Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Why Social Connections are Critical to Resilience and Recovery: Evidence from South Sudan

This blog was authored by Alex Humphrey and Vaidehi Krishnan. 

This is the first in a two-part blog series. It draws from an ongoing research in South Sudan funded by USAID/OFDA and implemented by Mercy Corps and the Feinstein International Centre at Tufts University. In the first post we discuss research findings on the importance of social connections for coping and recovery in South Sudan. Notably, while the findings and recommendations presented in this blog post are based on research from South Sudan, they may also be applicable in other conflict/crisis contexts. The second blog post will focus on our efforts to measure the linkages between households’ social connections and their resilience during crisis.


In the last month, how often have you turned to someone in your social network for help? Perhaps a family member picked up your children from school when you were running late at work; a friend told you about a cool new job or just listened to you complain about your current one; or a co-worker loaned you some money when you needed it. We rely on our social connections in our day-to-day lives more than we may realize. We invest time and energy in building these relationships because they matter. In crisis-affected contexts like South Sudan, people similarly rely on their social connections to cope and recover, far more than they rely on external aid. For vulnerable South Sudanese, the local trader in the marketplace may be their lender, their neighbor may provide them with protection and/or safety-related information so they can protect themselves and their families, and people who practice similar livelihoods may be their source of economic inputs or market information.

Given the importance of these social connections, it is imperative that aid actors understand how these relationships are formed, maintained and strengthened, to avoid inadvertently harming these reciprocal support structures during external interventions.

What are the different types of social connections in South Sudan, and how do people form and maintain these relationships?

In South Sudan, household rely on various types of social connections for support during difficult times. There are many ways in which households are socially connected in South Sudan. Here, we discuss two important forms of social connectedness, which may be of most relevance to aid actors: individual household-level connections, and ones based on livelihoods.

Individual-level connections are most often based on kinship, between households related by blood or marriage. Sharing food and supporting one another in conducting labor-intensive economic and noneconomic activities such as land clearance or shelter construction are common ways in which kin support one another. In most parts of South Sudan, kinship networks are maintained, expanded and diversified through the payment of cattle as bridewealth.  Before a marriage can be formalized, the prospective groom’s family engages in a drawn-out negotiation with the bride’s family about the number, type, and even color of the cattle to be paid. Members of the groom’s extended family, as well as his close friends then hand over the cows to relatives and friends on the bride’s side, establishing new kinship-based connections between diverse and expansive networks. Strong rules and norms enforce these individuals’ obligations to share with one another, and these connections become lifelines during crisis.

Social connections based on livelihood are also critical sources of support for households in normal times, and more so during a crisis. In South Sudan, cattle-herders, fisherfolk and traders all unite in informal livelihood groups, with the express intention of supporting one another during difficult times. These groups consist of both kin and non-kin; they select their own leaders, adopt informal rules and norms, and share food, lactating cows, livelihood inputs or cash, and provide emotional support to one another. “We share whatever we have. You do not eat alone in our group”, a leader of a cattle-herder group explained to us. 

We share whatever we have. You do not eat alone in our group.

But, over the course of the protracted crisis in South Sudan, social connections have changed in important ways. Understanding these changes have important implications for aid actors and donors.

Over the course of South Sudan’s current crisis, productive livelihoods have collapsed, and many households’ assets have been depleted. As a result, individuals have come to rely on sharing aid—including food, livelihood inputs, and cash—as a means of maintaining and diversifying their social connections and access to reciprocal support. The knowledge that vulnerable households rely on aid in order to maintain access to critical reciprocal support systems in their communities has important implications for aid actors and donors.

-Given that aid is very likely to be shared and redistributed between social connections, aid actors may be best served by forgoing time-consuming efforts to develop complex individual and household-level targeting criteria. Instead, aid actors should seek to engage a representative cross-section of the community to determine how aid should be provided and/or to whom. 

-Aid actors should build in overlap between short-term emergency relief and early recovery interventions. Doing so will help households continue to share resources with others and maintain access to critical reciprocal support from their social connections. Similarly, donors should provide aid actors with the flexibility to determine when and how to pivot from short-term assistance to livelihood support. This flexibility is needed, because ending emergency relief before households have been able to return to sustainable livelihoods may serve to weaken local support systems, which are currently often based on the reciprocal sharing of humanitarian assistance. 

Men are the default heads of household in South Sudan and generally control household assets including cash and cattle. However, during South Sudan’s current crisis, women have come to play increasingly pivotal roles in household income-generation, especially in the absence of their husbands who may have left to join armed groups, been separated during flight, or been killed during the conflict. Women are thus pursuing traditionally male activities, such as negotiating with traders for small loans or goods on credit. However, women explain that they continue to face obstacles to accessing support in the marketplace, because of pre-existing gender norms which stigmatize social connections between women and male traders. In response to such obstacles, women who sell tea, collect firewood, or conduct small-scale agricultural activities are forming new social connections with one another, and establishing informal livelihood-based self-help groups. Group members share food with one another, band together for safety and protection, and offer one another emotional support.

- During crisis, gender roles with regards to households’ socioeconomic activities may dramatically change. Aid actors should consider interventions to help increase women’s perceived creditworthiness, and capacity to form relationships of trust with marketplace actors. Notably, aid actors should ensure that such efforts to empower and build women’s capacity are paired with interventions to address the specific needs of men and male youth, who are also impacted by the crisis. Doing so will help mitigate intra-household tensions and provide safe pathways, especially around perceived gender roles of men and women in the community.

In South Sudan, communities often understand vulnerability in terms of social connectedness. For example, when we asked recipients of Mercy Corps assistance why they thought they had been selected to receive aid, women often explained that they lacked the necessary social connections to access local support systems, and men noted that they were obligated to support especially large kinship networks. By considering local understandings of vulnerability, aid actors can gain important insight into underlying social support systems and specific gendered impacts of crisis within target communities.

-Aid actors should consult local communities when seeking to understand vulnerability and developing targeting criteria, and should ensure that they account for social connectedness when conducting program assessments and evaluations [Note: A forthcoming Marketlinks blog post will provide aid actors with technical guidance on measuring social connectedness]. Doing so will help aid actors ensure that assistance reaches those in most need, and that aid interventions do not inadvertently cause tensions within recipient communities.

Learn more about why social connections matter for resilience and recovery in our September 5th webinar