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Expert Opinion

Why is aid not working? A fresh approach to displacement in the DRC

The DRC has one of the longest histories of violent unrest in the world.  Subsequently, for large swathes of the population, displacement has become a way of life, particularly in north and south Kivu in eastern DRC.  Here, conflicts over limited land and natural resources fuel much of the violence, and complex power-plays take place between numerous armed groups who all commit violence and atrocities against people caught up in the cross-fire.  

“We never tried to go back because the war continues.”

This is what an internally displaced woman in Masisi territory, north Kivu, told IDMC when we visited in June this year, describing the long-standing, difficult situation internally displaced people (IDPs) in this region particularly experience. Indeed, 61% of DRC's more than 2.6 million IDPs live in north and south Kivu provinces, having fled brutal scenes of conflict, armed violence and human rights violations.

During our visit, we frequently heard how IDPs “have no real place to live: [we] are not at home, but cannot go back either”. Their lives involve shuttling between different locations; returning home, seeking refuge with host families or in camps, looking for safety, a place to sleep, for food and means of livelihood. With the fluid nature of the conflict and violence, places of refuge can quickly turn into violent hot-spots, forcing them to move on again and again and again.

The current dominant approach to aid in the DRC

The current humanitarian approach in DRC focuses on providing short-term assistance such as water, sanitation, health or shelter for those displaced. Yet in what amounts to a somewhat ‘Band-Aid’ approach, and with displacement figures remaining high year in year out, humanitarians are asking themselves whether their approach is truly the right way, with some feeling that something is missing in their response.

They are right, a different approach is needed and key to this, we believe, lies in understanding the displacement dynamics in DRC, particularly in terms of understanding the patterns and consequences of multiple displacement on an individual.

Every time people flee, they lose almost everything and are forced to start rebuilding again from scratch.  They lose their material assets and often their jobs and livelihoods, the education of their children is interrupted, and they can be left traumatised and sometimes even physically injured following flight. In addition, displaced people are often separated from their communities; losing their social identity and support networks as a result.

Whether it is the first, second or fifth time that a person experiences displacement, they face a long road ahead in order to try and recover their assets, find access to basic services and re-establish their social and psychological wellbeing. In short, with each displacement event, a person’s ability to cope is often eroded further and further.

In the context of weak governance and protracted unrest, as is the case in DRC, IDPs need to be able to find coping mechanisms that will increase their resilience or ability to withstand shocks such as recurrent violence and insecurity.  Yet the current approach to humanitarian aid is failing to understand this, and can even undermine existing coping strategies that IDPs adopt themselves. For example, when hosted by a community, IDPs can contribute to farming activities, which benefits both IDPs and their hosts, and helps to build cohesion.  If however, IDPs continue to receive direct food assistance, their motivation to farm can be  diminished; they might become reliant on aid and could be seen as a burden by the host communities, thus fuelling tensions further.

An innovative new approach to helping the displaced now underway

To try and address this issue, IDMC is embarking on a three-year project undertaken with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), International Alert and Climate Interactive to try and find out how assistance can strengthen the resilience of IDPs and ultimately make them less dependent on aid.

The first step involves rigorous research to better understand the relationship between multiple displacement events and an individual’s ability to cope with such events. Once this relationship is more clearly mapped out, a systems modelling methodology will be used to show how the numerous variables that influence multiple displacement and resilience work together.  Knowing, for example, that by giving direct food assistance to IDPs living in host communities can fuel tensions and degrade resilience will allow practitioners to consider alternative approaches that will benefit everybody and boost community health and cohesion in the longer term. 

The results will help us to design an innovative pilot approach to assistance, which aims at strengthening the resilience of IDPs by using interventions that work in harmony with the reality that they face. In turn, this will allow practitioners to then simulate potential interventions in order to more accurately predict what sort of impact they will have.

In the next few years, we will test and implement this approach in selected areas of the Kivus with the aim of identifying ways in which to deliver assistance that bolsters resilience in the longer term. We hope that the results of this work will engage practitioners, policy makers and donors to promote a different response – one that respects and promotes existing coping strategies of people facing repeated displacement events, and takes a longer-term view more suited to the specifics of the DRC context. 

For more information on the project and on how you can get involved, take a look at the project paper.

To find out how this project is progressing, follow @IDMC_Africa


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