Friday, April 03, 2020

Expanding Our Nation’s Lab Testing Capacity in the Era of Pandemics

By John A. Akec*

The Future Begins Now, is the name of an Ohio-based US organisation that offers scholarships to young people. This is an echo of what was attributed to Mahatma Gandhi  that: the future begins in the presence. This saying makes great sense and applies to many contexts. The future prosperity of nations and individuals depends on the type and quality of investments they commit their resources to (in form of time and money) at the present. That is why our new motto at the University of Juba is: “inventing the future, transforming society.” The motto is a constant reminder to us that universities worldwide, not just in our country, are there to assist their nations navigate their ways into a safer and prosperous harbors that are still unknown. 

With the current Coronavirus pandemic, nations with lab capability are assisting their governments face the challenge posed by covid-19 to their populations. South Korea, for example, is among the countries that has been praised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for its success in reducing community transmission of the virus through massive programme of testing, isolation, and tracking of the suspected cases. Thanks to South Korean past investment in its education system in the 1960s that has prepared their country to face up to the threats of covid-19 virus in 2020.  

The Director General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus, has urged all countries to test, and treat every case of coronavirus. “No nation can fight coronavirus blind-folded,” he warned. This is one of the worst pandemics in living memory since the outbreak of Spanish flu in 1918. The Spanish flu that followed at the heel of the end of the First World War I (WWI) is reported to had infected 500 million and taking the lives of 50 million people worldwide, three times the number of deaths in the WWI. Hopefully, coronavirus will be contained before it reaches anything like Spanish influenza infection and death rates.

A report that was authored by epidemiologists from Imperial College and London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and published this week, warned that the pandemic could result in death of more than 250,000 people in the UK alone if serious measures are not taken to slow down the spread of coronavirus through the population. Amongst report’s recommendations included isolating people with cough and temperature at home for 14 days, quarantining of all members of families if one member shows the symptoms of the virus, social distancing through reduction of normal social contacts by three-quarters, social isolation of over 70s, and closure of schools and universities. 

As we go to press, there are 691,867 confirmed cases and 32,980 recorded deaths worldwide, which works out as 4.6 percent of confirmed cases. This virus is truly catastrophic and has stretched to the breaking point the capacity of even the well resourced of countries.

 Bill Gates has warned that the spread of the virus in Africa could be prove devastating. South Sudan is amongst a score of African countries that the WHO has categorised as lacking the capacity to test its population for coronavirus. This is shocking, but not surprising. We as a country had not done much to prepare our health system for minor epidemics, let alone the pandemics of covid-19 scale.

The University of Juba has joined the fight against COVID-19 pandemic by setting up a technical committees of experts and stakeholders on coronavirus that will make recommendations to University of Juba Community (students and staff), and the government Taskforce on COVID-19, based on emerging global understanding of  COVID-19 pandemic and the experiences gained elsewhere.

Mark Twain once said: “the secret of getting ahead is to get started.” And while we might not be best prepared as a country for the current coronavirus pandemic, we need not be caught up in the same position of unpreparedness in the future. And that is why we as University are planning to launch a School for Medical Laboratory Sciences in the academic year 2021/2022. We are doing this by partnering with Omdurman Ahlia University in Sudan to develop our curriculum and allow us to learn from their experience through staff and student exchange programme. Equally important, we have stepped up our efforts to expand our academic programmes into public health and nursing and other health allied sciences.

All the above is in line with our strategic goals of expanding quality higher education, transfer of know-how to key strategic sectors, and serving communities. In short, we want to invent the future and transform the society we live in by building our nation’s capacity to deliver quality medical services. So help us, O God.

*First appeared in Juvarsity, a Monthly News Bulletin of the University of Juba, Published by the Directorate of Planning, Innovation, and Quality Assurance. Vol 2 Issues No. 9, April 2020

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

When Many Go Ahiding

By John A. Akec
When many go ahiding,
I am standing

When many guns go silent
Mine is firing

When many wheels are stopping
Mine is turning

When many a voice go quiet
I am roaring

When many a tree go tumbling
I am bouncing

When many wells are drying
Mine is overflowing

Who is this?
You are wondering?

I am a Southerner
I am Perseverence

Using Blogs, Humour, and Annecdotes to Influence Policy

By John A. Akec*
How can research insights be made accessible to broad sectors of society? This column cites examples of successful communicators of scientific knowledge, and highlights the potential role of humor and anecdotes. The author also outlines some of his own experiences, and what works and doesn't work in communicating research in the contexts of Sudan and South Sudan.
Most of the time, it would seem, researchers are preaching to the converted – their peers. Their findings have the potential to inform policy and, in turn, have a positive impact on policy outcomes. Yet this doesn’t happen often because most peer-reviewed articles are published in journals whose readerships are largely drawn from the same constituency – namely, the academic and research fraternity.
The knowledge is thus ‘circulated’ among the like-minded while the consumer – or rather, the policy-maker – is scarcely reached. This is almost always true for research carried out at universities and specialized national research institutes and centers.
Part of the problem is the inaccessibility of academic research publications for the average non-specialist reader. Most of journal articles are long and can sometimes run into tens of pages of text. They also tend to be heavily loaded with technical jargon, or communicated with high-powered mathematics, possibly to impress peers, but at the expense of the time-starved policy-maker.
Linking incentives and recognition, such as academic promotion, at universities and research bodies to peer-reviewed publications entrenches this status quo. Yet there are examples of better ways of disseminating scientific knowledge to a wider readership besides peer-reviewed journals.
These include writing popular science books to disseminate core research findings, opinion pieces in major newspapers, and editing special interest blogs. Here, humor and anecdotes, instead of heavy technical jargon, can be used to communicate important research insights effectively to a very wide audience, including policy-makers.
For example, the late Stephen Hawking, the former Lucasian Professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge, once noted in the introduction to his classic book, A Brief History of Time, that adding one extra mathematical equation to a book can reduce the potential readership by half. By writing in a way that non-experts can understand, Hawking was able to communicate some of the most difficult concepts in the cosmos, especially in relation to space and time, such as the Big Bang, black holes, dark energy, gravitational waves, and such like.
Hawking hoped to help a broad spectrum of his readers ‘catch a glimpse of the mind of God’. By leaving his ivory tower and using down-to-earth expressions, he must have persuaded many a cynical politician and chief executives of multinational corporations to increase the budget for ‘blue sky’ research; as well as inspiring young readers to enjoy science and consider studying science-based subjects at university. I even suspect that Hawking’s exposition of cosmological physics and its insights must have had a positive impact on the economic output of many countries by increasing appreciation of science in wider circles.
Moreover, examples abound in the social sciences of authors who have followed a similar approach to Hawking in making research insights accessible to broad sectors of society. They include Paul Collier, a development economist at the University of Oxford who in his book, The Bottom Billion, popularized the concept of the ‘resource curse’; or the negative impact of high-priced commodities, such as oil and diamonds, on national economies that depend largely on them for revenue. It became a ‘must read’ for both the activist and the keen policy-maker.
Another example is that of Daron Acemoglu, an economics professor at MIT, and James Robinson of Harvard University, in their book Why Nations Fail. The duo highlighted the importance of the nature of institutions, especially pertaining to economic and political governance as well as the rule of law, in the success or failure of countries around the globe.
These researchers-turned-authors and countless others, I believe, have accomplished their missions. Yet popularizing research insights through books is not the only way. There are other approaches.
The first is communicating research insights by writing opinion pieces (‘op-eds’) in media outlets, printed or electronic. This is challenging, especially when it implies restricting an article to just 800 words. I recall a painful, but necessary, experience six years ago of having to cut out important facts from an article I co-authored with Kathelijne Schenkel of Pax for Peace, which was published in Sudan Tribune.
The article summarized our research on oil revenue sharing with communities living in the counties of oil-producing states of South Sudan. It raised awareness and sparked enquiries from researchers interested in South Sudan’s oil sector and the role of China in developing it.
The second is blogging. For a good 13 years, I have written a blog bearing my name. My articles tackle all sorts of concerns, ranging from socio-economic development, to leadership, to governance, to education, to society and culture, mainly focused on Sudan and South Sudan.
Some of the articles appear simultaneously on the blog and in Sudanese national newspapers such as The CitizenKhartoum Monitor, and Juba Monitor; as well as in electronic media outlets such as University World NewsSudan Tribune, Global Observatory, and, among others. Eventually, at the behest of a publisher, a collection of the articles was compiled and published as a book in March 2019 under the title South Sudan: The Path Not Taken.
While the title may suggest that the views expressed in the book never received a fair hearing by way of implementation, it is now paradoxically apparent that a lot of the ideas have contributed to policy debates, as some of themes advocated are currently being implemented by the government of South Sudan. These include the adoption of a floating exchange rate in 2015, the establishment of a semi-independent South Sudan Revenue Authority in 2017, and the scrapping of fuel subsidies in June 2018, among others. I also believe that this publication is likely to be influential in shaping the development path of South Sudan for a long time to come.
From this personal experience, I would like to encourage fellow researchers and academics of all shades to use blogs and social media to communicate their experiences, interests, and insights to national and global audiences that include policy-makers, lay people, special interest groups, and peers.
They need to write in a lucid style that is filled with humor and anecdotes in order to maintain the interest of readers and help them to understand what can be hard-to-grasp concepts. Links to articles can be shared on Facebook, professional networks such as LinkedIn, mailing lists, and Twitter, to mention just a few of countless possibilities.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Sudan and South Sudan: The Tale of Two Economies

By John A. Akec

The two Sudans, both north and south, share a troubled history, fear of the present, and hope for a peaceful and prosperous future within and across their borders.

The events of the past months, weeks, and days in Sudan and South Sudan are a testimony to this paradox; and can best be described by Charles Dickens’ words in the Tale of Two Cities: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, … it was season of Light, it was season of Darkness, was spring of hope, it was winter of despair.”  

The people of two Sudans may live in two independent sovereign states, yet are bound by ongoing conflicts, civil wars, and economic awes. Both are struggling in their different ways to overcome these challenges and carve out a brighter future for their citizens.

Analysts agree that none of the two Sudans will ever make it alone without the assistance and support of the other. Together the Sudans will fall. And together they will stand. And stand, they must. However, without clear understanding of the brutal facts and factors underpinning the current unrest in Sudan, and prospect for peace in South Sudan, the political instability caused by economic challenges in the two countries may persist long into the distant future.


On 19 December 2018, a day that marked the 63rd anniversary of unilateral declaration of Sudan’s independence inside the Parliament (which took place on 19 December 1955), demonstrations broke out in Sudan. First in Atbara, Nahud, and Gadarif, and then spreading to engulf many cities, among them the capital, Khartoum.

“Enemies those who killed our son. Enemies those who divided our country”, went the revolutionary song in social media played in the background of demonstration images intended to whip up emotions of the citizens to rise up against Al-Bashir’s government. High prices and shortage of basic commodities such as bread and fuel were amongst the reasons that sparked the anger. As we begin a new year, the demonstrations have already entered their thirteenth day.

On their part, the Sudanese authorities responded with full force of the state, followed by political mobilisation of the ruling party support base, and massive deployment of special forces, locally called “rapid support forces” in order to protect property and bring the situation in the capital and the country under control. The government has also expressed readiness to address the concerns raised by the demonstrators and political forces behind them. A very positive step.

Then some 740 miles South of Khartoum, in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, President Salva Kiir hosted a reception to celebrate Christmas day in which politicians, eminent personalities, and opposition figures queued up patiently to offer their greetings and well wishes to the President, expressing to the media their commitment to full implementation of the recently signed revitalized peace agreement, which was achieved with the assistance of Sudan government.

And to lend further credence to the intertwined politics of two Sudans, the war-displaced Sudanese, mostly from Blue Nile region and Nuba Mountains, and probably from Darfur; organised a peaceful march in Juba to express their solidarity with the ongoing demonstrations in Sudan.


The big question is what can we make of all this? We need to first acknowledge that the signing of Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 that allowed South Sudan to exercise the right of self-determination in a referendum, and subsequently, the declaration of its independence from Sudan on July 9th, 2011, was an important milestone in the long road to untangling and sorting out what Dr. John Garang called “the Sudanese problem.” It was not a mere impulsive decision by Al-Bashir government as as many Sudanese opposition figures would like us believe. However, independence of South Sudan was by no means the end of the Sudanese problem. This is evident from conflicts and wars that have continued to rage in both countries since 2012.

What is the lasting cure to the “Sudanese problem”, then? We may ask. To be brutally honest, I see no quick fixes, nor priceless solutions around the corner, apart from the exercise of true statesmanship to move the two countries to the next level. Still, one can engage in useful conversation that can assist us to discover the avenues to finding more sustainable cures.

Le us briefly then consider what Sudan and South Sudan governments can do individually and jointly in order to achieve peace and prosperity. This is by no means a comprehensive prescription, but in my view, an important contribution.

For a starter, good economics makes for good politics. And despite the impressive expansion of the Sudanese economy in the last two decades, majority of Sudanese increasingly feel disenfranchised and impoverished. And as pointed out earlier, high prices and acute shortage of basic commodities are behind recent Sudan’s unrest.

To give credit where it belongs, the expansion in higher education since 1990s has improved Sudan’s institutional, technical, technological, and administrative and managerial capacity. It also empowered women as demonstrated by the number of female university graduates exceeding that of males by June 2011. The expansion has also immensely increased country’s absorptive capacity for foreign direct investment. Sudan tops China’s investment priority destination in Africa, according to recent reports.

And like it or not, Sudan has attained a significant level of a functional state that includes monopoly on the legitimate use of violence and administrative control of its territory as well as increased diffusion of ICT and communication technologies throughout its economy. 

However, the unintended consequences of the new economic structure are that it left a great majority of the Sudanese citizens worst off, especially those working in the public sector. The level of unemployment amongst graduates is staggering although no study has been carried out to know the precise rate of unemployment. This is a ticking bomb, and what we saw in the past two weeks is nothing but a mere taster, if nothing is done to avert it.

Areas of economic reforms include, among others: embracing flexible exchange rate policy, as well as lifting of subsidies on fuel and wheat flour. While these subsidies may give an appearance of benefiting the poor, they are actually subsidising the rich while placing enormous burden on the government, preventing it from funding targeted social policies that can benefit well defined sectors of the Sudanese society. What’s more, subsidies provide arbitrage opportunities for extortion and self-enrichment by those connected to the system, especially by elements of national security apparatus.

The savings from subsidies can be used to increase public sector pay and improve social services such as education and health. This will improve citizens trust and allow national economy to adjust because consumers will rationally shift to local and cheaper substitutes.

The government also needs to adopt a more progressive tax policy with the aim of fairly redistributing the national cake between the very rich few and the very many poor in such a way as to raise median incomes across the board. In medium to long term, these reforms will move Sudan to middle income country within a decade.

Moreover, Sudan could upgrade its successful Students Support Fund policy to a Student Loan Scheme like one in Kenya. That means, students can contribute to funding their higher education without placing undue burden on their families.

In addition, Sudan can establish non-discriminatory Enterprise Fund to support young entrepreneurs. It would be an uphill battle changing attitudes towards subsidies. Done transparently and honestly, these reforms can make huge difference to Sudanese economy.

Finally, Sudan needs to adopt an equal opportunity employment policy in both public and private sectors, and must include key strategic government institutions, and get away from current employment policies that are perceived as partisan and sectarian. All Sudanese need to feel that their government is working for them, irrespective of their religion, ethnic background, region, or political affiliation. This will enhance citizens’ trust in the government. This, is in short, is a call for a new, just, fair, and more comprehensive social contract in Sudan.

South Sudan is starting from a different baseline, as one may expect, and therefore its priorities are different from those of Sudan and very basic in nature.

And right now, South Sudan priority is to consolidate peace and stabilize its economy through the recently launched 3-year National Development Strategy 2018-2021.

The success and credibility of the strategy is tight to South Sudan’s ability to reform its grossly underperforming civil service through competitive recruitment and training, adoption of a centralized planning regime, improvement in coordination amongst and between different levels of the government, enhancing revenue mobilisation through taxation, investment in human capital formation through education and skills training, and a more aggressive investment in basic infrastructure (electricity, water, communications, and roads).

 Like Sudan, there is need for government to commit itself to floating exchange rate policy as opposed to current ‘managed float’ which is really a reversion to old “fixed exchange” rate policy; as well as adopting inflation indexed pay structure in public and private sector. South Sudan should avoid following the example of Sudan which has allowed national security personnel to muddle in economic institutions and policies that are the domain of civil servants.

In addition, the government of South Sudan should manage its oil revenues in more transparent manner and eliminate fuel subsidies. It should also review and estimate the cost of medical treatment and officials travels abroad for purpose of regulating and redirecting the savings to better state-building goals.

The governments of the two countries should collaborate to resolve outstanding issues in the implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement that include Abyei, and conflicts in South Kordofan, South Blue Nile, in addition to Darfur and Eastern Sudan.

Sudan must also end its self-imposed trade embargo on South Sudan and that the two countries negotiate fair terms of trade for their mutual benefit.

All in all, there is room for much improvements in the economies and governance of the two countries.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Building a Functional State in South Sudan

By John A. Akec
Political and economic literature is replete with books describing the causes and reasons behind states’ failure. ‘Failed states’ are polities that do not function properly, and hence are incapable of delivering stability and prosperity to their citizens. This is according to Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart, authors of a book entitled “Fixing Failed States: A framework for rebuilding a fractured world” (Oxford University Press, 2008).

According to the authors, the number of states in the world today that fall in this category range from 40 to 60 in total; and are home to 2 billion people, representing almost half of the population of the globe. Failed states, as described by Ghani and Lockhart, are “either sliding backward and teetering on the brink of implosion or have already collapsed”. What’s more, a state is said to have failed when “vicious networks of criminality, violence, and drugs feed on disenfranchised populations and uncontrolled territory.”

Unsurprisingly, many of us will rush to a conclusion that such a description fits South Sudan’s political and economic situation squarely, like a glove. May be. Yet I beg to differ with this characterization in some ways. South Sudan never had a state to speak of before 2011 so that we can truly describe as failed. What is true is that South Sudan is striving to build a functional state from scratch after half a century of devastating conflict with Sudan, and in the last 5 years with itself. It is not an easy task, and it is a goal being pursued with slow and varying degrees of success.

That being the case, one cannot entirely dismiss Ghani and Lockhart’s and other similar works as such as that of Acemoglu and Robinson (Why Nations Fail), Greg and Obasnjo et. al (Making Africa Work), David Landes (The Wealth and Poverty of the Nations), Osborne and Gaeble (Reinventing Government) etc., as irrelevant. In fact, these works have much to teach us about how a nascent nation like South Sudan can accelerate success in building a fully functioning state. They provide useful tips and clues.

At the very core of Ghani and Lockhart’s book is a framework within which success can be measured against 10 cardinal functions a state is expected to deliver on. In other words, the 10 functions of the state, if correctly understood by policy-makers, can serve as the barometers against which progress can be assessed.

These functions are as follows: rule of law which is concerned primarily with making rules that regulate how society operates, while  defining powers and limits of the state and citizens; monopoly on the the legitimate use of violence; full administrative control of all state’s territory; sound management of public finances to minimise corruption and create public value; investment in human capital necessary for economic growth and industrial development; creation of citizenship rights through developing and implementing social policy that gives citizen a stake and boost trust in government; provision of infrastructure services; creation of favorable conditions for development of markets and jobs creation; prudent management of public assets such as land, equipment, buildings, cultural heritages, and national capital such as rivers and forests; and last, but not least, effective and responsible public borrowing that allows the state to accelerate socio-economic development without losing its economic and decision to lenders.

What it takes to achieve each of the 10 functions of the state can be a whole article. Suffice to say that effective performance of the above functions by the state leads to synergies that create virtuous circle of mutually reinforcing decision processes and expand opportunities for the citizens. This is what Ghani and Lockhart describe as “sovereignty dividend.”

On the other hand, failure to deliver on some of the above functions leads to vicious cycle in which various centres of power compete over control of the state, the prevalence
 of multiple and contradictory decision processes that confuse government’s priorities, citizen loss of trust in their government, loss of legitimacy by institutions of governance, disenfranchisement of the citizens, and, in many cases, the eruption of violent conflict.

When this second scenario persists, it gives rise to “sovereignty gap.” This means the government of the country concerned is required to do more to reduce the sovereignty gap and increase the sovereignty dividend.

For South Sudan, we can agree that there is currently more “sovereignty gap” than “sovereignty dividend.” We should not lose hope, though. To be able to fulfill the 10 functions of the state as enumerated above, enabling conditions must to be created by our government.

These conditions include but not limited to reforming the civil service to raise its competence and capacity to design and implement policies, creation of institution for strategic and centralized planning, creation of a ministry for coordination of all the government, strengthening of the revenue authority to mobilise domestic revenues, and investing in education and skills training in order to raise nation’s scientific, technological, administrative, and managerial capacity.  Without these ingredients of success, nothing can really move forward.

Above all, our government must muster strong political will so as to take all such measures as would propel our country out of conflict, insecurity, and poverty, into the league of functioning states, among the world community of nations.  

The goal of building a fully functioning polity in South Sudan in one generation is a challenge pregnant with opportunity. It is an opportunity worth ceasing.