Waiting on recovery and resilience in the DRC — Stories behind the State of the Humanitarian System

This blog is part of a series of articles we are publishing that tell the humanitarian stories behind key findings and lessons emerging in ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System (SOHS) report.

While major recent crises, like the war in Ukraine or the floods in Pakistan dominate headlines, the bulk of humanitarian aid tends to go to long-term protracted crises. In 2021, for example, 40% of humanitarian aid went to just five countries — Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and South Sudan — all experiencing long-term crises. In our research for the 2022 edition of the State of the Humanitarian System report, we heard repeated calls from people living through such chronic and cyclical crises for assistance which would better help them to support themselves and rebuild their lives in the face of ongoing and future shocks.

Humanitarian providers are acutely aware of these calls, but often prove unable to heed them. While resilience has become an important concept in the sector over the past decade, there is a lack of consistent focus on putting this into practice. This is partly a problem of resources — in an underfunded and short-term funded system, the most basic immediate needs are prioritised. But this is also a hotly contested question of scope. Some practitioners feel that the humanitarian system must expand its remit to address people’s real needs in protracted crisis, others argue that this is the role of development and peace actors. While recent work to strengthen the humanitarian-development-peace nexus is helping to find a way out of this debate, many affected communities remain trapped in a limbo of short-term responses which are inadequate to their real needs and hopes.

The following case study shows what this limbo meant for people in DRC. Local researchers spoke to communities and local and international aid practitioners and heard the deep frustrations about the ability of short-term aid to meet long-term problems — and how recovery and resilience will remain aspirations without meaningful development and peace.

The case study was researched and written by a local researcher in DRC. Their name has been withheld at their request to protect their identity.

DRC case study: Waiting on recovery and resilience

The humanitarian situation in DRC is prolonged yet made up of many rapid-onset emergencies caused by conflict, epidemics and natural disasters. As such, the lives of many aid recipients are characterised by instability and much of the humanitarian response is delivered in an emergency capacity, in a ‘rinse, repeat’ format. Displacement has left people without permanent homes and dependent on the goodwill of host communities, many of whom are also identified as ‘in need’. Displaced people often live in squalid conditions and are exposed to persistent protection threats including sexual violence.

Photo credit: ICRC (Jerome Guillaumot)

Fatigued by chronic crisis

When we spoke with internally displaced people (IDPs) in eastern DRC, they emphasised the importance of the assistance they had received, expressing particular appreciation for cash transfers and projects that provided children with food and play activities (and thereby eased parents’ stress). Cash transfers were praised for allowing recipients to choose how to allocate their aid resources: ‘For us, the most important assistance is cash because with that you can buy what you want, pay for medical care, schooling for children, buy clothes. If you give us the food, we will have to sell it again to cover the other needs and you will sell it at a very low price’.

“Short-term aid without efforts to address the root causes of crises has left IDPs in DRC in limbo”

But at the same time, aid recipients were fatigued by instability, felt NGO consultations were tokenistic and believed that humanitarian handouts couldn’t provide the long-term solutions they require. Short-term aid without efforts to address the root causes of crises has left IDPs in DRC in limbo: ‘You see it’s difficult to continue in this life, it’s not a desirable life and it’s not a life in which we can recover from the crisis. Each one of us needs to go home to our old life’, explained one aid recipient.

Stuck in a cycle of short-term aid

For those in the midst of crisis, conceptualising ‘resilience’ and ‘recovery’ requires significant imagination. Local NGOs emphasised working with communities to enhance livelihood resilience. This included skills training (particularly for young people) and forming credit associations, all of which have the potential to build aid recipients’ resource base. Local NGOs are well-equipped to engage in these activities since they are embedded in communities, are well connected and can be more agile in their response to aid recipients’ needs. However, they are also typically low on resources and reported tensions with international NGOs over access to resources and influence.

“overall international agencies demonstrated lack of recovery and resilience programming, which they blamed on short-term and inflexible donor funding, and the inaccessibility and instability of conflict-affected areas”

At the same time, international agencies lacked the agility to shift their programming to a resilience mode in protracted crisis settings. There were some isolated examples of good practice in including one agency which, responding to the wishes of people displaced by the 2021 Mount Nyiragongo eruption, advocated to create movable shelters, so that individuals could lift their structure and move it back to the volcanic area should the government allow them to return home. But overall international agencies demonstrated lack of recovery and resilience programming, which they blamed on short-term and inflexible donor funding, and the inaccessibility and instability of conflict-affected areas. ​As the head of office for Eastern DRC for a UN agency commented: ‘We are limited to saving lives, but we do not change lives.’

Making resilience meaningful when there is no peace

Aid providers and aid recipients alike told us that peacebuilding and protection have to go hand in hand with efforts to move towards recovery and resilience. One humanitarian worker, responsible for protection against sexual exploitation and abuse, described the daily security alerts they received and told us:

‘building resilience in communities … it’s good on paper. Is it condescending as a phrase? Completely … How am I going to go to people who have witnessed so much horror, and are still experiencing horror and trauma all the time and I’m going to be able to build that within them? … That’s just ridiculous, how resilient can you be to a man with an AK-47?’

Similarly, one displaced person described the challenges of improving people’s livelihoods throughlong-term agricultural projects — when ongoing violence and insecurity means that crops are likely to be stolen or ruined: ‘I, personally, came from the highlands where endless fighting is experienced every day between armed community self-defense groups. Regularly houses are burnt, people killed, goods taken away … Nothing can be done to overcome this crisis unless peace is restored in the region.’

There are no sustainable solutions to displacement without first establishing peace and stability. In this context, humanitarian assistance will continue to be required for emergency response, but there is currently no clear path to recovery in DRC.

Throughout our conversation with IDPs we heard that they struggled to imagine a ‘recovery’ aside from a return to their homes. The layers of crises that afflict vulnerable communities in the DRC make their lives transient and unpredictable. For communities to recover, they need homes and resources they can invest in and build on. Activities such as skills training, education and livelihood activities can provide aid recipients with knowledge and experience they can take with them, but without a foundation on which to lay this learning, they will remain vulnerable. There are no sustainable solutions to displacement without first establishing peace and stability. In this context, humanitarian assistance will continue to be required for emergency response, but there is currently no clear path to recovery in DRC.

The 5th State of the Humanitarian System Report was published in September 2022. Read the full report on ALNAP’s website: https://sohs.alnap.org.

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