Greetings from an ever-green Juba! The last time we reported from South Sudan it was dry and dusty everywhere. This time our visit coincided with the start of the rainy season – a welcome respite to the scorching heat that lasted for months.
Other than the heat, there are many challenges in South Sudan, particularly when trying to set up an mVAM system. South Sudan is one of the worst ranking countries in terms of mobile phone penetration and connectivity: according to 2016 ITU data, approximately 24 percent of the population have mobile cellular subscriptions and merely 4.3 percent of households own a computer. The ongoing conflict has only made the situation worse. We found out that network coverage has significantly deteriorated since mVAM activities first started in February 2016. A case in point: one major network operator, which reportedly had the largest outreach in the country, reduced its coverage from 70 to 15 percent. Our mVAM operators told us that completing a 10-minute survey with one single phone call was nearly impossible, because the line is constantly dropping.
Even when a call does go through, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint the respondent’s location. People are on the move fleeing the conflict (more than 950,000 South Sudanese have crossed the border into Uganda alone according to the latest UNHCR estimates) and phone numbers keep changing (the average shelf life of a SIM is short as people are on the move and network coverage varies greatly between different areas). To make things even more complicated, the administrative boundaries of the country are also shifting (in addition to the existing 10 states, an additional 22 states have been newly created).
Being mindful of these challenges, we had previously recommended that the country office start contacting a pool of key informants who are easier to reach and were able to collect data on markets, displacement, and road access in the Greater Upper Nile Region. However, even here we are confronted with the challenge of collecting data in a highly politically-divided context. Relying exclusively on key informant sources can give you a biased picture of the situation on the ground, especially where the informants speak for specific interest groups. It is therefore necessary to triangulate various sources of key informant information and complement them with other secondary or even primary household data when possible.
Does all of this mean that there is no future for mVAM in South Sudan? On the contrary, we found that the demand for mobile surveys is there both for WFP and the humanitarian community at large. After all, South Sudan is a complex emergency where ‘putting boots on the ground’ is often not possible and we need all the creativity and tools we can muster. In fact, WFP South Sudan has been conducting mobile surveys for market monitoring and rapid emergency food security assessments (the latest one took place in select famine-affected counties). Similarly, other NGO and development partners on the ground are also conducting mobile surveys for programme or food security monitoring.
Moving forward, we have identified, together with the South Sudan VAM team, two areas of opportunity where we can scale mVAM: i) urban food security monitoring in selected hotspots and interest points and ii) complementing the early warning bulletin jointly produced by the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management and WFP with mVAM key informant data.
Also published on Medium.