May 15, 2015 / 4:13 PM / 2 years ago

South Sudan defends law that aid agencies say could be "catastrophic"

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - South Sudan has defended a law limiting the number of foreign aid workers that can work in the country despite concerns from relief groups that the move could have “potentially catastrophic effects” for the millions of people who need help.

The law, which is awaiting President Salva Kiir’s signature after being passed on Tuesday, requires non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to limit foreign employees, including those at senior level, to one fifth of their staff in the country.

“There is nothing in the bill that can worry anybody because this is a bill that adheres to international standards,” said presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny.

“All the countries in the world have the policy of employing the local citizens. For NGOs that come to South Sudan there must be provisions ... for local citizens,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from South Sudan on Friday.

However, an umbrella group of more than 300 NGOs said it was worried the new law would hinder operations in one of the least developed countries in the world.

“If the bill is implemented in a way that creates a more regressive environment, then this will have potentially catastrophic effects for the large amounts of the South Sudanese population that rely on NGOs to provide basic services and life saving aid,” South Sudan NGO Forum said in a statement.

“If the bill makes getting assistance to people harder rather than easier, it could cost lives at a time of tremendous suffering for South Sudanese communities,” it said.

Four years after South Sudan declared independence from Sudan, the world’s newest state faces huge challenges.

The literacy rate is only 27 percent, and only 30 percent of children aged between six and 17 have ever set foot in a classroom, according to U.N. figures.

More than 1.5 million people have been uprooted inside South Sudan and 500,000 have fled to neighboring countries since fighting broke out in December 2013 between forces loyal to Kiir and fighters allied to his sacked deputy, Riek Machar.

The United Nations estimates that some 2.5 million South Sudanese do not have enough to eat and more than 4 million need water and sanitation.

Reporting By Magdalena Mis; Editing by Katie Nguyen

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