In December 2013, less than two years into independence, South Sudan[1] entered the self-destructive spiral of an ongoing civil war that has killed more than 50,000, displaced 2,000,000 and exposed 7.5 million people to heightened humanitarian risks, including famine and cholera. Yet, this is not the whole picture. Something is missing: the will of communities to have peace. I often go to South Sudan. I regularly meet and exchange with many people. I feel close to them.

I grew up in South-Central LA where tribal warfare is called gang violence. Where I grew up it was the Crips against the Bloods not unlike a civil war. It was brother against brother and it was fighting for power, for control and for survival. In any case, their turf wars devastated whole neighborhoods. I struggled most of my life trying to understand why it happens and how to stop it.

One thing I have come to believe is that, be it a person, a community or a country, we cannot put the future on hold indefinitely and spend our lives in a state of forever emergency. The South Sudanese are, of all people, familiar with emergency. For 43 years in the last 62, southern Sudan or South Sudan has actually been in a state of civil war, that is, literally, in a state of emergency. This means that all living South Sudanese have directly experienced conflict and emergency. Conflict in South Sudan is like a chronic disease that we cannot treat if our mindset is simply to address emergency after emergency, intervention after intervention.


In order to make peace a tangible reality, we non-South Sudanese willing to help cannot be just be in the business of going into conflict zones and trying to get people to put down their guns. This is obviously an important first step – and we want the guns to fall silent in South Sudan; but unless we replace the guns with schools, with jobs, with some way for people to learn and to engage with each other in a productive way, then the next generation is just going to pick the guns back up once we leave.

We must think in the long term and we must not assume that South Sudan’s problems can be solved without South Sudanese themselves. Hence the importance of youth in my view: as citizens of the youngest country of the world, they have a whole page of history to write by and for themselves.

As is the case everywhere in Africa, youth is the demographic majority in the population – people under 24 make 65% of the estimated 12.5 million South Sudanese population. As in many other African countries also, though, most young South Sudanese remain a social and economic minority – meaning that they are not really presented with opportunities that will get them to make a difference and earn their due – be it respect or income.image

Such lack of prospect is worsened in South Sudan, where young people pay unbearable costs to conflict and violence. A first cost is that they often end up as victims and perpetrators or accomplices of violence. There is also the unseen cost that causes hundreds of thousands of children and youth to miss on learning and working; and this leads to more poverty and conflict.

South Sudanese youth are aware of this injustice. I have personally exchanged with many of them and they keep repeating that their country is being ignored by the world and that they are abandoned as young people. I want to prove otherwise.

My first thought is that we must perhaps stop saying that youth is the future. We often hear that and in many countries – in Africa and elsewhere – it sometimes feels as if we are just asking them to wait for their time until the adults are done, which ironically always happen to take an awful long time. No. If we truly want real change to happen, young people must be part and partners of the solutions as of today.

With my foundation, the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative[2] (WPDI), we gather young women and men from vulnerable communities and give them a holistic set of trainings in conflict resolution, life skills, entrepreneurship, and Information and Communication Technology. Once trained, these young leaders go back to their communities where they keep a kind of watch, mediate conflicts if they arise and develop community projects and small businesses with local youth they train themselves.


We now have a first group of 174 active in the area of the former State of Eastern Equatoria and we started another one in April in the area of the former State of Western Equatoria and plan to expand to other parts of the country in the years to come. Our aim is to build a new kind of resource for the country. We train these young women and men as both peacemakers and entrepreneurs so they can foster peace in times of conflict and nurture prosperity in times of peace.

We are seeing some results. Local officials and even State governors enroll our youth to conduct mediation processes or to train police and security personnel in non-violent conflict resolution. Some take courageous initiatives: when violence peaked again in the summer of 2016, one of our trainees one of our peacemakers engaged negotiations with soldiers to ask them to depart from the school they had transformed into barracks.. His argument to them was that they had to care for the future of their country and let children learn.

Another positive result is that our young leaders of Eastern Equatoria have succeeded in launching community businesses in their home counties. WPDI supports but does not create the businesses for them. They do that themselves. We ask them to go in their communities to assess needs and come up with viable business plans. They provide services to their communities – mostly in agriculture or in construction material – and incomes for vulnerable local youth.

These are only small steps but they demonstrate that South Sudan is not just about dispiriting news. It is a country of hope and solutions too.

What my work has taught me is that solutions out of insecurity and fragility cannot come from outside, nor can they come from above. Solutions will come from the people of South Sudan and most of them are young. So we must assist. But, in the end, our help will be useful only if it helps them help themselves.

Forest Whitaker,CEO/Founder of the Whitaker Peace & Development InitiativeUNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation[3]UN Advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals


  1. ^ South Sudan (
  2. ^ Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (
  3. ^ UNESCO (


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