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Coping mechanisms in South Sudan in relation to different types of shock

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What do we know about the negative and positive coping mechanisms of different groups (based on wealth (below the poverty line/elites), gender, age, (dis)abilities, geographies (rural/urban), ethnicities) of people in South Sudan in relation to different types of shock?


This rapid evidence review provides an assessment of negative and positive coping mechanisms of different groups (based on wealth (below the poverty line/elites), gender, age, (dis)abilities, geographies (rural/urban), and ethnicity of people in South Sudan in relation to different types of shock. It draws predominantly on a range of grey literature from multinational and bilateral institutions as well as non-government organisations (NGOs) and think tanks.

The report highlights that coping strategies are varied and multifaceted, they are a product of the vulnerability of particular individuals, households and communities and are the product of responses to shocks and stressors. These shocks(?) may be acute or chronic. It is also important to note that coping strategies in the South Sudanese context have often been developed in response to food insecurity, climatic change and conflict and that new shocks may undermine these existing strategies, necessitate evolution of these or the adoption of new strategies. It is also important to note that these may have both negative and positive impacts that may differ over short, medium and long term time horizons. Given the complexity and broad nature of the query the report is broad in its scope and structured as follows:

  • Context: Section 2 provides an overview of the South Sudanese context, the health sector situation and the potential impact of COVID-19. This provides the context in which subsequent sections should be reviewed.

  • Vulnerability: Section 3 provides an overview of vulnerability. This includes a broader discussion of how vulnerability can be contextualised alongside a rapid review of broader risks, shocks and stressors endemic to the country. A rapid review of groups considered vulnerable (the young, foreign workers, women and girls etc.) is provided and an overview of determinants of vulnerability. Here, the notion of intersecting vulnerability is important, influencing coping strategies and options available.

  • Coping strategies: Section 4 provides an overview of coping strategies identified by key reports, these include those based on absorptive, adaptive or transformative capacities. When reviewing this section it is important to note that some coping studies identified may be undermined by the current crisis i.e. those linked to mobility and salaried employment. Conversely, some of those historically viewed as examples of limited resilience i.e. foraging, may emerge (in the short term) as a helpful coping strategy. This section also flags the challenges faced by government and the potential role that could be played by non-government actors (here it may be important to explore who may be excluded due to ethnicity or status).

In 2011 the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest country. The South’s independence came after circa four decades of war. The consequences of conflict on people’s lives, livelihoods and access to basic services have been devastating. Despite the peace deal, violence and rights violations continue and have become a persistent reality for many. While the number of organised violent events have declined, reports indicate that subnational conflict persists across many states and the decrease in battle deaths has been matched by an increase in deaths from communal violence. Significant numbers remain internally displaced and 2.3 million South Sudanese refugees were residing in neighbouring countries.

Whilst economic volatility has undermined access to basic resources concomitantly, long gaps and inconsistency in salary payments to public sector employees have impacted provision of health-care and other services. Hunger and malnutrition are endemic, about 1.1 million children under age five are estimated to be acutely malnourished and in need of lifesaving services out of a population of circa 12 million. According to the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis (January 2020), a total of 6.5 million people were expected to experience acute food insecurity in the May-July 2020 period. Poverty levels are expected to remain high. Based on the US$1.90 2011 purchasing power parity poverty line, 82% of the population was considered poor in 2017. The urban poverty rate stood at over 70%, an increase from 49% in 2015.

More broadly, the WHO comment that the South Sudanese population is highly susceptible to disease and conflict-related injuries. Disease outbreaks are lasting longer and reaching previously unaffected areas, weakening already vulnerable people’s ability to cope with multiple shocks. The WHO continues that destruction of health-care facilities (only 22% of health facilities are fully operational), attacks on health workers, and shortages of drugs and skilled professionals mean access to health care is limited across the country, particularly in certain areas. The health facilities which are operational face challenges of delivering health-care services.

The World Food Programme (WFP) comment that the impact of the coronavirus epidemic in East Africa could have significant socio-economic repercussions, with potential impacts on livelihoods, food security, national economies and global financial and food markets. They continue that economic shocks are likely to exacerbate the severity of acute food insecurity in South Sudan. As of March 30th, there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Sudan1 . The government has, however, banned mass gatherings, closed borders, and implemented port of entry restrictions, though imports of food, fuel, and medicine – including humanitarian aid – are still permitted. Restrictions on gatherings have compelled the closure of tea shops, restaurants, and non-food shops such as salons/barbers and boda operators, affecting casual labour income in these sectors. FEWS NET anticipates port of entry and gathering restrictions could affect humanitarian operational capacity and distribution points, thereby slowing or reducing food assistance imports and delivery.

An extensive spread of the disease in South Sudan could take a heavy toll in terms of mortality rates. Countries with high levels of food insecurity are generally more vulnerable and less prepared for an epidemic outbreak. However, there are also factors that could mitigate the damage of a COVID-19 outbreak in South Sudan e.g. the age structure of its population. Moreover, a sparse and predominantly rural based population and more limited travel networks could reduce the pace at which COVID-19 spreads.

In a context of protracted historic conflict, weak governance and economic stresses, it is critical to understand the underlying causes of vulnerability, and the impact these have on available coping strategies of households and communities. South Sudan is highly shock-prone. Studies have shown the shocks are a constant feature of life, and highlighted the importance of considering both the persistence or duration of shocks and the heightened impacts of combinations of shocks. Studying an array of shocks may provide a means of anticipating specific points where multiple constraints might converge and intensify or where limiting conditions are most apparent, and where consequences of responses might become more heightened and critical (FAO & Tufts, 2019). This is particularly relevant to understanding the factors limiting livelihoods or indeed the seasonal drivers of malnutrition.

Coping strategies include are often based on the capacities available to a given individual, household or community. They are complex and subject to disruption dependent on circumstance.

Absorptive capacities reflect the ability to cope, typically over the short term, with a shock and its effects. They are determined by: Livestock ownership, Expenditure, Psychosocial strength, Savings and informal safety nets, Conflict management and justice systems.

Adaptive capacities support a household or community to not only withstand shocks but to positively adapt in the face of social, economic and environmental change. They are determined by: livelihood risk diversification, Improved access to productive and fertile land, Income Source Reliability and Sustainability, Skilled household labour, Seasonal migration and remittances, Educated household head, Early warning and disaster mitigation systems.

Transformative capacities tend to be part of longer-term responses that fundamentally address vulnerabilities at community, environment or systems level. They are determined by: Access to markets and infrastructure, Access to quality education, Support for land and livelihoods, Access to water and sanitation, Access to health services, Access to credit and formal safety nets or social protection, Youth employment and empowerment, Women’s empowerment, attitudes and aspirations, Community networks.