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Africa Policy Journal

Topic / Human Rights

Interview with Ms. Lise Grande, Former UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in South Sudan

Ms. Lise Grande has worked for the United Nations since 1994, serving in Armenia, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, Haiti, Occupied Palestine, South Sudan, Sudan, and Tajikistan. Ms Grande has worked in some of the United Nations’ largest humanitarian and peace-keeping operations and is now serving as the UN Resident Coordinator in India.

Theme of Interview

 In line with Ms. Lise Grande’s presentation at the Harvard Kennedy School on February 18th 2014 and the Africa Policy Journal’s mission to encourage dialogue on African policy, APJ wanted to learn about the UN’s engagement with the Government of South Sudan on state-building. The interview focuses on challenges and achievements as well as areas of improvement going forward. Ms. Lise Grande’s responses in this interview do not reflect the views of the UN or its agencies.


APJ: Can you please talk us through the state building process in South Sudan focusing on the priorities that were set out given that there was no precedence for something like it?

Lise Grande: The state building exercise in South Sudan represents the single largest effort at state-building undertaken since World War II. There has been nothing like it in terms of scope and complexity. The international community tried to help in several ways. A key aim was to give as much space as possible to the South Sudanese leadership to stabilize their newborn country and lay the foundations for state take-off. At the same time, the international community was committed to helping put in place the essential core state functions necessary for the new government to function. Working from a road-map agreed with the South Sudanese leadership, the UN and international partners worked around-the-clock in the lead-up to independence to ensure that 19 core state functions were in place; these included a functioning treasury, procurement mechanisms, a functioning police force, and so forth. The intention was to continue putting in place, over the course of five years, more than 120 additional functions in a sequenced and systematic manner.

APJ: You stated that the 19 core functions were to be sequenced. There is a recent (Oct 2013) article by Harvard Professor Lant Pritchett and others called “South Sudan’s Capability Trap: Building a State with Disruptive Innovation”, which argues that there was poor sequencing of the priorities you just listed….

[Here is an excerpt from the article: “Fukuyama and Levy posit four potential development sequences, each defined by its initial entry point: state capacity building; transformational governance; ‘just enough’ governance; and bottom-up development through civil society. The ideal entry point and sequence will be the one that is “capable of breaking a low-growth logjam, and initiating a virtuous spiral of cumulative change.” “


The authors argue that “…context was largely overlooked during South Sudan’s crucial interim period and after independence, in order to pursue the international donors’ preferred state building agenda. Without any history of South Sudanese self-governance, no predecessor institutions, and starting essentially from scratch, the temptation to transplant “best practices” was hard to resist. Development strategies were designed and implemented primarily by donors, with limited South Sudanese “ownership” and only notional adherence to principles of “aid effectiveness.” The robust state capacity-building intervention has not resulted in high levels of success; the amount of capacity transference to GoSS during the interim period was minimal, and the region achieved independence amid serious capacity concerns and predictions of state failure.” _pp9, (emphasis ours)]

Lise Grande: Dr. Pritchett has raised an important point. Although there was a road-map for the 19 core functions, and within the first year of state-hood a five-year development plan, a comprehensive, prioritized and sequenced state-building plan did not exit. This meant that much of the international technical assistance that was provided was based on ad hoc perceptions of what was needed.  We need to be sensitive to the fact that South Sudan’s leadership was overwhelmed in the lead-up to independence, pulled in a number of different directions as they tried to solve urgent political problems which took precedence over other issues, as you would expect. This being said, however, I think there is no question that a comprehensive plan would have helped to discipline the interventions of the international community.

APJ: So just to reiterate, you are saying part of the shortcomings is on the government of South Sudan?

Lise Grande: The government of South Sudan was facing an almost insurmountable set of problems; this is a point which cannot be emphasized enough. The role of the international community was to facilitate, to support, and to help; not to run things themselves. It is not a question of blaming the leadership; it is important to understand how overwhelming the situation was; why the South Sudanese leadership made the decisions they made; and why they focused on some things rather than others.

APJ: The paper also reports that the Ministry of Finance outsourced a number of its functions to some members of the international community including consultancies…


Lise Grande: UNDP took a different approach. In collaboration with the Inter-Governmental Authority on Drought (IGAD), UNDP facilitated a coaching and mentoring initiative with civil servants from neighbouring countries. Active civil servants from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda were embedded for two-three years in line ministries and state governments and twinned with Southern Sudanese officials. They performed line functions with their South Sudanese counterparts while coaching and mentoring them. This approach avoided many of the pitfalls of typical technical assistance programmes where high-priced international consultants, often with little real experience of the problems facing a country like South Sudan, offer advice. If you are coming from Ethiopia and are an active civil servant in the Ministry of Finance, believe me, you are a lot more useful to your counterpart than someone from some overseas institution with limited experience.

APJ: Toward the end of 2013, South Sudan appeared to be imploding with the outbreak of the civil war between the government and rebels. We know your appointment had by then ended but do you have any thoughts on what went wrong?


Lise Grande: I hope you will allow me to respond to this question by first saying how important it is to recognize the many things that have gone right. Huge progress has been made in South Sudan in a very short period to time in establishing institutions, improving social conditions and laying the foundations for state take-off; progress of which the South Sudanese are rightly proud. As for the future, the more the South Sudanese people and their leaders believe that peace and stability are the only options for achieving their goals, the faster they are likely to reach them.

APJ: Given what you just said and the recent civil conflict in the 2 year old country, would you call the state building mission that culminated in independence in 2011 a success?

Lise Grande: The time horizon for measuring state-building is much longer than a couple of years. Perhaps it’s possible to evaluate progress after five years, or, more realistically, ten to twenty years. In one regard though, it’s quite clearly been remarkable: the people of South Sudan won their independence through a peaceful referendum supported by a committed international community. After fifty years of struggle, this is something wholly admirable.  

APJ: There is evidence that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, some nationals returned to their home countries. Have you seen such a trend in the case of South Sudan?

Lise Grande: Many South Sudanese are coming home to build their country, bringing their skills and helping to support virtually all aspects of state-building. This being said, it’s important to not underestimate the challenges they face. As the country moves further from the liberation struggle, there will certainly be more room for technocrats to play leading roles.


APJ: Shifting gears a little toward the Millennium Development Goals set to expire in 2015. What is your assessment of what has been achieved in that regard?

Lise Grande: Most development work in the 1980s was dominated by the assumption that the economies of poorly performing countries required structural adjustment enabling them to grow; through some miraculous process that was never properly defined, this growth was somehow meant to transfer downwards to improve people’s lives. UNDP challenged the assumption that growth was the sole aim of development and, by introducing the Human Development Index in the 1990s, showed that a country’s progress in education, health and other factors was as important, if not more so, than just its growth rate.  Following the end of the Cold War, there were a series of international conferences during which targets and goals were set based on the human development paradigm. The MDGs built on these targets and, by bringing them together in a simple elegant framework, codified, celebrated and elevated human development as the central point of development. What did they achieve? One of the things that many of us appreciate about the MDGs is the clarity and unity of vision they represent. All countries in the world have agreed to them and all countries the world have worked to meet them. The hope of many of us in the UN is that this clarity of vision is not lost but is continued and strengthened through the new Sustainable Development Goals that will succeed the MDGs.