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“Think big; start small; act now” resonated with me and I think all the audience at the Academy of Health Sciences in Omdurman last Saturday. Professor Hassan Bella used the phrase to describe the philosophy of Mabel Wolff, who founded Sudan’s midwifery training school in 1921. The occasion was the unveiling of a plaque donated by this eminent professor to remember the work of the founders of modern midwifery in Sudan – Mabel and her sister Gertrude and their two Sudanese colleagues, Batoul M Eisa and Guindia Salih. But more than anything it was an opportunity to look ahead to the challenges of providing health care throughout Sudan. The Academy estimates a deficit of 95,000 nurses, midwives and allied professions across Sudan’s 17 states.
Saturday’s event was timely because I had just said goodbye to Stephen O’Brien, the UK Minister with responsibility for our development cooperation with Sub-Saharan Africa. While here, he had launched DFID’s Operational Plan which sets out how we will deliver concrete benefits for the Sudanese people over the next 3-4 years, including an additional 800,000 people gaining access to clean drinking water and 3 million people reached by health and nutrition-related programmes. In the Embassy he had an initial discussion with our team about how the UK could help Sudan to tackle the problem of the 80% or more of young women who undergo genital mutilation. Sudanese health workers and the Government are determined to eliminate this practice by 2018. To do that I suspect we can all go back to the future and learn from the success of the midwifery training launched over 90 years ago.
Mr O’Brien also visited Darfur, where he saw how the UK is able to help the people of Darfur move from dependence on humanitarian support to longer term development. The Golo Reservoir outside El Fasher is being repaired and re-connected to the town’s water supply. It is a beautiful place. In an arid landscape, the reservoir is the only permanent surface water in the whole of Darfur. The mahogany trees which ring it were planted in 1947 when the reservoir was completed. Today they are huge and give luxuriant shade. As we were leaving we met a 96 year old farmer, who remembered watering the saplings as a young man.
Security in some parts of Darfur remains a major concern. Since our visit another aid worker has been kidnapped. The day we were there another UNAMID peace-keeper was tragically killed and more civilians fled recent fighting to arrive in El Fasher. But there is hope in the air. The Darfur Regional Authority is establishing itself. Some of the commitments of the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur are being honoured. And at least some of the IDPs we met are beginning to think seriously of their future – either returning to their homes and lands or deciding to embark on a new life in El Fasher and other towns. Many will choose the latter and one of their main needs will be clean water. The UK together with State water authorities and UNOPS have anticipated that need. We hope to help Darfuris enjoy a better future. This was my third visit to El Fasher this year. While news headlines no longer focus on Darfur, the UK has not forgotten it.
Darfur provides a glimmer of hope in what is otherwise an increasingly troubled scene. I am shortly packing my suitcases for some leave after five months of fairly intense activity. It is with some trepidation that I go. March seems likely to be a difficult month for Sudan. Conflict is raging in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile State and the tensions between South Sudan and Sudan risk erupting into an even larger-scale conflict. Our Foreign Secretary and many others have urged calm We remain adamantly even-handed: both countries should take measures to de-escalate the confrontation. Both should refrain from supporting proxies in the other’s territory. Both should allow full humanitarian access to civilians in need, wherever they are. Both should engage in a political process mediated by President Thabo Mbeki. These are not demands being made by interfering “Western” powers. These are the demands of the UN, the African Union, the League of Arab States and, above all, of the people of Sudan.
The future hangs in the balance. It is not too late for leaders to choose to build two countries at peace with each other and each working hard and collaboratively to meet the needs of their people for jobs, schools and clinics. Until the very end, the UK will work through our political, development and defence relations to encourage that vision. But time is short. The noise of war is rising. My wish is that it does not drown out the voices of the millions of Sudanese and South Sudanese who crave peace. One day they will have not just voices, but votes.