South Sudan was officially recognised as independent on the 9th July 2011, making it the newest country in the world. My friend had been working in the region at the time and we had a chance to catch up over the New Year - it turns out his job was organising round table discussions between the political parties in South Sudan.
I was very interested in the possibility for Social Innovation (SI) in the newest country in the world. My thinking was that some of the biggest obstacles to social change in UK and across the world take the form of entrenched inequality or systems. As such, a new country with an as-yet unwritten constitution could provide a fascinating opportunity for building systems for cultivating progression. This article will be divided into three sections. I will briefly outline what SI is, I will share a story of SI from South Sudan and then describe another opportunity for SI in an attempt to show how a empirical approach could be applied (by any country or organisation) to maximise the potential of SI.
Social Innovation at the moment:
SI is about efficiency in combating social problems. The field includes brilliant minds working hard at thinking of novel solutions, to do more with less, in order to address social issues and encourage social interaction. A recent release by Social Innovation Europe (SIE) defines the focus for future research into the field with a key question:
“How can societies innovate better and faster? How can European Commission catalyse this process?”
So, is there a case for SI in South Sudan?
To answer the question that SIE propose above, and to set the scene for this article I would argue that the best way to maximise the benefit SI can have is to apply empirical methods to the problem of developing social solutions. So can SI and my proposal of applying empirical method to problem solving work for South Sudan? The situation in South Sudan is very interesting because they do not have many social structures in place, as such there may not always be a process to improve. However, what is so amazing about the South Sudan case study is that they could build principles of SI into the foundation of their country. Legislation could be passed which encourages and facilitates the constant social progression that SI creates. As such, it is my belief that SI principles could be of great use to South Sudan at the moment, while they are developing their social structures.
A brilliant example is provided by the work of a man that my friend told me about. He is a mental health professional called Benjamin. Benjamin works in Juba, the South Sudanese capital using principles of mental health care to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What is particularly remarkable about this is that it is done as cheaply and on a large scale. I have a Psychology background myself and can testify that treatment for PTSD in the UK is an expensive and lengthy process. When I have spoken to psychologists about what Benjamin is doing in South Sudan they are amazed. The image of South Sudan that is drawn by the media at the moment is a country which is struggling to cope: communities are fighting each other, people are starving and the government is advocating development as tribe men continue to drive cattle. So, the fact that somebody is treating mental illness (as opposed to physical illness) seems remarkable.
The reason I like Benjamin’s example is because I think it encapsulates what SI is all about: he has seen a social need and is trying to meet it – regardless of the barriers to his success. Consider that South Sudan does not have a health service and a report published in 2009 by BMC Psychiatry estimates that one in three people suffer from PTSD in South Sudan – the need is great and the possible provision is limited. Benjamin has started to address a social problem regardless of his chances of success. I know that the European Commission and NESTA have undertaken a lengthy commitment to studying the practice of SI. However, until they can generate some useful conclusions a question that remains for the SI community is; how can the reflective practice in developed countries be rolled out to other practitioners across the world, who have started ambitious projects to combat social issues?
What next for South Sudan?
Above I have mentioned how a lack of structure can lead to SI because of necessity. However, South Sudan is creating structures and infrastructures, so would it be possible to build SI and the possibilities it offers into these structures? A second opportunity for South Sudan to use SI could be to promote social harmony and integration between the many tribes inside their newly defined borders. South Sudan is keen to progress as a unified nation and this may be hampered by the fact that some groups feel they have been marginalised in the past and others fear they will be in the future. How can this social situation be overcome? I am a big believer in the power of empirical method as an answer to social issues and as a catalyst for improving social innovation. This scenario provides a perfect example: what if there was a way to guarantee an objective and practical approach to social integration and allocation of resources (education, electricity or roads)? A few days after meeting my friend I attended a seminar held by Dr Scott Jones who works internationally; facilitating environmental work, conflict management and conducting leadership training (see www.mind-the-gap.net). He was describing the power of stakeholder management as a principle and how it could be used to ensure the success of an educational project from the short term into the future tense. In the middle of his seminar I started pondering the possibility of adapting a model of stakeholder management to apply to the situation of South Sudan? I felt that this could be SI at its best – a novel and efficient solution to a complex social problem. Models of stakeholder management can be –at their simplest – a sheet of paper with two columns, one labelled ‘those for’ and another labelled ‘those against’. Obviously, when plotting the interests of multiple groups across a large area the model would be complex and take time to create but the principle still holds (for examples of models of stake holder management see www.mind-the-gap.net), they provide a way to objectively list and match interests of different groups. What I found particularly intriguing was the possibility of developing this empirical SI practice and making it part of the developing infrastructure – allowing room for development in to the future.
Is an empirical solution actually possible?
The model I was imagining would be the objective summation of need and benefit of regions across South Sudan, which would allow certain areas or groups to be prioritised without any subjective skew. The model would allow for the collation of opinion and fact and then give an output of how to proceed, which should lead to the most positive course of action, and at the very least minimise social tension – due to its objectivity.
The scenario in South Sudan is so unique because there exists a situation which involves a social need, but in a context which has just under gone a social change, making its parts malleable, and productive change possible. If you compare this to another situation where there is a social need but no chance of a social change you can see the potential for South Sudan.
Similar ideas of using models to manage projects have been carried out in Ghana (2002) to build transport links; in India (2002) for education and development and closer to home in Burton upon Trent (2005) with The Kingfisher Project for area development (see below for links).The principle is that through the objective collation of data and analysis of variables an efficient and positive solution can be achieved.
I am not from South Sudan and do not want to imply that I could determine their future. However, I do think that the empirical application of SI should be part of any country’s future. I have outlined one example of how SI is being used due to necessity – in Benjamin’s treatment of PTSD. I have also described an innovative answer to another social need with reference to smaller scale projects of a similar nature. My conclusion is that through the use of empirical models social change can be efficiently accomplished – regardless of the setting - because of the objective nature of empiricism.
Article on improving transport links in Ghana (2002. http://www.transport-links.org/transport_links/filearea/documentstore/30...)
Article on Education and Development in India (2002. http://operations.ifad.org /c/document_ library/ get_file?folderId=627898&name=DLFE-3748.pdf)
Article on The Kingfisher Project in Burton upon Trent (2005. http://mind-the-gap.net/pdfs/kingfisher_project _report_2jul05.pdf).