(TONY THOMAS, The Daily Telegraph) - IT WAS a while ago now but David Shearer still remembers it like it was yesterday
. The former New Zealand opposition leader was travelling through South Sudan, in northeastern Africa, on the back of a truck.
“We were having something to eat and threw some of the scraps out behind us,” Shearer recalls. “I remember looking back down the road and seeing some of the local kids fighting over the scraps. I knew then and there that I wanted to help.”
March forward to January 2017 and Shearer is back in South Sudan — this time as the head of the United Nations Mission in the country (UNMISS).
After resigning as New Zealand opposition leader in 2013, Shearer retained his seat at the 2014 election and remained in Parliament — until a chance phone call last year from then UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon. “He rang me and suggested I come to New York to discuss a job,” Shearer says.
The call wasn’t entirely out of the blue — before politics, Shearer had worked with the UN in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Did he really understand what he was getting himself into when he quit politics for a job with the UN last December?
“I was fortunate in the sense that I had already worked with the UN around the world, so I had some knowledge of what to expect,” he says. “But I guess the enormity of the job hit home when I arrived in January.”
Since the country gained its independence in 2011, nothing has seemed to go right. Civil war has ravaged the country since 2013, with almost 1.9 million people fleeing, according to UNHCR. Famine has been declared and the UN has said that over five million people are in urgent need of food aid.
“Food is a massive problem … the rainy season has come and getting to certain parts of the country is almost impossible,” Shearer says. “The levels of starvation are the worst I’ve ever seen and we are trying everything we can to get food parcels across the country.”
Will the situation improve once the rains calm?
“It will help the fields, obviously, as they will be able to be sown with crops, but the issue is that there may be no one left to tend the fields.
“In the south of the country, thousands upon thousands of people have fled into Uganda. So there is now no one left behind to work the fields, so the food production doesn’t happen.
“This is a country based on subsistence farming but people are deserting their homes, leaving livestock behind.”
Solving the food crisis is an enormous undertaking on its own but Shearer also has the peace process to consider as well.
“Once independence came, South Sudan was really a perfect storm of calamity waiting to happen. It was seriously underdeveloped, they really had nothing when independence came. There was no proper process of state building, of ensuring tribes could live together, of changing ingrained mentalities that had separated people for many, many years.
“Now they all had to come together overnight and it was never going to be a simple solution. A sense of nationhood is going to be a generational process. But I can see some light at the end of the tunnel. The government is more dominant, militarily, and we are seeing a more conciliatory approach to the country’s problems.
“There are real efforts to work with regional countries for stability and for political settlement. These are encouraging signs.”
Thousands upon thousands of people have fled into Uganda, so there is now no one left behind to work the fields Shearer spends a lot of time interacting with the local people.