KAPOETA, Sudan | The power lines, electricity poles and street lamps that dot the red-dirt roads of the southern Sudanese town of Kapoeta seem out of place next to the rusting tanks and shot-up buildings.
The electrification project, which was funded by U.S. government aid, is one sign that the U.S. is intent on helping bring development and stability to what soon will be Africa’s newest country.
In the barren scrubland of Eastern Equatoria state, where the U.S. has just funded the electrification project in Kapoeta, seminomadic herders from the Toposa tribe carry spears and automatic rifles for protection and wear leopard skins and feather headdresses for celebrations.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) spent $1.1 billion in Sudan and eastern Chad in fiscal 2009. More USAID workers are being sent to southern Sudan, where most people live on less than $1 day and just 15 percent of the population can read. Quality health care is almost nonexistent.
U.S. and southern government officials hope electricity will boost the area’s economy, improve security and quality of life and attract investors to the area’s gold and copper reserves. Herders in this Wild West-like hinterland struggle to keep their cattle alive during the months of near drought in one of the most arid and bleak expanses in southern Sudan.
The Kapoeta project is just one of many initiatives USAID has launched in the region. One of its top projects is the funding of a $200 million highway from Uganda to Juba, the southern capital.
Other USAID programs are designed to improve the skills of southern leaders in areas including budgeting and managing social-welfare programs. Many of the south’s leaders are former rebels whose decades of fighting means they are more accustomed to planning ambushes than to accounting.
The influx of aid money - coupled withsouthern Sudan’s oil revenues - means “there’s a threat and an opportunity at the same time,” said James Shikwati, an economist from neighboring Kenya. Funding infrastructure helps improve regional links and provides people with the economic independence to start participating in political life, he said.
“Southern Sudan is likely to have a problem similar to what many countries have experienced: the emergence of an elite class that serves the interests of the donor countries and not the needs of the people. There may also be donors who want to ensure access to the region’s natural resources,” he said.
Other donors funding projects in southern Sudan include the European Union and China - which also has a hand in the region’s oil fields - although the U.S. has spent more money in Sudan over the past decade than any other donor. The Kapoeta project took three years and $4 million to complete.
USAID funded the project in Kapoeta because it’s a strategic trade center near the border with Kenya.