USAID VISTAS recognized three broad interrelated conflicts: national, citizens-state, and inter-communal. The program recognized that it could have the greatest direct impact on mitigating inter-communal violence, but had far less influence engaging political actors who might benefit from these conflicts. The challenge was to link local conflict mitigation and resolution to the wider political efforts to resolve the national conflict, feeding into national level peace process, and preventing elite interference in local dynamics. An independent evaluation of VISTAS stated: “There was little doubt that the peace dialogues activities and the way they were structured were appropriate and relevant for the context of South Sudan. However… besides common issues such as cattle thefts, the main factor affecting cohesion in the community was political interference and insecurity.” In addition to a change in USG policy and legislation that prohibited direct support to the Government of South Sudan following the outbreak of war in December 2013, the Government’s subsequent choice to break down the historic 10 states into what experts described as numerous, largely competitive, ethnic enclaves were key factors preventing support to the government in conflict mitigation.
USAID VISTAS built on a long tradition of customary reconciliation and peacebuilding in South Sudan. The program helped targeted communities prepare before dialogue and created a more inclusive dialogue, bringing in women and youth who were not previously part of this traditional practice. Recognizing the impact of trauma on people’s sense of victimization and motivation for revenge, the program introduced trauma awareness training so the parties could approach the problem from a different perspective. VISTAS also disseminated the resolutions of peace dialogues and supported implementation of some resolutions, such as improving peace markets, constructing traditional courts, setting up early warning networks, providing water along migration routes, and promoting livelihoods that required cooperation over competition, especially for young men. VISTAS also bridged ethnic divides through sports, arts, culture and joint trainings. To sustain progress after the program closed in May 2019, VISTAS supported a growing community of professional South Sudanese peace practitioners.
To address the challenge of linking the local with the national, VISTAS benefited from political analysts and anthropologists to advise the program. VISTAS partnered with traditional authorities and civil society, especially women and youth groups, in order to strengthen their capacity to engage directly with the Government of South Sudan on national peace. Instead of organizing the program’s teams according to the new state map, VISTAS organized its subnational teams, offices, and activities to encompass communities in conflict and bridge the different conflict divides.
Working from up to nine offices in six main regions across the country, VISTAS implemented 588 activities: