The world of humanitarian organisations is a world apart and little known. I have been living on this planet for one year. I am based in Goma, capital of North Kivu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The region is destabilised by a multilateral chronic conflict that has been lasting for years. The Non-Governmental Organizations and UN agencies have deployed a wide scale humanitarian response to this situation.
The response is coordinated by OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). Since the new outburst of fighting a few month ago, all humanitarian actors crowd into the OCHA conference room several times a week to organise the actions and be informed of the last security updates.
These meetings are an interesting show. At 8:00 AM everyone arrives. An impressive line of 4 wheels vehicles which bear the names of the organisations is parked in front of the gate. All these powerful vehicles draw the eye in the middle of pedestrians and motorcycles which are the main means of transport in the town.
The meeting begins with a briefing on security given by MONUC (UN Mission in Congo, currently the largest of 18 UN peacekeeping missions) or UNDSS (United Nations Department for Safety and Security). The officer enumerates a long list of places and names: clashes, security incidents, population displacement, the region is reviewed in detail. Each attendant provides the information he or she has received. Many false rumours are going around, amplified by fear and by the various factions engaged in wide scale disinformation. From the imminent attack of Goma to the unconditional surrender of the rebels, they often prevent having a rational and objective analysis of the situation.
Then the discussion focuses on humanitarian interventions and planning. The humanitarian world has developed its own language made of acronyms and abbreviations, not easily accessible to laymen: UNHCR identifies the IDPs in Bulengo, NRC distributes NFI in Mugunga 2… That means: the High Commissioner for Refugees lists Internal Displaced Person in the Bulengo camp and the Norwegian Refugee Council distributes Non Food Items (blankets, jerry cans, plastic sheeting, etc.). in the Mugunga 2 camp.
Listening to this long litany of place names and technical terms, sometimes my mind escapes. I find myself thinking that all these words hide badly the obvious insufficiency of the response, and sometimes its inadequacy:
– Lack of appropriate means
– Inability to access populations for security (front line) or infrastructure reasons (lack of roads)
– Political and power play within the humanitarian world
– Lack of cooperation of local authorities
There are more obstacles that we believe on the path of goodwill.
Sometimes I find myself thinking of the ambiguity inherent in any emergency action:
– The refugees in Goma receive more than the refugees in the middle of the jungle, simply because they are more accessible.
– The status of a refugee in a village is more enviable than the villagers’ status as only the refugees have access to free health care and food distributed by relief workers.
– These free distributions attract and keep people on the periphery of urban centres in inadequate places for such settlements.
– In the long run, humanitarian aid creates a mentality of assistance among the beneficiaries, since it keeps giving for free without demanding anything in return.
– The food and domestic items distributed for free become a due that people negotiate.
Emergency interventions are meant to cover immediate and sudden needs and are meaningful only in proper emergency situations: natural disasters, important and sudden displacement of population. The emergency by definition is temporary and should not last more than a few months. If the region of intervention moves into a chronic crisis, then humanitarian actors must revise their policy. For on the long term emergency work creates passivity in the communities that hampers their development. In Congo, we humanitarian actors, went so far in this mentality of assistance that people are now paid in order to agree to be trained.
It is true that in a very unstable region, it is not easy to implement support mechanisms that can have a long term impact. But behind the reason of instability lay also other reasons, political, economic and commercial:
– It is easier to monitor short-term projects.
– The construction of a bridge, a well or a hospital are easier to show and more concrete than the education of an adult.
– Donors want to receive concrete report on the use of their money as soon as possible.
– Western public opinion gives more easily money for children who suffer and die than to develop alternative energy.
The humanitarian world should anyway take a new look at itself and be more attentive to the populations than it is now. There is such a pressure put on organisations so that they are accountable to the donors, so that they meet the requirements of marketing and communication, so that they can give concrete results, that humanitarian aid loses sight of the beneficiaries and spend more time writing reports on its activities that to implement them.
We must also minimise the free assistance and give people the chance to be more responsible of their own future. Even if it takes more time and if the results are more difficult to verify, we must teach them to treat, rather than treat them, teach them how to cultivate, rather than distributing food, teach them how to manage an organisation rather than being the passive beneficiaries. It also means accepting another rhythm and way of learning, accepting the adaptation of our work processes to another way of doing things, which is not an exact replica of ours but which is nonetheless valid, and accepting another vision of priorities and efficiency, without drawing the conclusion that students are unable or lazy. In fact we must accept another culture, and this requires a flexibility that is lacking today in the humanitarian response.