Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies (CHRHS)

"Apart from the threatening situation of our country at that time, I grew up knowing that education was the only thing that would help to improve the images of human suffering that remain imprinted in my mind."

Charles Kpiosa

Voices from the Field: Charles Kpiosa from South Sudan

After growing up in exile, Charles Kpiosa (HI² International Fellow) has dedicated his studies and work to focus on initiatives that help restore the dignity of South Sudanese through educative and economic capacity building programs. Charles is currently completing his Master's degree in International Development and Governance (MIDG 2017) at Tsinghua University. 

HI² -- You have a very powerful and important history. How have your experiences growing up in a refugee camp in the Central African Republic shaped your interest in humanitarian work? Are there any specific humanitarian issues that you are particularly drawn to given your background?

A year before I was born, my country slipped into 22 years of civil war, which forced my family into exile and ended with secession in 2011. Living conditions in exile were challenging. Although there were immediate food and non-food items delivered to the refugee camp, they did not meet the expectations of the refugees. This led to two sets of massive voluntary repatriation of the refugees back to their home capital of Khartoum. The stories that followed about the repatriated persons were unpleasant because of the prevailing conditions they met when they were allegedly dumped in the desert of Jebel Aulia and other suburbs around the city. They resorted to using cartons delivered to them by humanitarian agencies to raise up some shelters that provided only temporary protection against the harsh climatic conditions of the desert. After hearing stories of those who were still in the camps, we decided to face the challenges of the camps which lacked basic human needs such as medicine, food, and education for the people.

My parents were heroes. They fought these conditions with their last efforts. They taught us to work hard, wake up early in the morning, walk a distance of more than 12 miles in total each day from home to the farm and from the farm back home before 11 o'clock to prepare for afternoon classes. We dug acres of land to produce for the family and dug pit-latrines in the camp to raise some money for school requirements and this was subsidized by the money raised by an individual child who sold firewood or handicrafts made of bamboos locally known as kpanga. Sometimes, when the situation proved worse, we could sell part of our livestock to get school fees and other needs. My father’s short construction contracts with Africare and MSF also contributed to our welfare in one way or the other as my mother made sure we are fed, bathed and cared for properly.

While in exile, my siblings and I had access to free basic schooling that was run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). There was one high school in the camp –the Seminary (Junior Secondary School)—with only three classes. After this, a student was left with few options to further his or her studies—he could begin searching for casual labor, start a small business enterprise, apply for the highly competitive United Nations Scholarship, or join the Catholic Seminary as an aspirant to become a Roman Catholic Priest. If a student was admitted to the seminary and completed the Preparatory Seminary, he would be sent to Uganda to the minor seminary to continue his studies and priestly formation. The latter option was what enabled me to leave the camp to go to Uganda where I completed secondary school.

Once a student found themselves leaving the camp to go to study in Uganda, hope was provided for not only his family, but also for the whole South Sudanese community in the camp. This inspired me to work hard and I was determined to complete every requirement in order to go to Uganda. As a result, I found myself cherishing academics intently. Sometimes the aspirations and hopes that rested on me created a fear of failure, but also a strength of motivation, as students who performed poorly were dismissed and ultimately sent back home to the rebel-controlled Southern Sudan. A life with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was demanding, and I did not want to fail school and be deported back to Southern Sudan where I would serve as a child soldier.

Apart from the threatening situation of our country at that time, I grew up knowing that education was the only thing that would help to improve the images of human suffering that remain imprinted in my mind. Education in the refugee camp was not only inaccessible, but children from humble backgrounds like myself could not afford to pay for it ourselves. My appreciations go to the Catholic Church and other well-wishers who have lifted me up from the poverty of incapability to the wealthy class of the learned, which enables me to talk and write about my challenging life experience which would have gone without any person hearing or having read about it.

I would like to conclude by shedding light on a few specific humanitarian issues that have drawn my attention in my experiences. We must improve refugee status beginning with a respect of basic rights, which include the right to education, basic health and some degree of freedom. All these rights exist in black and white, but they are sometimes not followed or paid attention to. Education as narrated above gives hope to the hopeless. Education even makes people learn to make sacrifices knowing that the sun will shine tomorrow and to enable them to do this, their health should be of priority to the host government, country of origin and the international actors. Refugees or internally displaced persons should have some degree of freedom to decide what is best for them. Many initiatives and talents of these people go unseen when they are confined or compelled to stay or go one way. Repatriation, reintegration, resilient building, and responsibility to address gender-based issues should remain the focus of the players that roll out programs among vulnerable people.

HI² -- Tell us about the organization you started, Community Organization for Resilience and Development (CORD). What type of projects are you working on? What do you hope to achieve through this organization?

CORD is a non-governmental or charitable organization, which came into existence in 2018 with the vision to empower and transform the world into a wonderful place through capacity enhancement and innovative initiatives that propel the engine of inclusive development. CORD has a great passion to lead communities to transformational change through high-quality education, healthy life, and self-reliance in achieving sustainable development. The organization upholds its prime principle of humanity around which all other values orbit to inspire and transform communities to lead a healthy and prosperous life. The crises in South Sudan and around the globe have negatively impacted the communities, infrastructure, ecosystem and environment; hence there is a need for reformation.

The humanitarian crisis escalated by the legacy of civil war and acute underdevelopment continues to intensify at a devastating pace, leaving people impoverished and weakened. South Sudanese are in dire need of healthcare, education, livelihoods, peace, and prosperity. Considering the deteriorating humanitarian situation and limited access to basic services, humanitarian interventions are deemed necessary. Similarly, the signing of the revitalized peace deal in Addis Ababa gives a glimpse of hope for development organizations to extend their operations in South Sudan with extra educational programming which builds the resilience of the local communities to become economically independent, and initiates innovations that lead to prosperity.

CORD believes healthy living can only come through community empowerment that drives innovative projects for sustainable development in the country and beyond. CORD strives to restore the dignity of South Sudanese through educative and economic capacity building so that they can stand by themselves and tap every opportunity that alleviates their living conditions. CORD as a national organization has high aspirations to spearhead initiatives that lead to the realization of United Nations (UN) Global Agenda of 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in partnership with both UN Agencies and other development partners within South Sudan and elsewhere in the world.

CORD has started rolling out minor projects with locally generated funds from members to support the street children in Juba city who are mainly on the streets as a result of intertwisted challenges of civil wars, marriage breakages dues to domestic and gender-based acts of violence, loss of parents due to HIV/AIDS, and poverty which leads to parental denial of children. CORD is currently working to build partnerships with other development actors, and is soliciting for funds that can help us implement major projects that and fall in line with our objectives, which are:

  • Promote easy accessibility to education for all, regardless of age, sex, color, region, and creed. Advance capacity building to individuals, groups, and institutions for all to make informed decisions on the affairs that affect their lives.
  • Nurture ideal system of governance based on democratic and human rights principles through peacebuilding programs, advocacy and protection and inclusive participation of every citizen in decision-making on the affairs of their society.
  • Together strive to fight deadliest diseases and advance WASH activities in order to ensure that everyone leads a long, healthy, productive and decent life.
  • Support and spearhead innovative activities aimed at eliminating extreme poverty, protect and enhance environmental programs and enable communities to tap opportunities leading to improved livelihoods.
  • Provide humanitarian aid in all phases of both natural and man-made disasters’ cycle as a way of building communities resilience to prepare, mitigate, respond to and recover from the impact of those disasters. (Find more here)

HI² -- Tell us about the thesis you are currently writing, The Role of NGOs in Advancing Community Empowerment Towards Sustainable Development. What has your research shown? How has the transition of your interests from international relations and policy diplomacy to development studies influenced your thesis?

My thesis focuses on scanning NGOs’ programs in order to find out whether those programs aim to empower communities through community capacity building for sustainable development in South Sudan. The study narrows its scope and focuses on Juba, the capital city of South Sudan at this time, though it might extend to some towns within the country for someway of comparing some cases or success stories.

The study critically looks at the rise and flow of NGOs into South Sudan under a common ticket of emergency and humanitarian interventions in the country. An immense focus of the study is to examine the implications of over-dependence on NGOs to deliver basic services in a young country like South Sudan, with fledgling institutions too weak to hold development actors accountable for their actions (if they go against states policies). It is certain that overreliance on NGOs to deliver services (which are primary responsibilities of the government) might compromise the state’s sovereignty.

Furthermore, overreliance might further compromise the quality and foundation of the development needed in this knowledge-based, economy-driven world. Together with the above, my thesis further diagnoses the concept and evolution of sustainable development, ascertaining why the great summits/conferences on and policies of sustainable development including the millennium and sustainable development goals have yielded less impact than previously expected to help developing countries like South Sudan strike inclusive growth.

From the preliminary findings, community engagement and participation, educational learning, training and workshops, cooperation, engaging donors, and shifting their interests towards communities’ priorities while supporting the communities to use their own locally generated resources, and mainstreaming the cross-cutting issues into national and humanitarian policies have been highlighted as I continue to make my final touches in the report.