Out of site, out of mind? Reflections on responding to displacement in DRC
by Katherine Haver July 2009

In early November last year, television images showed the world thousands of people fleeing fighting between the government and rebels in eastern DRC. But these events were only a spike in what has been a long-running crisis. Every month, tens of thousands of people are forced to flee their homes due to fighting among and between armed militias and government forces, many for the third or fourth time. The journalists and visiting dignitaries who descended upon North Kivu late last year in response to the escalation in the violence focused their attention on large camps, especially those within easy striking distance of the provincial capital, Goma. With endless rows of huts covered in white plastic sheeting against a backdrop of black lava, the camps made for compelling viewing. Yet the vast majority of displaced people in DRC find refuge, not in camps, but with local families. In this way, the crisis in DRC differs markedly from emergencies in other parts of Africa, such as Darfur and Northern Uganda, where most displaced people have gathered in camps. However, displaced people in host families are often invisible not only to journalists, but also to humanitarian organisations, which have yet to provide a truly adequate response to these dispersed and vulnerable populations.

We’ve been here before

A previous spike in the crisis, in mid-2007, saw increasing numbers of IDPs in DRC finding shelter in camps rather than with host families. The decrease in the overall percentage of IDPs in host families – from around 90% in early 2007 to around 70% in late 2007 – prompted serious debate among humanitarian agencies in the DRC. Had humanitarian organisations done enough to help IDPs in host families? Had they somehow encouraged the drive to the camps, undermining local coping mechanisms? Donors and aid agencies began to realise for the first time that they had surprisingly few answers to basic questions about what life was like for people in host families.

In mid-2008, several reports examined these questions. One, an Oxfam report by this author, argued that a much higher priority should be given to assistance to hosted IDPs and their host families. It was argued that this was necessary not simply because the needs of these vulnerable groups were being under-addressed, but also because displaced people usually preferred living with host families, a situation seen as ‘physically, emotionally and spiritually’ more secure. Providing assistance mainly through camps can undermine traditional coping mechanisms and limit the choices available to displaced people. The basic principle is that people should be able to go where they feel safest and assistance should be provided in ways that support livelihoods and help to keep families together.

Following a renewed focus on these issues, heading into 2009 the humanitarian community in DRC introduced measures designed to increase support for host families. The 2009 Humanitarian Action Plan included host families and host communities among targeted populations more explicitly, and one major donor, ECHO, placed a new emphasis on vulnerability rather than displacement status in its programme for 2009. In mid-2008, an inter-agency plan was drafted in North Kivu covering assistance to host families. OCHA even produced a compelling 30-minute documentary showing what life was like for people in host families.

Steps have been taken to implement these plans. The Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM), which forms the backbone of first-line response to new displacement, has begun to revise its approach to target the most vulnerable people – including host families and returnees in unstable areas, as well those who have been recently displaced. Although the need to respond to continuous displacement has slowed progress, it was hoped that the RRM would be operational by mid-2009. Several NGOs have also begun to experiment with cash vouchers for IDPs and host families, which had previously been tried in DRC only for returnees. The NGO Concern, for example, distributed emergency cash vouchers in January 2009 to over 3,000 households in North Kivu, including host families and IDPs, allowing them to purchase items including seeds, kitchen supplies and women’s clothing, and to pay school fees.

On the whole, however, the rhetoric acknowledging the needs of people in host families has yet to be matched with large-scale implementation at the programme level. Plans for each cluster to develop a strategy to assist host families have not been followed up, due in part to the competing priorities facing busy cluster coordinators, most of whom have many duties on top of their cluster role. As a result, the development of good-quality tools to respond to the needs of host families at the household level is still in its infancy. At the system level, the basic information needed to be able to direct aid actors to the most vulnerable host communities is still not compiled and shared in ways that can effectively influence decision-making in real time, before hosting fatigue sets in or people are forced to seek shelter in camps.

What is hosting, and how can it be supported?

Displaced people in DRC express a strong preference for living with host families rather than in camps. Indeed, the main reason cited by IDPs in their decision to stay in a host family is their negative perception of camps. Camps are generally seen as crowded, insecure and unhealthy, and are often associated with the kind of violence and disease that plagued camps along the border with Rwanda following the 1994 genocide.

Hosting involves sharing the most basic elements of a home: a roof over one’s head and food. It rarely involves paying for IDPs’ medical costs or school fees. Although many IDPs in host families do not receive humanitarian assistance, when food aid is received by hosted IDPs it is almost always shared with the host family. This is not the case for non-food items, such as kitchen utensils, blankets and buckets, which are more difficult to share, and are items often already owned by the host family.

Displaced people are expected to contribute to the household in whatever ways they can. Although this can involve paying a cash contribution in the form of ‘rent’, more often they work in the fields with their hosts, collecting wood for small amounts of money to contribute to the household, fetching water, or doing other domestic chores. Sharing humanitarian assistance is also seen as a contribution. In most cases, however, IDPs acknowledge that they have virtually nothing to contribute, which is a source of frustration for them. At the same time, hosting can be a positive experience for both IDPs and hosts. The majority of people surveyed said that they would do it again. Nonetheless, obstacles can arise. Because hosting involves sharing food, it can exacerbate an already precarious food-security situation. When hosting is of short duration and fighting is intermittent, allowing time for people to return and recover, it can be a good way to cope with a difficult situation. But when it lasts for a long time or is experienced repeatedly, hosting needs to be supported to prevent it from breaking down.

The two main problems experienced by displaced people and host families are linked: an inability to access sufficient food and a lack of income. Despite the fact that the biggest burden is felt at the household level, the kinds of assistance currently being provided at the household level are inadequate to meet these needs. Food and non-food items distributed to displaced people do not directly address the problems that many interviewees identified. Food is still largely available in markets for those with money to buy it, and most host families already own many of the non-food items distributed. This indicates the need for better assessments and responses that more directly support people’s ability to make a living.

Some options for programme responses which NGOs, the UN and donors might consider to assist IDPs in host families, host families and host communities include:

    • Cash transfers or vouchers. Unconditional cash-transfer schemes are often the easiest and most direct way to meet people’s needs and achieve clear programmatic objectives. This method keeps money in local markets and can cost less than distributing the actual items. The flexibility of cash also allows it to be used in areas where access to food is difficult, and gives IDPs and host families direct means to pay for the goods or services they deem most important. UNICEF and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) plan to expand pilot project ‘voucher fairs’ to serve IDPs and host families, as well as returnees, in the Kivus.


  • Cash for work. Cash for work enables people to choose how and where to spend their money, while channelling investment back into the community. Constructing roads, replanting trees and teaching are all possible work options. However, a basic level of security and stability is required to ensure that programmes are not interrupted, households must have surplus labour to participate and the risk of inflation must be low. Complementary efforts are needed to help vulnerable people who do not have the capacity to work.



  • Income-generating activities. These could include making or selling soap, carpets or fuel-efficient stoves. Market analysis is essential to ensure that markets are not distorted, and that there is sufficient demand for the products and services offered.



  • Shelter needs. Until recently, shelter responses in DRC have been limited to distributions of plastic sheeting. Providing other materials to create temporary walls in homes, building expanded cooking areas or additional rooms and providing household water catchments could help long-term hosts cope better. Cash or vouchers could allow people to make their own shelter improvements. UNHCR and CARE, with the support of the Shelter Centre, have begun pilot projects providing shelter support for host families.


Although agencies tend not to consider emergency livelihoods responses, some forms of livelihoods programming may be appropriate for longer-term hosting situations, including income generation, micro-finance and sustained cash transfers for host families.

Ways forward

Emerging needs in DRC are rarely fully known. In part, this lack of knowledge is understandable given that displaced people are so dispersed, staying with families in villages scattered over a vast territory with few passable roads. But in a country where humanitarians have been responding to IDP crises for more than ten years, it is surprising that there are not better systems in place to monitor displacement. In other contexts with equally difficult access challenges, such as Darfur and Somalia, humanitarian actors have developed better information management systems. Reasonably accurate data on the numbers and location of IDPs is crucial in mobilising funds and delivering assistance. It is also crucial in order to mobilise responses to host-community populations before they are completely overwhelmed.

The UN often feels that it needs to produce a consistent set of figures for the media on the numbers of IDPs, even though this kind of certainty does not reflect reality on the ground. Instead, it should adopt more transparently labelled and defined categories of ‘verified’, ‘unverified’ or even ‘unknown’, for areas where no information exists. Especially in accessible parts of North and South Kivu, there could be more regular monitoring of potential ‘saturation’ in host communities and surveys of the decision-making processes of IDPs. Displaced people can and should be consulted regarding the kinds of shelter and assistance arrangements they prefer. However, little tangible progress seems to have been made in this area. Agencies such as OCHA and UNHCR have begun to invest in improving ways to track basic statistics, mainly through revising the methodology used by provincial ‘population movement committees’. These committees, which are poorly funded and supported, simply compile information from organisations on the ground to produce estimated numbers of IDPs and returnees. On the whole, efforts to date have been piecemeal and require much greater expertise and resources if they are to take root.

More directly, humanitarian organisations in DRC should find a way to provide meaningful assistance to host families at the household level. The fact that rhetorical commitments have been slow to translate into action shows that innovation is needed at a deeper and more institutional level. If early results from pilot programmes in North Kivu are promising, these should be shared and debated. If humanitarian agencies are going to continue to rely on host families as a de facto, ‘out of sight’ response mechanism, they have an obligation to provide them with the support they need.


Katherine Haver was a policy adviser for Oxfam GB in DRC until April 2009. Her email address is kchaver@gmail.com.


References and further reading

Stephen McDowell, Internal Displacement in North Kivu: Hosting, Camps, and Coping Mechanisms, prepared for UNICEF DRC and CARE DRC, April 2008.

OCHA, ‘Misère partagée/Shared misery’, film on compact disc, Kinshasa, DRC, December 2008.

Katherine Haver, Out of Site: Building Better Responses to Displacement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo By Helping Host Families , Oxfam, September 2008.

Simon Levine and Claire Chastre, Missing the Point: An Analysis of Food Security Interventions in the Great Lakes, Network Paper 47, July 2004.

Paul Harvey and Jeremy Lind, Dependency and Humanitarian Relief: A Critical Analysis, HPG Report 19, July 2005.