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Could COVAX be used as a test case to demand more aid accountability in South Sudan?

‘The key to effective leverage is finding something those in charge covet.’

The image shows the upper arm of a patient being injected with a vaccine. Latin America News Agency/REUTERS
COVID-19 jabs are administered at a medical centre in Rwanda after the country received a shipment through the COVAX initiative, 12 March 2021.

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Should COVID-19 vaccines and aid be used as diplomatic carrots to coax more accountability and transparency out of corruption-riddled countries such as South Sudan?

Critics may cry foul at the idea of attaching strings to humanitarian assistance, but an unwillingness to scrutinise the unintended negative consequences of aid has made donors complicit in filling the coffers of corrupt leaders and propping up the bad governance that has contributed to the chronic nature of many humanitarian crises.

Read More → EXCLUSIVE: Corruption claims spark new concerns about aid to South Sudan

It is no coincidence South Sudan’s suffering has been maintained alongside its corruption rankings. In 2013, South Sudan was ranked 173rd out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s Corruptions Perception Index. By 2020, it ranked last – tied with Somalia.

South Sudan has been on my mind recently as I hear the calls for a generous response to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

A shipment of some 132,000 vaccines just arrived, and more than $100 million has been given toward the country’s pandemic response. I wonder if these resources will be used as intended, to help the country’s suffering population, or if they too will be fodder for more graft.

A global response is essential. There are both humanitarian and pragmatic reasons for wealthy countries to care about the pandemic’s trajectory well beyond their borders. 

But I also wonder if this could present an opportunity to try and test a new approach of managing aid more closely wedded to results. 

When I arrived in South Sudan in 2013 as a second-tour US diplomat – two years after the country had achieved independence – two things were readily apparent. The United States had invested significantly in the country’s success, and the return on that investment had been abysmal – both for the United States and the people of South Sudan. 

The rich become richer, while the poor stay on donor-funded life support. 

By that time, humanitarian crises and violent clashes were unfolding at a rapid rate, and the government was showing little interest or initiative in turning the situation around. 

I couldn’t understand how this country that enjoyed so much international good will had made such little progress toward building a functional state, but what I learned was that international partners had done little to ensure an effective use of aid. That, combined with corruption and the absence of political will, had led to a poor investment. 

Time has only worsened this situation in South Sudan. International generosity has continued despite a lack of meaningful improvement in governance or circumstances. 

The rich become richer, while the poor stay on donor-funded life support. 

COVAX, the global effort to distribute vaccinations to low income countries, could provide a discrete opportunity to factor accountability mechanisms into distribution decisions, using vaccines as a carrot to reward effective behaviours. 

Currently, COVAX distribution is focused on spreading allocation across countries evenly. It will supply up to 20 percent of each participating country’s population before any country is able to secure a higher amount through the mechanism. 

Instead of focusing strictly on even distribution, COVAX could incorporate other factors in prioritisation, such as provision of sound distribution plans and accountable tracking mechanisms to ensure that limited resources provide the most benefit. 

Some of the world’s poorest countries have been spared the worst of COVID so far – although data has been difficult to obtain. Still, low tolls and hospitalisations could limit how useful COVID assistance is as leverage. At the same time though, it also makes the use of such assistance as leverage a more humane possibility. 

No one wants to punish a population for the transgressions of its government. But in countries where infection, hospitalisation, and infection rates remain low, using vaccine supplies as a tool could be less harmful than doing so with food supply in a hunger crisis. 

Some countries participating in COVAX for the benefit of funded vaccines might balk at accepting conditionality strings with them. 

But those countries that refuse to be monitored or accountable in any way, however, could be pushed to the end of the distribution line or excluded entirely. It’s a reasonable approach to ensure the most people benefit from the limited available supply.

The key to effective leverage is finding something those in charge covet, since they may or may not be driven by the health of their citizens. 

For example, in Somalia, the US government suspended some of its military assistance in 2017 due to concerns over corruption. Because the Somali government relied heavily on this assistance, the US government was able to use it as leverage to press the Somali government to put in place specific accountability mechanisms, including the biometric registration of members of the army.

It worked, at least in part, because it was a specific, targeted accountability effort tied directly to something the Somali government really wanted, and the accountability ask was clear. 

A vaccine distribution plan and tracking mechanism should be similarly discrete, though international partners interested in promoting accountable vaccine use might need to make the case of why it is in their government’s interest to do the necessary paperwork.  

As the world opens up again, vaccination status will likely be used to determine whose citizens can travel where, and what countries remain off-limits for various economic purposes – from business and trade representatives to tourists and development programmes. 

Even governments that don’t worry much about the plight of their citizens usually care about their own travel, access, and bottom line. 

Might there be more public pressure on officials to invest in the country rather than line their own pockets if the public looked to the government to provide security and sustenance rather than to the international community? 

Donor countries have only helped insulate the government from such expectations.

If the international community fails to start taking small but meaningful steps to improve accountability in aid, many target countries will remain on the hamster wheel of aid dependence.

A more accountable vaccine distribution programme won’t cure all aid ills, but it could be a start in shifting expectations. If a government is unwilling to meet accountability requirements or fails to do so in practice, vaccine supplies can be redirected to somewhere that will. 

If the international community fails to start taking small but meaningful steps to improve accountability in aid, many target countries will remain on the hamster wheel of aid dependence.

As the international community factors in various criteria in the COVAX distribution plan, prioritising accountability could not only help prevent unnecessary waste of a precious resource, but it could also play a small part in reimagining aid. 

One reasonable criticism of this approach could be that it simply might not work, that leverage won’t be effective against corrupt governments that have long since ignored the pleas to instill accountability in the absence of effective checks on corruption. 

This may be true, but the system we have isn’t working either, so we might as well try something different. During her confirmation hearing on 24 March, USAID nominee Samantha Power told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she would prioritise anti-corruption work – and try to ensure developing countries have access to vaccines. 

This approach would be a way to combine those two priorities. 

Unless we are willing to accept that humanitarian aid is inevitably forever, we need to start taking steps to make it more effective. This crisis could be a small place to start.

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