The founders of Village Help for South Sudan offer their innovative perspective on promoting community development.
The world’s newest country, the Republic of South Sudan, struggles with deep-seated challenges, many of which can be attributed to a Sudanese civil war spanning decades. As seen in the news recently, conflict has begun again after several years of peace. Understanding the underlying roots of the conflict is important, but I also believe it is important to know that there are people who are continuing to work diligently for improvement in the everyday lives of South Sudan’s citizens. I reached out to two of those people, Franco Majok and Ron Moulton, who are actively trying to support growth and development in South Sudan with the organization they founded, Village Help for South Sudan (VHSS).
Ron and Franco met with me in Cambridge, MA to discuss the important work they are doing with VHSS. This work includes program management and coordinating village mobilization around specific projects such as building a school and health clinic in the South Sudan village of Wunlang. The VHSS organization also has helped facilitate the installation of a water pump in Wunlang and is now looking to expand their efforts to another village in the region.
What makes VHSS an innovative organization in my mind is the way in which projects are accomplished—Franco and Ron seek to empower and provide resources to the local community members to better their own situation. In the way that many other innovative ideas have originated, Ron shares that the model of “leverage[ing] the talents of the local peoples and local materials…to accomplish something that we could not do ourselves” was unplanned and developed out of necessity, but then it actually “grew into the model.”
Franco and Ron both share that in order to successfully undertake projects that are accomplished by the local villagers and supported by an outside organization such as the VHSS there must be a strong foundation of trust established. The villagers must trust that VHSS will follow through on the commitment in funding for the project while the VHSS organization and donors must also trust that the village can complete the work. Franco says that in Wunlang village the initial seeds of trust were established in how the first project was selected. He shares that “the one thing we did before we started the [school building] project is we asked for a meeting with the local community [about]…their priorities.” Franco then restates the importance of asking “what did they want us to do first?” After stating his strong agreement of Franco’s assessment Ron adds that “we couldn’t have done the Wunlang school without Franco” who is originally from the village and had established credibility with the community thus setting the stage for a trusting relationship.
The power in the model of empowering local people and purchasing local materials for development is, shares Franco, that people become more independent. He goes on to state that a tangible building was created as an accomplishment from the school project but states that “at the same time, also, we created hope for job opportunity for the local people because they were employed” in the development of the structure.
Not fully understanding the power that one building can have on the people’s lives in the village of Wunlang I ask Franco and Ron to elaborate. Franco shares that “a school building is not for the sake of seeing the building; it is giving hope to families that their children are going to have a future. That is what the building does.” Ron followed up Franco’s assessment with the statement that “permanent structures mean prestige.” Prestige gained by having a permanent school building offers advantages that surrounding villages without schools don’t have including support from the government to pay teachers a salary.
There was another unexpected benefit that the first project provided to the Wunlang community—having a permanent school structure allowed for the development of a local market where parents dropping off children could buy and sell goods. This newly developed marketplace led Franco and Ron to strengthen a belief that the best way to support South Sudan was to focus on, as shared by Ron, “addressing the needs in a more holistic way.” He elaborates by saying a regional approach focusing on multiple projects in a couple of neighboring villages will have a bigger impact by not diluting their available resources. The hope in concentrating efforts, according to Franco, is to support a region until development is sustainable with local people, now empowered through education, experience, and resources to change their own situation.
Sustaining progress in South Sudan comes down to small incremental steps that, according to Ron, seem “pretty basic, but have a huge impact.” The work of VHSS has done in the village of Wunlang can stand as an example for other people promoting positive change, but Ron warns that “the first project is always the toughest.” He attributed the challenge of initiating change to lack of experience and a track record. Both Franco and Ron believe that a proven track record is the key to keeping momentum and sustaining progress on the ground in South Sudan. Franco then shared the reason why their projects and work need to continue in the region stating his strong belief that “if they have an education it may save their lives, they may save their community.”
Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.
** Please note that the Work of Start founder interviews will now be published quarterly instead of monthly in order to accommodate the historic start articles. **