Human Capital in the World’s Newest Country

For many Americans, college is the new high school—a rite of passage, but not an earth-shaking one. In South Sudan, where the literacy rate is below 30%, students are training to be the doctors, lawyers, and teachers who will heal, govern and teach the new nation.

“I started admiring being a doctor when I had malaria,” says Chol Makur Aciek, a medical student at the University of Juba. “I saw doctors, so I recovered from it. I thought this could be a good thing to do—to help other people the way [the doctors] helped me.”

In January 2011, South Sudan voted almost unanimously to break away from the north, officially becoming a separate country on July 9, 2011. The new government of South Sudan will have much work to do on the educational front, as one in four civil servants has no formal education. South Sudan’s three long-standing universities, the University of Juba, Bahr El Ghazal University and Upper Nile University, relocated to the north in the early 1990s when the civil war made it impossible to stay. Following independence in July 2011, the universities moved back to their campuses in the south—but many northern professors stayed behind. Continued violence, poor infrastructure and funding difficulties delayed the universities’ official reopening until earlier this month. In the interim, students have learned from remaining professors or instructors sent by international organizations, or they have taught themselves.

Nowhere is the need for college-educated professionals felt as strongly as in the medical field. One in seven women dies in childbirth, and currently, there are only 50 licensed doctors in the country of 10 million people, leaving South Sudan dependent on foreign organizations for its medical needs. The 900 medical students at the University of Juba will fill a crucial role as the first generation of South Sudanese doctors.

“A few years ago, I was invited to [the University of Juba] to give a lecture,” says Dr. Thomas Burke, Chief of the Division of Global Health and Human Rights at Massachusetts General Hospital. “I was being given a tour, and I met a few medical students sitting under a tree. They were teaching themselves biochemistry using sticks in the dirt.” The students had one professor who taught a third of the time, no curriculum, six books, and no classrooms—but huge motivation to learn.

The deficit of professors is as much a problem of coordination as of human capital. “We have qualified nationals capable of teaching in the higher institutions, [but] they need certification from the Ministry of Higher Education to be able to teach,” writes Machien Luoi.

Certifying professors, developing a national curriculum and allocating funding to rebuild universities have thus far taken a back seat to more volatile issues. Many southern Sudanese relocated to the north during the brutal civil war that lasted from 1983-2005; 350,000 have moved back to their ancestral homeland over the last year. This mass migration has led to violence when people who have lived there the whole time must share inadequate resources with returnees, or rival tribes are forced to live side by side.

Despite the many challenges (PDF), positive signs have emerged on both local and national levels. The government plans to set aside 1.2 billion dollars over the next five years to develop the universities. In the short term, they plan to continue bringing in foreign instructors. The University of Juba and Upper Nile University reopened at the beginning of January, and Bahr El Ghazal University is set to reopen at the end of the month.

The South Sudan Medical Education Collaborative, formed in February 2010 by the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Global Health and Human Rights and the Ujenzi Trust, is one of the organizations sending instructors. Medical students from schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and the University of Nairobi travel to the University of Juba Medical school to teach classes including community medicine, physical diagnosis, anatomy, histology and biochemistry.

To date, the organization has provided 27 instructors, who teach when their classes are not in session. This often requires Juba students to learn subjects faster than their American counterparts do at home. “I taught neurophysiology in eight days; we spent three weeks on it in the U.S.,” said instructor Vivek Kalia of Johns Hopkins. Many students have passed international-standard exams administered by the U.K.

In addition to teaching, SSMEC has funded the building of two classrooms and brought microscopes, slides and 250 donated medical textbooks to Juba. In the long term, ideally in ten years’ time, SSMEC plans to make itself obsolete by strengthening the faculty development track and training enough people to hand over teaching responsibilities.

Because of the civil war, the University of Juba medical students will be South Sudan’s first class of doctors in 30 years. “They are forming a foundation for their entire country,” says Sanjat Kanjilal of Harvard and SSMEC. “Graduating from medical school—that’s independence even more than raising a flag,” says Emmily Koiti, a medical student at the University of Juba.

236 years into the United States’ history, it is hard for us to imagine building a country. Our Founding Fathers channeled a great deal of skill and diplomacy into the task, and still they succeeded due, in part, to luck. South Sudan is six months old. On July 9, people were dancing in the streets. We should wish the people of South Sudan as much luck in building their nation as we had in building ours.