When Humanitarian Aid Is Not Enough

How to Better Respond to Crises and Conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Other Fragile States

Bantus and Twas participating in a community meeting held during March 2016 in Kabeke, located in Manono territory in Tanganyika, DRC. The meeting was held to nominate a Baraza (or peace committee), a council of elders composed of seven representatives from each community. (Photo: Sonia Rolley/RFI)

Picture dozens of families running for their lives as members of a militia armed with machetes, knives and arrows attempt to kill them while setting their village on fire. You sure can also visualize families from nearby villages, as they hear rumours of this attack, fleeing on foot toward the relative safety of an urban centre, while carrying their meagre belongings on their backs. Countless communities have faced this situation in recent months in the province of Tanganyika, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In fact, the tit-for-tat attacks and violence from this inter-ethnic conflict has escalated to the point of displacing over half a million people from their homes, or over 20% of the local population of 2.5 million. In the process, over 400 villages have been destroyed, while hundreds of men, women and children have been killed or injured according to official statistics, which by many accounts underestimate the real toll from the conflict.

The conflict in this eastern province of DRC pits an ethnic minority, the Twa (commonly referred to as Pygmies), who are pushing against decades of marginalization and discrimination, against the Bantu majority. The Bantu control local and provincial governments and most land resources in this poor and isolated province of DRC. Violence is perpetrated by both ethnic groups and now directly or indirectly affects the majority of the population. Indeed, most of the inhabitants of Tanganyika now face a food crisis due to the related disruption in agriculture and livelihoods. A number of international donors and humanitarian organizations are stepping up with aid in reaction to yet another silent crisis in DRC. However, resources remain scarce, while humanitarian interventions typically do not work to address the root causes of this conflict. This results in ever worsening humanitarian needs chasing a limited pool of resources to respond to a conflict that has gradually spread for over five years, and which has now reached its most acute phase.

The International Rescue Committee conducted an in depth analysis of the conflict in Tanganyika, DRC. It outlines that mitigating the conflict between the Bantu and the Twa will require longer-term peacebuilding interventions and a commitment for peace by Congolese authorities. It is available here:
https://www.rescue.org/report/silent-crisis-congo-bantu-and-twa-tanganyika

Zoom out of Tanganyika and DRC, and it is easy to picture headlines from countless other crises, whether Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan or more recently Myanmar, relating to the displacement of ever more people. Indeed, a recent report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees highlighted that in the last 20 years the number of forcibly displaced people had approximately doubled from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016. These ever-expanding numbers and the related needs have been pushing the humanitarian system to its limits. As recent political and economic trends make it unlikely that significant additional resources will be committed to this system, it is time for international donors and humanitarian organizations to look at different approaches and more durable solutions. More of the same is unlikely to effectively solve the expanding and related problems of conflicts and displacements.

As illustrated by the situation in DRC described above, the humanitarian system must work differently to respond to crises in fragile and conflict-affected states. The World Humanitarian Summit held in Istanbul in may 2016, looked into those issues and came up with a series of commitments and reform proposals. Key among them was more emphasis on preventing and ending conflicts, working differently by increasing the focus on national actors and systems, and increasing investments in local response capacity. However, if there exist a relatively broad consensus on these reforms, we have yet to see meaningful changes to crisis response on the ground.

In this context, two questions stand out:

  1. In addition to delivering lifesaving humanitarian interventions, is it possible to simultaneously place a greater focus on mitigating the root causes of conflicts and crises, and reduce needs in the first place?
  2. What specific actions could help the international aid sector break with the status quo?

Answering the first question requires an understanding of the continuing divide between humanitarian and development interventions in the sector. International donors, and international organizations, typically have distinct and non-intersecting resources for responding to each, and some actually have separate structures or departments responsible. This results in relatively distinct delivery systems between humanitarian and development aid. We have humanitarian focused donors and similarly focused implementers with short-term funding cycles (of less than one year) at one end. We also have development focused donors and implementers with medium to long-term funding cycles (of two to three years or more) at the other end. Even if many international non-government organisations (INGOs) and international organizations do attempt to bridge this divide, the structure of aid funding and their distinct objectives means that in practice there remains very limited intersections between humanitarian and development aid.

Additionally, it is often easier for the aid sector to show results when responding to the consequences of a crisis than when attempting to mitigate its causes. Measuring and meeting outputs and outcomes from a project’s logical framework in a conflict-affected context may be much easier when aiming to deliver food and medicines to affected populations. This is especially true when compared to a project aiming to change the community behaviours and social norms underlying a conflict. In addition, social change demands a longer-term process that requires extensive local knowledge and local capacity development, something ill-suited to shorter term interventions implemented solely by international organizations.

In order to provide an answer to the second question, and relax the constraints preventing the aid sector from having a longer-term focus when responding to crises, three key actions would help break this status quo:

i) Humanitarian and development funding has to become more fungible and intersect systematically during the response and recovery phase following a crisis  in practice this requires more medium-term humanitarian funding aligned with longer-term development objectives;
ii) Implementing organizations need greater flexibility to adjust objectives and strategies to meet overarching outcomes in line with the quickly evolving dynamics of conflicts and crises — in practice this means more flexible ways of working during implementation than rigid adherence to a project log frame and being more responsive to changes in the local context;
iii) International donors should ensure both humanitarian and development implementers work with local and national organizations when responding to conflicts and crises — in practice this entails giving local and national actors a key role in crisis response, thereby ensuring stronger knowledge of the local context and better capacity to respond going forward.
A camp for displaced populations in July 2017 near the city of Kalemie, Tanganyika, DRC. (Photo: William Clowes/IRIN

Numerous actors within the international aid sector might believe these actions are either too difficult or unrealistic. However, with a spiral of ever-expanding needs facing stagnant resources, structural changes are necessary. Continuing with current approaches merely ensures that expanding needs will not be met with an adequate response. When I think about populations fleeing their homes, whether in Tanganyika, DRC, or in countless other places as you read these lines, I think change is no longer an option, but an obligation.

Therefore, the time has come to put words into action concerning the Agenda for Humanity or what we could simply label BetterAid. This means working more effectively and making better use of resources in the context of the numerous crises in many fragile and conflict-affected states. Having longer-term funding and objectives for humanitarian interventions, working more flexibly in crisis affected contexts, and integrating local actors in the response to those crises are all realistic and incremental changes to move this agenda forward. How about getting started?


The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities.

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