x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Donors pledge $3.5bn for East Sudan

Projects involving water supply, healthcare and education should start within five years, say organisers of conference in Kuwait.

KUWAIT CITY // A conference in Kuwait aimed at raising money for the impoverished region of East Sudan secured more than US$3.5 billion (Dh12.9bn) in pledges, officials said yesterday, while some participants raised concerns that the money would be misspent.

The two-day International Donors and Investors Conference for East Sudan was an attempt to spur investment in one of the country's most neglected regions. The pledges could give the Italy-sized chunk of land an economic boost, but Khartoum will still have to work hard to secure the money and win the trust of its eastern states.

"The leaders of this delegation are from Khartoum," said a businessman from an indigenous ethnic group who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. "I am a Beja and we should be leading our own delegations - nobody else. Maybe the central government will take this money and use it to suppress us, Darfur and the south."

The governor of the Red Sea state, Mohammed Taher Aila, believes the donors will be watching where their money is spent. "As long as the money is going to finance projects in the east, I don't have a problem where the leadership [of the delegation] is from."

An Arab League official said the $3.5bn includes new and previous donations from governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and funds, as well as investment from the private sector. Most of the pledges will depend on Khartoum's cooperation in a new committee that will discuss issues such as tax and freedom of movement.

Abdulwahab al Bader, the director of the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, told journalists the organisers had presented 177 "viable and sustainable" development projects, with an estimated value of $4.2bn. The projects were aimed at areas such as poverty reduction, infrastructure, agriculture, tourism and industry.

The organisers said they were seeking donations for water supply, health care and education, "easy loans" for roads and electricity, and private sector investment for industry, agriculture and livestock. They hoped all of the projects would begin within five years.

Eyad Ammora, the director of Awad Ammora Co, a Damascus-based petroleum company, one of hundreds of businessmen weeding through the projects on offer, said "Sudan needs to loosen up on the financial side of things, such as allowing investors to get their money out of the country. This is the biggest problem".

East Sudan consists of the Al Qadarif, Kassala and Red Sea states, and has a population of around five million. Rebels who believed the area was neglected fought with Khartoum for years until a peace treaty was signed in 2006.

"Unfortunately, we have been the battleground for a lot of conflicts, but since 2006, not a single bullet has been fired," said Mustafa Osman Ismail, the Sudanese president's advisor on East Sudan and member of the visiting delegation.

Mr Ismail believes the region's fertile land, climate, access to the sea and mineral reserves make it a prime destination for investment. If investors focused on agriculture, "the area could constitute food security for the entire Arab world".

Another delegate, Abuobieda Dujj, the regional director of the Eastern Sudan Reconstruction and Development Fund, said the investments included "mega projects" such as a cement plant and a road construction project with estimated values of $250 million.

The money could provide a boost to states with some of Sudan's worst human development indicators. Only 36.1 per cent of children are enrolled in primary education in the Red Sea, the lowest of all the states in the north of Sudan, according to figures from the United Nations Development Programme. Over 1.4 per cent of women die during childbirth in Kassala, also the worst figure in the north.

In a community that struggles to meet its basic needs, education has taken a back seat. Wani Tombe Lako, the ministry of finance's director of public procurement, said in a telephone interview from Khartoum: "Sudan, like any other developing country has problems with a skilled workforce, but it's not frustrating development."

Not all of the participants were in search of money or investment opportunities. Majdee Shafiq Ahmed, the director of Albashir, a Khartoum-based charity that educates children all over the country, said he does not want cash because it could breed corruption.

The charity's latest project is to send three off-road cars, each with 20 laptops, to villages in the east that are cut off from electricity and internet to teach the children English and computing.

"We just need the equipment, that's all," Mr Ahmed said. "I don't want money, I just want to teach."

jcalderwood@thenational.ae