In May this year a group of South Sudanese Australians in Sydney founded the NSW South Sudan Diaspora Network (SSDN). They came up with the network to pull resources together, with the aim of increasing the capacity of South Sudanese diaspora groups in NSW to achieve their goals for change in South Sudan.

“There are people among us who are running projects already,” says Atem Atem, a member of the SSDN Secretariat, “so at one level we are creating opportunities for our members to learn about projects… We started to learn about the projects we are already doing, or planning to do, in South Sudan.”

Atem Atem attended South Sudan workshop series run by HCH and Oxfam Australia earlier this year which delivered training on organisation and management of projects and funding strategies. Both Sydney and Melbourne events were widely attended by people either running or seeking to start development projects in South Sudan. Atem and his Sydney group decided it was a good idea to keep up the networking that these workshops enabled, and soon began developing the SSDN.

Atem insists that the aim of the network was not to take over anyone else’s project, but to enable the sharing of information and skills between South Sudanese people in NSW. “We decided we were not going to be running projects ourselves because all our members are already running their own organisations.” Through this networking, however, he hopes diaspora organisations will maximise the capacity of their own projects and come to have more of a voice in Australian government policy on South Sudan.

The role of diaspora, Atem believes, is a critical one. “One of the things that was talked about [at the workshops] was the fact that there was a need for voices from diaspora people”, Atem says. “There’s all this money that is put into aid”, he says, citing government organisations and NGOs, but points out that in some cases, “They haven’t got staff that know the local language, know the local culture, know the people…” With the network he is seeking to improve communication and coordination between NGOs and government, and diaspora people. “Because, you know,” he explains, “we come from there, we know what’s happening there, we get the inside information; though we are here, we get information that AusAID may not necessarily get, that NGOs may not know of.”

Growing an organisation like this is difficult though, according to Atem: “There is a bit of cynicism in the community… People treat it as just another organisation – like, we have dozens and dozens of them so there’s a sense that oh, this is another one.” He stresses that by joining the SSDN members will not be giving up control of their own projects, but rather enhancing their capabilities. “We need to be really clear about what sort of organisation it is.” He lists information sharing, advocacy and learning about the activities of others in the South Sudanese diaspora community as the main aims of his network. “But that’s all it is”, he says.

He also notes the difficulties facing aid and development projects for South Sudan, including political instability and tribal warfare. “You see people are thinking of putting up schools or building hospitals or things like that, and there’s a lot of fear about okay, if we do something like that… will that be blown up by someone tomorrow?” On the political side of things, Atem believes constitutional reform is a necessary step. “The constitution of South Sudan gives so much power to the president that the president can literally do anything. And they are talking about constitutional reform – they have been talking about that for the last one year or so, and they have a whole committee that they have put in place to help that process but it’s slow, I don’t know how effective it is.” According to Atem the idea of national identity can also be problematic for South Sudan, being such a new country. “For anybody to think of what South Sudanese is, there’s a gap there.”

Using this inside knowledge from South Sudanese people in Australia may be key to building the potential of development projects, whether they are run by diaspora organisations or by others. Atem hopes the SSDN will help to overcome some of the barriers to dialogue that currently exist between diaspora and both government and non-government aid organisations. “The problem of capacity, I feel, is a big thing”, he says. “I know a few [South Sudanese] people who have finished uni, they have degrees but they go and work in the factories. There is this capacity here that is being wasted.”

South Sudanese people, he says, do not necessarily understand how to make the most of their qualifications in the Australian job market – they may not be comfortable with things like networking and knowing how to apply their skills to different fields, which can be crucial for graduates. “So if we can map these skills and who have them and whatever, we can lobby governments and NGOs and say, we have people who have these skills; they can go and live in South Sudan. Is there a way of finding jobs for them in South Sudan so they can go and really be useful?”

The SSDN, Atem says, will be a way for organisations to work together so the capacity that exists can be harnessed where it is most needed. He hopes also that better communication can help to prevent wasteful overlap. “Because there is no point in our coming up with an organisation like this if there was already a network doing the same thing.” He envisions that the network will bring together people interested in similar areas to learn about each other’s activities and access the skills and funds available. “So that can help cut out a lot of unnecessary things”, he says. “If we can put these things together we can have all those resources at our hands.”

After the workshops, Atem says he had the idea to “see if there’s an interest to do something that can help us help ourselves.” They helped bring to his mind the most pertinent questions to preside over the issue: Could we be of help to them? Could they be of help to us? These questions, perhaps, best encapsulate the idea of the SSDN and what it aims to achieve.

For further information about the SSDN, contact Atem Atem at atematem2020@gmail.com.


Posted by: Sarah Thomson