Building local capacity after crisis: the experience of local NGOs in the Kivus after 1994
by Sadiki Byombuka, CELPA/Bukavu-DRC March 2004

Local NGOs in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire) became involved in humanitarian assistance in the wake of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Subsequent crises – wars in Congo and Burundi, massive population displacement, violent ethnic conflict and the volcanic eruption in Goma in January 2002 – only increased the need for local NGOs in South and North Kivu to develop their capabilities in humanitarian aid.

Today, ten years on from the genocide, humanitarian assistance has become a key area of activity for local NGOs in eastern Congo. This article looks at some of the key points in this development.

The impact of the genocide

Cooperative community development organisations in the Kivus started as far back as the 1970s. The higher education institution the Rural Development College of Bukavu (Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural de Bukavu – ISDR) was instrumental in this early phase.

The ISDR, founded in 1962 by Catholic missionaries and taken over in 1972 by the Congolese government, trained people from the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi in community and rural development, and with help from the Canadian government started up credit and savings cooperatives. This played a key role in the rapid development of NGOs in the eastern part of the country.

Prior to 1994, most of these local NGOs did not consider humanitarian assistance as one of their core areas. Their main concerns were rural extension services and community development. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, provincial networks were formed: the Conseil Régional des ONG de Développement (CRONGD), and a national body, the Conseil National des ONG de Développement (CNONGD).

The genocide – and the million-strong refugee influx that it precipitated – presented local NGOs with a number of challenges. These organisations had important experience in community development, but not in humanitarian aid: they lacked competent staff to manage humanitarian projects, and did not possess the techniques needed to implement relief work.

Managers were not prepared to handle the sudden arrival of massive amounts of aid funds, and NGOs were generally not up to the complex negotiations and advocacy that the crisis demanded. Their own material and financial resources were in short supply, and they had a tendency to compete among themselves, rather than looking for ways in which they might be able to complement each other. They were also ill-equipped to deal with the equally sudden influx of large numbers of foreign aid organisations.

Subcontracting: learning by doing

In 1994 and 1995, large refugee camps were established in South and North Kivu, to host Rwandan and Burundian refugees. Some, such as Mugunga camp near Goma and Kashusha camp near Bukavu, held over 100,000 people; many more smaller camps were scattered along the Rwandan and Burundian borders.

The foreign aid organisations that came to Congo – UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, Save the Children UK, World Vision, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Médecins Sans Frontières, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), Caritas – could not cope themselves, and did not possess the necessary local knowledge.

Many, including UNHCR, WFP, Save the Children and the IRC, subcontracted work to local NGOs in areas such as food distribution, camp management, healthcare, water supplies, shelter and firewood supply. Competition among local NGOs for these contracts was intense; some abandoned existing projects for work with prominent international organisations. For all that, contracts were awarded according to actual capabilities: available staff, equipment and experience were required.

Via subcontracting work, local NGOs in the Kivus, such as APIDE, PLD, Solidarité Paysanne, ADI-KIVU, SOCOODEFI, the Association Elimu and GEAD-Goma, entered the humanitarian field, going on to ‘learn by doing’ alongside international humanitarian organisations. As one example of the way local and international organisations could work together, two national Protestant churches headquartered in Bukavu, CELPA and CEPAC, formed a kind of joint venture with NCA to deliver integrated assistance to refugees in three camps around Bukavu.

The two churches were not subcontracted by NCA, but rather joined with it in a temporary organisation called Plate-forme CELZa–CEPZa.

Planning and implementing humanitarian aid projects

From their initial experience of subcontracting, many local NGOs started planning and implementing their own humanitarian aid projects in their areas of intervention. Funds were mainly obtained from the international organisations which had earlier subcontracted them, but were also accessed from other international sources. Most projects were run on a short-term basis (three to six months, occasionally a year). Examples include a seeds and tools project by PLD in Kaziba-Luhwindja in 1997, a similar project by APIDE in Kalambi-Mwenga in the same year, and CEPROF/SOCOODEFI’s distribution of exercise books and chalk in schools in Fizi.

There were two factors behind this shift to more independent work:

  1. A fresh humanitarian crisis in Congo, precipitated by the outbreak of conflict in October 1996.
  2. The mixed experience of subcontracting with international organisations. For NGOs that benefited with contacts, equipment and know-how, the experience had been positive; for the many local NGOs that were treated as mere implementers and not as partners, and that faced a large degree of disdain from international organisations, the experience had been decidedly unhappy.

Networking, mobilising local resources and implementing large-scale projects

When Congo’s second war broke out in August 1998, local NGOs in the Kivus began increasingly to mount joint projects. These were supported by international humanitarian organisations, either as funders or as partners in implementation.

Examples include:

  • UNDP humanitarian projects in North Kivu and South Kivu, which use a network of local actors in school rehabilitation. UNDP has been working in partnership with NGOs and public services in charge of education and planning.
  • The humanitarian programme funded by EPER-SUISSE (a church-related international development organisation based in Switzerland), involving a group of NGOs and churches in Goma coordinated by a local consultancy, the BEED.
  • Christian Aid’s joint humanitarian programme in South Kivu, where eight NGOs work together around Bukavu and in the territories of Walungu and Kabare.
  • The joint humanitarian initiative targeting street children and former child soldiers in Bukavu, involving a number of local NGOs and supported by Save the Children UK.

Meanwhile, large-scale humanitarian projects run by individual NGOs and churches have been undertaken, such as a CARITAS programme in South and North Kivu; CELPA’s humanitarian programme, which covers three provinces (South Kivu, North Kivu and Province Orientale); and CEPAC’s humanitarian project, which focuses on health and education. This kind of work has been made possible as a result of the increased capabilities of NGOs and churches in managing humanitarian aid activities.

Another important feature is the considerable efforts by NGOs to mobilise local resources to respond to humanitarian crises. After the Goma eruption in January 2002, local NGOs collected food, clothes, jerry-cans and money from local people to help the volcano’s victims. A few weeks after the Goma event, the Kamongola river flooded, killing about 50 people in the city of Uvira in South Kivu. Once again local NGOs, led by the BUCONGD network, were the first to assist with food, clothes and medicines collected locally. All the large humanitarian organisations were preoccupied with Goma, where the disaster was being well reported in the international media.

Further steps and fresh challenges

Some NGOs in South and North Kivu are trying to create specialist humanitarian departments through further training in areas such as project management, human rights and humanitarian action and emergency preparedness. Many NGOs are also keen to find better ways to combine humanitarian interventions with development projects, which remain their core business.

As the Congo moves towards peace, further challenges lie ahead, both there and in the Great Lakes more broadly. Local NGOs will need to develop their capacity to manage humanitarian programmes. International humanitarian organisations should help in this regard. They must step up their emergency preparedness, and mobilise local and external resources more effectively.

They need to establish better coordination and collaboration with government institutions and services, and with international humanitarian organisations, and develop stronger networks among themselves to allow synergies to emerge. They also need to integrate humanitarian interventions with their long-term development work, not least because, in the Great Lakes, crises tend to last for a long time.

Local NGOs in the Kivus should also look at enhancing their advocacy skills and their use of the media to raise awareness on local disasters at the national, regional and international levels. Partly, this has an educative function, helping the international community to understand that it is important to stop political leaders in the region from exploiting disasters as a political asset, and from waging unjustified wars as a means of looting natural resources.

Congo needs more international help, notably to strengthen the local, national and regional economy; this can be achieved through employing more local people, and buying more relief goods locally. Finally, NGOs need to help international humanitarian organisations prioritise interventions more efficiently, and more effectively: as Roger Persichino puts it, even ‘the more straightforward emergencies in eastern DRC legitimately call for a prioritisation of limited resources’.

Sadiki Byombukais Projects Coordinator for CELPA/Bukavu-DRC. He is currently attending an MSc programme in Public Economic Management and Finance at the University of Birmingham, UK. His email address is sadikibyo@yahoo.fr.

References and further reading

Colette Braeckmann, Les nouveaux pre?dateurs, politique des puissances en Afrique Centrale (Paris: Fayard, 2003).

Kevin C. Dunn, Imagining the Congo (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Roger Persichino, ‘Meeting Humanitarian Need in Post-Conflict Environments’, Humanitarian Exchange, 24, July 2003.

Sadiki Byombuka, ‘CELPA: A Local Response to Congo’s Conflict’, Humanitarian Exchange, 22, November 2002.

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