Juba, Sudan:   She sat in the shade of a transit tent at this port city on the White Nile, surrounded by her worldly possessions and eight children.  A symbol of the hope and the challenges facing south Sudan as it moves towards independence on July 9, the woman arrived a week earlier by barge from Khartoum, where she had lived for decades with her now-deceased husband.  With family roots in the south, she responded to the January referendum that overwhelmingly approved independence for the region by loading her children and furniture on a barge and heading south.  When she arrived in Juba, she kissed the ground and sang songs of praise all night.

But now, she worries about the future.  When I met her, she felt that her prospects were few: her money had run out; she had no land or job possibilities, no experience in farming, and no relatives or friends in the south; her children were unlikely to attend school, which required fees and purchase of uniforms.  She still believed she made the right move, but the lines creasing her forehead betrayed new doubts.

After decades of civil war that caused up to two million deaths, the separation of north and south Sudan will occur in July.  There are still tough negotiations underway to resolve remaining separation issues – including the exact location of the border, citizenship for southerners still in the north and northerners still in the south, distribution of revenues from oil production mostly in the south, and the status of the border area of Abyei – but most experts expect the separation to occur without significant new north-south violence.

The new country of south Sudan will have much going for it, including leaders publicly committed to democracy, transparency, human rights and socio-economic empowerment.  It also stands to benefit from revenues from oil production and, perhaps most importantly, the strong commitment and friendship of the international community.

At the same time, the challenges for south Sudan are daunting.  The new country will rank among the world’s worst on the socio-economic scale, with high rates of infant and maternal mortality, widespread illiteracy—up to 97 percent for women—and a lack of potable water and sanitation.  Despite significant oil revenues, the south lacks the most basic infrastructure such as roads, schools, hospitals, and houses.  The government lacks trained personnel, armed militias need to be demobilized and reintegrated, and civil society organizations need to be revitalized.   There are also continuing disputes over land, as well as the risk of spill-over from conflict in northern Uganda and Darfur.

The success of the new state is of vital importance to the international community.  South Sudan will border seven states – Chad, Central African Republic, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and northern Sudan – and instability in south Sudan could destabilize this already fragile region.  South Sudan has been plagued by droughts and famines, and the need for humanitarian assistance will likely remain high.  South Sudan also sits astride the White Nile, and Egypt and north Sudan in particular want the life-blood of their countries to be secure.

Equally important, as a prime mover of the 2005 agreement that secured north-south peace, the United States is bound to its legacy.   USAID, the State Department and other US agencies are working with major development partners to support south Sudan’s transition by strengthening government institutions, empowering citizens and civil society, supporting the delivery of health care and education services, promoting productive sectors such as agriculture, and addressing grievances that fuel conflict.  These steps are critical to providing a visible “peace dividend” to a war-weary population with high expectations for the fruits of independence.  At the same time, we are helping build the basis for long-term economic and stability: a strong and independent central bank, a credible monetary policy and exchange rate regime, and a transparent public financial system to manage oil, tax and assistance revenue.

Working with the UN and other organizations, our government is also assisting returnees to reintegrate in their areas of origin in the south, including some 300,000 since last December alone.  We support the registration and processing of returnees at Juba’s port and elsewhere; provide relief supply to vulnerable families, such as blankets, mosquito nets, and plastic sheeting; and support communities that are absorbing high numbers of returnees with health, water, sanitation, and job opportunities.

The story of the migrant woman in Juba took a positive twist after our encounter.  Like other returnees, she is receiving a three-month food ration from the UN World Food Program.   Given her vulnerability, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees will help her build a basic home, provide training and support to help her set up a small business, and visit her regularly to monitor her situation until she is fully settled.

With the combined efforts of the international community, the future has begun to look brighter for her.  Similar support and attention can also brighten the future for the rest of southern Sudan as it prepares to become the world’s newest nation.

Donald Steinberg serves as Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.  He previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Angola and as a member of the UN Civil Society Advisory Group for Women, Peace and Security.