South Sudan: How to End Economic Domination by Foreigners

By: Michael Abraha, JUBA, NOV/01/2014, SSN;

The October 15 deadline to recall expats from foreign companies and NGOs and replace them with qualified South Sudanese nationals passed inconsequentially. The plan was to implement a foreign-worker ministerial decree within one month beginning September 16. It would, by and large, have been enforceable in most instances if enough local and diaspora professionals were prepared to take over under such a short notice.

As the country remained immersed in a bloody civil war, President Salva Kiir’s government hoped the move would appeal to a disenchanted youth and frustrated diasporans. The decree, apparently, the third of its kind since independence in 2011, was “prematurely released,” according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Surprisingly, it provoked a very welcome outcry from foreign businesses and aid agencies that have reacted like frightened horses.

Selective Critique

Reflecting foreign business interests, Kenya’s Daily Nation describes the labor decree as “myopic”, inspired by “populist politics.” BBC quotes an expert with NKC Independent Economists as saying that “the South Sudanese are ungrateful for all that their neighbors have done to build up the country.”

Nairobi based Institute for Security Studies warns against South Sudanese “threats and discrimination against foreign workers”. Aid agencies opposed the idea of removing foreign workers fearing that it would hamper humanitarian work.

There is little or no foreign sympathy toward the embattled Juba government which is blamed for mismanaging the economy and for failing to unify the country and end a bloody 10-month old civil war triggered by political rivalry between President Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar. The civil strife has brought half of the nation’s 11 million people face to face with hunger and starvation.

The current conflict is preceded by the squandering of 4-billion US dollars in a corruption scandal over an unspecified period of time enriching greedy officials instead of spending it on education, health care and job creation.

Since independence, no investment of any significance has been made for human development preparing nationals to work in infrastructure projects, manufacturing and service industries and agriculture.

Nor has the government used any of its oil money to establish a favorable business environment by improving road conditions or providing access to power.

Still, there was no need for the angry criticisms to be one-sided calling the edict as xenophobic while insisting on an extended presence of a foreign labor force because of low average standard of education in the country with 25 percent literacy rate.

This of course does not prove the country is unable to produce enough skilled and unskilled workers to meet national needs.

What is indefensible is the fact that the Western press and concerned NGOs wanted not to involve the opinions of journalists and civil society leaders in the debate. At the same time, they unscrupulously opted to portray foreign companies, NGOs and UN agencies and their foreign workers as altruistic, philanthropic souls uninterested and unwilling to exploit and profit from fragile, conflict ridden South Sudan, be it in amassing wealth or career enhancement.

This war-ravaged nation has immense, untapped opportunities which should benefit the investor and the host country fairly and evenly.

Foreign businesses and investors have a key role to play in building a peaceful and stable South Sudan by making honest tax payments as well as participating in job training projects and hiring locals for well-paying jobs.

A Sudan Tribune report estimates up to 60 percent of the nation’s salaried workforce is made up of foreigners although The Economist puts the figure at 25 percent; still very high.

It was no surprise therefore that some institutions and businesses are “100 percent foreign” according to Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin who stressed in a Reuter’s interview in September the necessity to give jobs to citizens where there was capacity.

Why Urgent Labor Policy Change?

Opponents of the proposed foreign-worker guidelines do not seem to have looked at the recruitment methods of foreign companies and aid agencies which appear to make no satisfactory effort in search of skilled South Sudanese workers locally and in the diaspora.

I have lived in South Sudan for over two years as journalist and media consultant and here are some of my observations about real employment quandaries:

* -South Sudanese national James Bol (not his real name to protect his privacy) holds a Master’s Degree in management from an American University. 32-year old Bol had been looking for a job for 8 months since he returned to the homeland in early 2013. He came back after 13 years in the US where he went to school and worked as Human Resources specialist in New York State. We shared a housing compound in Juba where I tried to help him in researching addresses of NGOs, UN agencies and foreign businesses. His endeavors ended in disappointing results. Most government branches were neither hiring nor able to pay enough for his qualifications. Penniless and heartbroken, Bol, a Dinka, and his new Nuer bride returned to the U.S. having failed to secure employment in his new homeland.

* -John Deng (not his real name) is another well-educated, skilled worker among thousands of other competent diaspora professionals. Deng returned from neighboring Uganda after many years in exile. He holds BA degree in business administration from a Ugandan university. After a long wait without employment, Deng joined one of the leading foreign service businesses in Juba, which reluctantly hired him at a managerial level at a monthly salary of 1/3 of what it paid a foreign manager with much less education and qualification than his.
The company was in clear violation of a 2012 government circular requiring “equal pay for equal work.” Though aware of the company’s discriminatory practices, neither the Juba County Labor Office nor the National Ministry of Labor intervened to end the illegal salary disparity which hurts the dignity and human rights of South Sudanese workers.
Deng, with a wife and three young kids, had no choice but to take the job having wasted too much time without employment. In less than a week, Deng mastered all that was required by his new managerial position to the satisfaction of the general manager. Indeed, the company’s estimated one dozen senior and mid-level management posts were filled by foreign workers in the same way with a week or two of paid job training.

* -And finally, there is one of the many UN agencies (which will remain nameless) in the heart of Juba. This agency’s newly promoted Country Representative seems to reserve all managerial posts for foreigners without considering whether local or diaspora skills were available. He is no doubt protected by his agency’s contract with the government and does not have to worry about South Sudan’s 1997 Labor Law which the authorities appear to lack the capacity to implement.

My observation was that none of the high paying 5 to 6 foreign held managerial posts at this UN agency including that of the Country Representative would have been too difficult for competent South Sudanese nationals to fulfill. All that would be required was to go through short-term job training and orientation programs. The agency appeared not interested in such a plan as there was no legal obligation to do so. Thus locals ended up serving mainly as drivers, kitchen workers and office or toilet cleaners while foreigners had all the profitable jobs.

Responsible Foreign Investment

Despite its diminishing popularity following the outbreak of violence in December 2013, President Kiir’s government declared last month that foreign companies and aid agencies were obliged to hire competent locals as part of a plan to create jobs and repair the economy in a country which gained its independence only three years ago after 50 years of devastating liberation struggle sacrificing 2.5 million lives.

The government welcomes responsible foreign investors who will not only work to benefit themselves but the country as well through augmentation of national revenue and creation of jobs.

The plan is for the country not to become just a market for foreign businesses and traders to sell their goods and services without the participation of locals in the production and distribution of those goods and services.

Evidently, no economic growth and stability can be achieved without the introduction of a comprehensive legal structure, which, inter alia, guarantees workers’ rights and formation of independent labor unions and establishes supervisory labor offices. The time for change is now.

Michael Abraha is Juba based freelance journalist and former Chief Editor of South Sudan’s Pioneer newspaper.


  1. False Millionaire says:

    Dearest Mr Micheal:

    It gives great pleasure to see u open the debate.I suppose people like u n me are adults with concrete life experiences behind.We have the natural cases of mothers who carry childern in their wombs,who give them birth,who breast feed them,who raise them n who sacrifice themselves in every ways to be sure their childern get everything they need.Even for most hopeless n stupid childern the mothers never shorten to be there for them.But things stop there.Adults like us can only thank the mothers.That’s all n must never dream of such generous treatment to come from any one that is not one’s own mother.It’s not too difficult to understand that human life is exactly like in the jungle n every one must struggle for one’s own interests.Being the case,the foreign investors in RSS had worked for their capital before coming to invest it.Whom to hire or whom not to hire is their free choice.In fact they are under pressure to reap benefits n never suffer loses.That is business n is normal.They are the only ones doing the good job to make the country running.They do not deserve criticism for not employing our nationals.Go to New York n u will see China town.Go to Paris n you will find a great mixture of chines,jews,armenians,lebananes,turks n north african arabs running a significant part of french economy in the basis of private sector.If the rules of engagement are respected,every ones effort is a bit of a force that can move a country n society forward.In our case,criticism goes to our government.

    Sincerely speaking,there are many among us who are confirmed professional workers n our criticism of the government is not without basis.Such projects as infrastructure,education n health care are in deep sleep.These are the economic n employment backbones for our country n the society.With construction of roads,schools n hospitals among others,our highly educated elite who are jobless today would be the ones executing such projects.There would even be a need for foreign labor becouse the amount of work that is needed in RSS to make it a viable state is too enormous n our qualified citizens to do it would be too few in numbers.The NGOs operating in our country today give themselves the right to be arrogant n refuse to employ our nationals becouse they know so well that we have been,we are n we will be dependent on their services for a very long time.Thesame government that has failed the country is taken hostage by the NGOs now.In true truth the NGOs:in providing the meager services to the citizens n the country,this ought to have given them the impression to have taken the place of the government n that the government has become irrelevant.So everything that they do even if wrong is out of a free hand n that the government is too-wrong footed to do anything about it.

    The majority of our citizens are in the country side.Every one of them is self dependent n never in need to be employed by any one.They are either farmers,fishermen,forest hunters or cattle rearers.They are the greatest potential that can be transformed into self employed private sector workers.They produce now on the basis of subsistence but never on the scale of commercial out puts.Why?Becouse the government has not provided conducive conditions that would compel them to feel obliged to do so.Today the government does not pay salaries on time every where where there are government employees.So even if a farmer has reaped his harvest for example,he could not take it to the market becouse he knows people would not have money to buy it.But even if the salary is paid n that there is money for buying goods in the market,the lack of good road network is an obstacle to the farmer n he could not transport his goods to the market.As a result he is obliged to produce in small quantity for his consumption with his family in the country side.But if he is in need of money for example,he is forced to come to town to ask for help from an urban relative.If he doesn’t have one,he is compelled to work as a minor worker in the private business establishments of our foreign investors.This is the clear situation we are facing.But grave as it is,this situation in reality is not a fatality at all.There is a solution to it.The most simple way in our thinking is approaching it the way we view it as in this dispatch.But unfortunately this can only be done by people running the government.I hope we could interest ourselves to think about it togather.

  2. john jackson says:

    Of course such are the consequences when p’ple look at each other as enemies and coz the results are not always good. Equatorians look at Dinkas as exploiters and they always collaborate with foreigners hoping 4 a favor over the other s sudanese, but they are always dumped with nothing but with enslavement.Christ will solve your problems no human being on earth that can do it.

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