Guest post by Lam Huynh, Program Quality Manager, with Catholic Relief Services
Between 1996 and 2003, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was the site of the most deadly conflict since World War II. Since then, violence and insecurity continue to impose suffering on the population of the DRC, creating constraints to true development. Despite the existence of elected institutions, and the promise of change by the national government during the presidential election in November 2011, the outlook in the political and socio-economic spheres is rather poor. Governance institutions continue to be dysfunctional and there has been little advance in the decentralization process. The Congolese state is effectively absent in the Eastern provinces, especially in the rural areas; identity and territorial politics, as well as sheer personal interests, continue to be the main influence on local leaderships rather than their statutory and constitutional duties. After decades of warfare throughout the country, the citizens routinely choose the promise of corruption stability to change and the possibility of destabilization.
The ever-changing allegiance of armed groups, both foreign and local, governs various territories, making laws and controlling resources (particularly mining sites) in the areas they occupy. Civilian populations continue to suffer massive human rights violations, including sexual violence due to the climate of impunity. Levels of sexual violence are high; for instance, in rural areas, this prevents women and girls from working in the fields, fetching water or going to market, and girls from going to school. Although sexual violence has been largely generated by the conditions of armed conflict, there are fears that it is becoming rooted in the civilian population. Consequently, there is a colossal number of population displacements, with poverty on the increase. These factors have also greatly impacted the lives of young people in eastern DRC, with the number of hardships to education and job opportunity.
As such, development work in the DRC is rather difficult; much of the aid is focused on filling in the humanitarian relief gap. The poor infrastructure and dangerous zones occupied by rebel groups has translated to difficulties in accessing populations in most need of assistance. Moreover, information in remote areas has been scarce, unless there is a proper communication established. The telecommunications network is weak and inconsistent, further hampering humanitarian efforts.
In my experience working in a challenging context there are a few simple things that development practioners can do to maximize their impact and make the most of their experience:
- Be realistic and aware of the conditions (i.e. any logistical matters takes additional time)
- Make an effort to pick up the local language (i.e. particularly Swahili in the east)
- Be alert of your surroundings (i.e. poverty is high and people do what they can to survive)
- Open up your heart and mind to the local culture and traditions
- Be aware that the communication style is more contextual and indirect and the long-winded stories and explanations are to build rapport (i.e. as opposed to westerners’ more direct style)
In spite of the bleakness of their reality, multiple documents report powerful evidence of the strength and resilience of Congolese - their ability to survive and support themselves in ways that defy expectation. The populations have relied on families and creative livelihoods strategies to survive. In the DRC, relationships can be key to unlocking potential future opportunities, a practice routinely harnessed to make ends meet. With innovative tools and ideas on the horizon, it is the hope that if the humanitarian community is able to come together to properly coordinate and direct foreign assistance, the country will be able to take its first steps toward real stability and independence. Until then, the road ahead seems full of roadblocks.
Lam is a program quality manager for food security, emergency, wash and repatriation projects in the DRC. He works to ensure activities and implementation correspond with appropriate frameworks as well as developing and implementing monitoring & evaluation mechanisms. This post reflects the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CRS or Humanitas Global.