Helping world’s youngest country to grow strong

Sandy Biggar. Picture: Toby Williams
Sandy Biggar. Picture: Toby Williams
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BLIGHTED by droughts and flooding, internal fighting has forced hundreds of thousands of people out of their homes.

South Sudan – born in 2011 and the youngest country in the world – is the same size as France but it has fewer than 200 miles of paved road.

And of its ten million-strong population, the United Nations estimates that around half are in need of humanitarian assistance – roughly equivalent to the population of Scotland.

Which is where Scotland comes in.

Sandy Biggar, 34, lives in Inverleith, but often finds himself in some of the least hospitable places on earth, most recently the world’s newest country.

Working with city-based aid agency Mercy Corps, he is on the frontline of stories which rarely make the front pages, witness to struggles and hardships which are impossible to 

“One woman held up a Coke bottle full of dirty water and said that was the only thing she had time to grab before she left,” he recalls from his last trip to the central African 

“She had two children aged seven and nine and hadn’t seen them since, for two months. She didn’t know whether they were alive or dead.

“I deal with these issues on a day-to-day basis. But it’s still shocking to me to hear the individual stories. Even though the impact could only be on one family, you really see what it means.

“If you multiply that by many displaced households you realise the scale of the problem.”

Sandy, who started his post at Mercy Corps last summer after several years in a similar role for Save the Children, is no stranger to difficult situations in war-torn or crisis-hit countries.

In his previous job, he worked in Haiti, Mongolia, Indian Kashmir, Kenya and Afghanistan.

Humanitarian support may not sound like the obvious career choice for someone who studied Latin as their undergraduate degree. But the St Andrews University graduate says the knowledge of Latin has actually helped him when he is learning the basics of other languages in the countries he visits. After he graduated, he taught Latin in the UK, before following his dream and teaching in Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa.

“I think I was always interested in doing this,” he says. “It enables you to engage with different people in different countries.

“Even if you go somewhere that could be considered quite touristy, like Kenya, you end up going somewhere like Dadaab, the biggest refugee camp in the world.”

He adds: “You can be flying into Kenya and sitting next to tourists, but as soon as you get off the plane, your fellow passengers change to aid workers.”

His short ten-day trip to South Sudan – the most recent of many – focused on drafting a funding proposal to the European Commission for food security support.

He was mainly in the capital Juba and Malualkon in the north-west, where he met community elders, women’s groups and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to help gauge the needs of local residents.

The problems in the country are complex. As well as facing chronic under-development, South Sudan has been the scene of bloody conflict between government troops and rebel factions, particularly in Unity State and Jonglei State, since December.

Despite the two sides signing a ceasefire agreement in January, sporadic fighting has continued. About 950,000 have fled their homes since the fighting began and are dispersed in remote areas across the country which are seen to be safer. Another 250,000 refugees have moved across the border to Uganda or Ethiopia.

Coupled with this are the constant threats of droughts and flooding, which destroy the crops of the country’s many farms and lead to food shortages.

The extreme conditions led Valerie Amos, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs, to raise the national emergency category to three. The escalation puts the country in the same rating as crisis-hit Syria and the Central African Republic.

Sandy says that despite the dire situation, the strength of the South Sudanese people is inspirational.

“We talk a lot about resilience in the work that we do, in South Sudan, Somalia and Kenya. If you put me or my family or a group of people from Edinburgh in a situation like that, they would fare a lot worse.

“It’s not right that they should be, but the people there are more 

Sandy, whose extensive remit covers East and Southern Africa, says the stories on his most recent trip were humbling, particularly those of IDPs who fled from their homes during the conflict.

Getting there in the first place to hear the stories, however, can often be one of the biggest hurdles. Even simple logistics, such as travel, can be difficult in under-developed countries such as South Sudan.

With so few miles of paved road, South Sudan’s geography is a particular challenge to navigate. Due to the terrain and the distance, Sandy had to fly in a single propeller plane, subsidised by the UN, from Juba to Malualkon.

And during the rainy season from April to September, some projects have to be abandoned or postponed because the black cotton soil on the ground is so slippy that planes cannot even land.

“Then you’re stuck and it becomes very difficult to deliver projects. We have to plan ahead and moving goods can be impossible during the floods, so you sometimes do it quickly before the rains come.”

Another challenge is the lack of statistics about the population in South Sudan, information which is often a big help to aid agencies.

“In a country that’s so young and has been so fractured for so many years, census data doesn’t exist.

“It’s not as easy as it could be.”

Despite the valuable support Mercy Corps provides to countries like South Sudan, Sandy insists that he and his colleagues are “not do-gooders”.

“Mercy Corps looks for durable, sustainable solutions to these problems. One of the large thrusts that we have is working to improve markets, and transitional humanitarian development.”

By working with communities to develop food markets, the agency tries to empower locals to transform their own lives with the right resources and take on the responsibility after Mercy Corps leaves.

“We try and make linkages between smallholding farmers, traders, governments and local authorities so it’s easier for us to stand back,” he says.

“We take into account the capacity that exists on the ground in the communities, to improve the situation.

“It’s not just a case of us coming in and dishing out, we don’t like to do the more traditional distribution strategy.

“We look at why the local markets are not working, and try and make sure they are more efficient.”

He adds: “We are in the business of saving lives on a day-to-day basis, having an exit strategy. It’s been going on for years in many parts of the world, so there are lots of lessons that we have learned.

“Our work is much more nuanced and sophisticated. We are not just do-gooders handing out this and that. It’s working in a very complex environment with security constraints to take into account.

“Taking a community-led development approach, I feel like it’s smart. It’s a strong team.”

In South Sudan, there is a 100-strong team of people, mostly made up of locals; only four or five are international staff.

Mercy Corps, which co-ordinates much of its work from its European headquarters in Sciennes relies on funding for specific projects from governments and grants, but donations from the public are also helpful as they allow the team to be more innovative.

It has a network of experienced professionals in more than 40 countries – each with a team made up of a director and a number of other individuals who drive the programmes.

Throughout its 34-year history, its work has improved around 170 million lives in more than 115 countries, and the people in Edinburgh have been a constant support.

Sandy says despite the harrowing tales of loss and displacement which he deals with, the work is still rewarding. “It can be frustrating, exciting and boring, in equal measures and even on one day,” he says.

“But it’s been a privilege.”

• The Nomads Tent tribal arts bazaar on St Leonard’s Lane has just completed a month-long series of events, raising more than £15,000 for the agency. To donate, visit, call 0131 662 5173 or send a cheque to Mercy Corps, 40 Sciennes, Edinburgh, EH9 1NJ.

Tens of thousands flee their homes

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011, as the outcome of a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war.

An overwhelming majority – 99 per cent – of South Sudanese people voted in a referendum to secede and become Africa’s first new country since Eritrea split from Ethiopia in the early 1990s.

But the young state plunged into crisis in December last year amid a power struggle between the president Salva Kiir and those loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar, whom he had sacked.

Fighting erupted, and within weeks the conflict had killed thousands and prompted tens of thousands to flee their homes.

The political disagreement also had an ethnic dimension; President Kiir is a member of South Sudan’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka, while Mr Machar is from the Nuer community – the second largest.

A ceasefire was called in January, but sporadic fighting has continued.

Continuing disputes with the Khartoum government in Sudan, rivalries within the governing party, and a lack of economic development have made South Sudan’s immediate future look bleak.

Syrian refugee crisis a huge challenge

MERCY Corps is heavily involved in the ongoing Syrian crisis, as the war there enters its fourth year.

The team is helping more than two million people in the country and in neighbouring areas.

Millions of Syrians are on the move with many of them fleeing to countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt, where their presence strains local economies and stretches limited natural resources.

More than six million Syrians are displaced within the country, and the UN estimates that the refugee population could reach more than four million by the end of 2014.

The scale of the crisis and the growing impact on neighbouring countries has made it one of the most complex humanitarian emergencies the Edinburgh-based agency has ever faced.

Its team is trying to address immediate issues – providing food, shelter, clothing and safe spaces for children.

But it is also working with local communities to peacefully resolve issues about scarce resources such as water, housing, jobs and basic social services.

About half of Syrian refugees are children. In Jordan and Lebanon, Mercy Corps is increasing psycho-social support to help alleviate trauma, as well as building child-friendly spaces where they can play.

The team is also focusing on improving education, with a particular focus on children with disabilities.

Officers are also looking towards long-term recovery needs, by helping children hone skills they may need when they are older and go into the workplace.

Among the refugees is 13-year-old Nour, who moved into Za’atari refugee camp, in Jordan, with her family a year ago.

They had been living in Damascus in Syria but fled when the fighting escalated and bombs started falling near their home.

After they arrived in Za’atari they heard that their house had been destroyed by a bomb just days after they left.

In Damascus, Nour was a top student with a large circle of friends and a determination to become a nurse.

Her father was working as a mechanic at the Damascus water company.

Nour, the eldest of five children, said: “When we left Damascus, my father told us we would only be gone for a month.

“But after we were here for six months, I knew we were not going to be going home soon. I was devastated.

“I thought I had lost my life, my future. I just wanted to die.”

She added: “Everything here is hard. My mother needs a lot of help and since I am the eldest I do most of the work and help look after my brothers and sisters.

“I never have any free time, and if I did, I still can’t go out because my parents are concerned about safety here.

“But I am trying to keep my faith and belief that better days will come.”