One of the highlights of my trip to Sudan last week was seeing all the work we at USAID have been doing to help southern Sudan prepare for its historic referendum on self-determination. Voting is due to start January 9, 2011.

Despite initial delays as the parties to Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement put in place the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) in Khartoum and Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau (SSRB) in Juba and established their operating procedures, preparations for the referendum are now in full swing on an extremely compressed timeline.  Our dedicated team of electoral experts, including both USAID Mission staff and an experienced team from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, have been working day and night with the SSRC and SSRB (which are in charge of the referendum) to plan and assist in carrying out this historic event.  We have also been working closely with the international community, particularly the United Nations, to ensure timely and coordinated efforts to support the referendum process.

U.S. Government and United Nations representatives in Khartoum on October 30 hand over to the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) materials for southern Sudan’s January 2011 self-determination referendum.  From left:  U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration; USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa Larry Garber; UN Development Program Resident Representative Claudio Caldarone; SSRC Chairman Professor Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil; UN Integrated Referendum and Electoral Division Director Denis K. Kadima; Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General Jasbir Lidder.  Credit:  Jim Parys/USAID

Working with the Sudanese, we are playing a key role by providing technical and material assistance, and have provided significant funding to international and domestic groups to both educate voters and ensure credible observation of the referendum.

On October 30, I witnessed a key milestone in this effort—we and our UN partners handed over more than 3,000 registration kits and training materials necessary for voter registration, which is due to start November 15.   Along with me and our Sudan team was U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan General Scott Gration; Mr. Jasbir Lidder, Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General; and SSRC Chairman Professor Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil.

From all the participants, I heard words of gratitude for our support.  Mr. Lidder characterized the delivery of referendum materials as the “first fruits of our cooperation,” recognizing that much more effort is still required to ensure a credible referendum process.  Most encouraging to me was the presence of Professor Khalil, who described the registration process as “this complex task for this important event to allow all eligible southern voters—even those living in the north—to participate in this decision on the future for all southern citizens.”