Nice desks

I spent much of last night sweating over the fine print of the Government of Southern Sudan's 2009 budget (characteristically, I had to go to three ministries yesterday before I could get hold of a copy of what is an entirely public document. The Ministry of Finance has apparently "run out").

Tedious though it sounds, the budget document is eloquent testimony to many aspects of Southern Sudan's current situation.

Projected 2009 revenue has been halved from 2008 levels: almost entirely a product of GoSS' extreme vulnerability to the plummeting price of oil (an incredible 93% of GoSS' $1.8bn-odd revenues comes from oil).

As in previous years, nearly 30% of all spending goes on the army (and that's not counting off-budget military spending, which is probably considerable). Spending on the SPLA is about the same as spending on education, health and infrastructure combined - in a country with near non-existent road, electricity and water supply networks; where only 16% of schools have permanent buildings; and where the last household survey found that maternal mortality rates were the highest in the world.[1] If the Southern Sudanese were hoping for a peace dividend after the 2005 peace agreement, they're clearly still waiting. Looking at the budget breakdown, this is probably not because of rapacious militarisation, but simply the massive burden of having to support a vast guerrilla army that's yet to be demobilised, and needs to be kept fed if southern Sudan is to avoid yet another civil war: 87% of declared SPLA spending in 2009 - nearly a quarter of the entire national budget - is going on soldiers' salaries (most of which, nonetheless, haven't been paid since mid-January). In fact, 48% of Southern Sudan's entire budget is spent on public or military salaries. In the absence of functioning social protection mechanisms, the entire government is acting as a massive social welfare machine.

The tiny details, though, are also eloquent. Take, for instance, this gem from page 340 (detailing capital spending estimates for the national Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration Commission):

"28.2805: Furniture & General Equipment

1 Executive desk, 1 basic desk (for headquarters): 31,240 [Sudanese Pounds]"

That's about $15,000 for two, er, office desks. Looks like the DDR Commission is getting some nice desks.


[1] Granted, this ignores the significant funding to these sectors outside government revenue streams, from what has become, along with the rest of Sudan, probably the largest aid operation in the world.


What feels like work?

So it's creeping towards the end of the month, and as usual I'm panicking about the report I'm supposed to be writing by the end of it.

Ordinarily when this happens (my working life tends, unfortunately, to constitute a series of lurches from essay crisis to essay crisis), my ex-Catholic moral sensibility whispers constantly in my ear that every minute I'm not spending mind-melded to my steaming laptop is the equivalent of a minute spent idly murdering babies.

But on this occasion, this is supposed to be a 'fieldwork'-based report - and the unruly 'field' hasn't been obediently offering up nuggests of informational gold as regularly as I need it to. So (via Nairobi and Mombasa) I'm back in Juba, desparately trying to cook up some material as the month of May trickles away. Which means speaking to as many people as possible. So now I'm feeling guilty sat at my laptop: I'm wasting precious minutes in the 'field', dammit, and the only time I feel really calm is on my way to another meeting.

So now that 'work' feeling is bumping around uncomfortably down a dirt road on the back of a 14-year-old's motorbike. Which I know is not something I should really be complaining about.

ALSO: I'm thinking of starting a scrapbook on the seductions of modern orientalism. Submissions welcome. My current favourite is a story an NGO trainer here told me about some young Southern Sudanese trainees, enrolled in an aid agency's training programme, who were all told to go away and do an activity for half an hour, and then return to the workshop classroom. Their NGO trainer made sure they all had watches, and knew what time it was when they left. About two hours later, everyone trickled back into the classroom. It turned out that everyone was wearing expensive-looking watches - but with no hands.

I've read enough E.P. Thompson to enjoy this condescending little parable. Best of all, I noticed that the old man who guards the camp/hotel where I'm staying wears a watch - with no hands! So now I'm truly charmed - practically a whole nation languishing seductively in pre-industrial time!

Except that our guard checks the time all the time - on his mobile phone, stupid, along with the latest Chelsea scores. My (faintly disappointed) guess is that those trainees just thought the workshop sucked.