As the country hopes to wind down next month decades of isolation as a pariah state in the form of delisting from the US list of states sponsoring terrorism, and the expected final signature of the peace deals negotiated in Juba, the focus should move to the economic field, where ensuring basic living necessities is becoming a daily nightmare.
The 3-day economic conference that starts Saturday is more or less a replica of a similar one that took place 34 years ago; following yet another popular uprising of 1985 that toppled the second military regime of Ja’far Nimeiry 1969-1985.
Reading through the papers presented and discussed during that conference gives the impression that it could be still relevant today with some changes in dates and figures. Issues debated then are the same, subject to the same, even intense debate today: what economic identity and the route the country should take, the controversial, sensitive issue of subsidies, relations with international financial institutions and so on.
Missing then was how to have a practical experiment tackling the central issue of production, in addition to the theoretical and academic ongoing discussions. What was known as a structural imbalance between imports and exports have ballooned over decades of mismanagement, corruption and wrong priorities into almost an economic collapse coupled with hyper-inflation.
And that is where the current conference can do better by promoting the culture to produce at grass roots level and in any format possible to make it a national priority.
A starting point could be to visit the experiment of rural community development in Wad Ballal village in Gezira state, 20 km north of Wad Madani. It is an experiment that worth following and needs a political will to replicate all over the country.
It was some 18 years ago that community members of Wad Ballal inside and outside Sudan started to brainstorm and debate their present, their future prospects and how to improve it. One of the ideas they agreed on was to set up a cooperative company including an investment dimension with villagers having shares.
Wad Ballal approached then Khartoum Bank looking for finance for their first cattle breeding project. The mode of finance created for the project, where the community was part of the deal, won the Ethical Finance Innovation Challenge Awards (EFICA) provided jointly by the world news agency Reuters Thomson and Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank. “The project uses a structure that channels investment through a community-established company and association, ensuring that farmers receive access to financing when it is needed most, as well as technical and marketing assistance.
The project has improved the quality of local livestock, has substantially increased the income of participating families while generating healthy returns for the village company and the bank itself. A portion of the profits are invested back into community development, creating a virtuous cycle,” the award statement said back in 2014.
Over the years, the community has sustained ups and downs in its various projects from cattle breeding to chicken and have encouraged some of the village inhabitants to invest in some projects like a cotton ginning plant, as well as absorbing government’s heavy handed bureaucracy, corruption and lack of interest to help.
The project provided a living example of a new route that could be taken to tap the country’s natural resources at the grassroots level and help revive the countryside. Moreover, it provides an opportunity for small investors be it Sudanese inside or outside the country to participate.
Earlier this year it went step further when it entered into a joint venture with a similar experience to produce broiler chicken. This chicken production was cemented between Wad Ballal in Gezira state and Al-Jaberia village, some 514km in the Northern state. Both are adopting an approach combining the tradition of cooperation with an investment outlook, where members of the community are shareholders in the company they set up after satisfying all legal and administrative procedures.
Though Wad Ballal experience, which was followed by Al-Jaberia depends on an initiative from grassroots, it is the kind of initiatives that needs a push from the government and the economic conference could be a suitable platform for that declaration. That push requires declaring a target of replicating the experience in at least once in all of the country’s 18 states to have a living example that could lure other localities all over the country to follow suit.
Such projects of community-based development are very attractive to some world lending institutions like the FAO, the IFAD, the Islamic Development Bank, the African Development Bank, but they all need some kind of a government presence. And that is where there is a need for an innovative idea to set up a new institution where these bodies, in addition to government and Sudanese interested can join hands exclusively for such approach to help in providing finance, feasibility studies, marketing etc.
Moreover, as the country ventures into a new political experience hoping for a democratic transformation, transparency, respect for human rights, it needs to tie that with something tangible before people more than the typical theoretical political rhetoric that have been dominating the scene so far. Villagers can have the first-hand experience of discussing which project they want to implement, how to carry it out, the behavior of those responsible will be under popular scrutiny in an open, transparent atmosphere.
And this could be a good opportunity to engage resistance committees into more positive and productive activities that help in building communities. Such approach will be a natural incubator that will help in creating new leaders, who could eventually move along the ladder to regional and national levels.
However, the big prize for such an approach is that it is going to provide a chance to replace the concept of wealth sharing with a new one: wealth-generating first, then sharing it.
The 2005 peace deal with SPLM, the CPA, has highlighted the wealth-sharing concept in Sudan’s political jargon and practices, which gives a wrong impression that wealth is there ready, waiting to be shared. The outcome of such an approach is for some elites securing top jobs with their perks for themselves, while those in whose name arms were raised continued to suffer.
It is high time to reconsider that approach. The Wad Ballal and Al-Jaberia experiences show one of the ways for such a review.
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