Impressions of humanitarianism (based on last week’s trip to the Eastern Congo)

Blimey, that was hard work. Still recovering from a ‘getting to know the humanitarians’ visit to Eastern Congo last week, having my skeleton rearranged by bouncing around for hours on truly execrable roads, and my insides rearranged by some persistent DRC microbes (I’ll spare you the

credit: Louise Williams
credit: Louise Williams


I’ve always worked on the long term development and advocacy side of development, so this was something of a belated induction trip to see our humanitarian work on conflict, refugees and displaced people. (Overall, humanitarian makes up 36% of Oxfam GB’s total spending (compared to 43% on long term development and 5% on campaigns.)

Here are a few semi-newbie impressions.

Roads are a window on the state: To get to Goma, you fly to another country (Rwandan capital of Kigali), then zoom for 3 hours to the border along Rwanda’s flawless roads. At that point you enter another world, stepping from state effectiveness to state dysfunction – most immediately encapsulated by the roads: in the DRC, a 40km journey takes 3 hours. But first you have to get past being checked out by the security guard peering through the extremely weird mural on the Oxfam gate (see right).

The Humanitarian Machine: It’s big (Oxfam spends approx $12m a year in North Kivu province alone), and organized to minimize risk. Every vehicle movement must be radioed in for approval  before setting off; there are strict and constantly updated guidelines for when/where you can go either on foot or by car.

It prefers bounded, simple systems, so spending on Internally Displaced People (IDP) largely goes to purpose built IDP camps scattered across North Kivu – depressing communities of thousands of tiny huts – white tarpaulins stretched over straw and wood, crammed together on whatever land can be found. Yet the camps only get 30% of the region’s estimated million IDPs. The rest are somehow accommodated by ‘host communities’, who are already poor, and now come under even greater pressure from new arrivals. Amazingly, at least in the places we visited, there seems to be very little conflict between IDPs and hosts (many of whom were themselves previously displaced).

It’s got an awful lot of players: the IDP camps we visited were not particularly surprised at our arrival – they (well, at least the relatively accessible ones) receive a daily procession of visitors, leaving long lists of names in the visitors’ book. It’s a miniature version of what we criticise among big donors – too many visits sucking up administrative time, proliferation of reporting, overlapping mandates. A colossal timesuck (to which I of course contributed!) What if we took the value of all of that, and just turned it into cash transfers (as Chris Blattman recently suggested as the baseline for any development intervention)?

It’s (still) incredibly short term: time horizons of a year or less for funding mean staff constantly scrambling for the next grant. There are a few exceptions – for example, DFID is funding a £10m, 4 year Water, Sanitation and Health programme, which allows us to build long term work with the government, strengthening, rather than bypassing, the role of the state. I’m interested in any other examples of such ‘good donorship’, in terms of lengthening the time horizon for humanitarian work – if you’ve got any, please send me details.

Credit: Maxime Michel
Credit: Maxime Michel

There’s a thin layer of expats alongside (and often in charge of) a larger group of often brilliant, committed and far more knowledgeable local staff, for whom helping people in the direst of circumstances more than makes up for the gruelling, often traumatic nature of the work. As John Kanani (left, with some weird looking white bloke), an upbeat Congolese water engineer with 20 years working for Oxfam around the world puts it: ‘you know if you succeed or fail – that’s what makes you keep going.’ Given the doubt and agonizing that characterises long term development and advocacy, I envied him.

Spending time with humanitarians reminds me of hanging around with foreign correspondents in Central America and elsewhere. Exchanges of anecdotes pass for conversation, with a strong undertone of competition (but humanitarians tend to listen to each other’s stories, rather than just waiting for the chance to tell their own). The endless talk of money (fund raising for humanitarians, expenses for journos). A tendency towards four Yorkshiremen-style one-upmanship: ‘call that a conflict?’. And of course a shared contempt and irritation with head office, with its pen pushers, bean counters and know-nothing ‘advisers’ (oops, I guess that’s me).

It’s not pious – people know how to party. I spent a surreal evening at an ex pat quiz night in Goma’s ‘Riviera Club’. Four wheel drives parked nose to tail outside a bar stuffed full of young expats (20s and 30s). Quiz questions on Eurovision, breeds of dog, Monty Python. (We came 3rd, but really screwed up on Eurovision). Congolese staff had better things to do that night, but are themselves great raconteurs and party animals.

But beyond the adrenalin, the sacrifice and the rewards, humanitarians acknowledge the system’s failings (fragmentation, short-termism) and the need to do things differently, for example how to make the system work  in ‘emergencies’ that last for 20 years (as the DRC’s has) and what is its relationship with the state. I’ll discuss these in blogs over the next few days.

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