eastern Equatoria

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At the best of times, the movement of internally displaced people into a host community can strain already scarce resources and create tensions. By involving both the Dinka IDP and Madi host communities in decision-making about aid delivery, Plan’s approach achieved peaceful co-existence despite the context of widespread ethnic disputes currently affecting South Sudan.

Violence erupted in South Sudan on December 15, 2013, after a National Liberation Council meeting failed to reconcile two opposing camps in the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The initial political crisis within the SPLM spilled over into an armed conflict combining historical rivalries and ethnic confrontations.

The largest of all ethnic groups in South Sudan, the Dinka, make up almost a quarter of South Sudan’s population. The Nuer is the second largest ethnic group, followed by the Murle, Luo, Acholi, Bari and Madi, amongst others – in total over 60 recognised ethnic groups.

The Start Fund was alerted on April 1 to a spike in the conflict, triggered by the start of the rainy season and the impending food crisis. According to OCHA’s response plan, 3.7 million people were in acute and emergency phases of food insecurity already by February. Plan UK was one of four agencies awarded a Start Fund grant, in this case to deliver lifesaving assistance to people affected by the crisis in Melijo IDP camp and Nimule town in Eastern Equatoria.

The Dinka and Madi communities

The IDPs in Melijo camp are Dinka, cattle breeders from the Bor County of Jonglei State. The indigenous groups inhabiting Nimule are Madi and Murle, traditionally farmers and known for being peaceful.

Peaceful co-existence, however, has been the exception and not the rule. The Madis perceive the Dinkas to be aggressive and arrogant, and the Dinkas hold underlying views that the Murle and Madi did not contribute enough to the war effort for independence from Sudan. At the heart of the divide are their competing livelihoods: Madi farmers have complained about the damaged caused by Dinka cattle, which run freely on their agricultural land. For Dinkas, on the other hand, cattle are extremely valued. Marriages and land are negotiated in cows, and Dinka babies are even named for the colours or distinctive features of their cattle.

The Dinka IDPs live in makeshift camps, dwellings which they have made themselves with bamboo, clay and bits and pieces of plastic sheeting. They are living in the bush on the outskirts of Nimule. The journey to Melijo takes more than an hour, even though it is only a 12 km journey.

High needs but limited aid

Plan has been accompanying the Dinka since their arrival to Nimule in January 2014. Staff have helped to facilitate communications between local authorities, the indigenous Madi and the IDPs in order to obtain land for the settlement of the Dinka on Nimule land.

On May 4th, Plan held one of many discussions with the Dinka living in Melijo camp. It was facilitated by the chief of the community and IDP representatives, including women, children and elders. They explained that they were in dire need of food and clean water. For months past, they had not received any food assistance. They left their homes without any assets and struggled to feed themselves, resorting to collecting wild fruits from the bush and fish from the nearby river, which is also the source of their drinking water. To get water women and children, some as small as five years old walk for an hour and a half each day.

Similarly, vulnerable households within the Madi and Murle communities are suffering from the national crisis. Their resources are drastically overstretched, hosting families and relatives in their homes for long periods with no solution in sight. They are also food insecure due to displacement and violence, causing large-scale abandonment of assets and interrupting their agricultural food production. Access to water has been seriously affected by the influx of IDPs, as well, congesting water points and latrines and increasing the risk of water borne diseases.

When Plan’s Start Fund project arrived with badly needed supplies, needs were high for both the 900 Dinka IDP families in Melijo and vulnerable Madi households in Nimule, but supplies were limited. Given the history of ethnic divide, there were high risks of conflict due to limited aid. Plan decided to address this directly by convening discussions between the two groups.

A community-driven solution

Working with chiefs from both the Dinka and Madi communities, Plan’s staff explained the project’s aims, the amount of assistance available and the importance of maintaining peaceful relations. The mediation led to a workable solution: for the first time, Dinkas agreed to share 10% of the aid with vulnerable Madi families, as a token of gratitude for temporarily allowing them refuge on their land. This was offered even though there would not be enough aid for every Dinka family.

Given the ethnic disputes currently affecting the country, achieving compromise and peaceful coexistence was considered one of the key unintended successes of the Start Fund project that Plan will strive to replicate. Sensitisation of community leaders not only improved relations between the host and IDP communities but also improved implementation. By empowering the affected communities to make difficult decisions about aid, Plan’s Start Fund project was able to mitigate conflict between the two vulnerable groups while providing lifesaving assistance to the most vulnerable.

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