International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Congo: Past, present and future


In 2011, the Democratic Republic of Congo was ranked last in the world in terms of life expectancy, education, standard of living and key health indicators such as maternal and child mortality. In another survey, Congo was rated among the top five failed states. Statistics are appalling: More than 70 percent of the population has limited or no access to health care; one in five children dies before the age of five; one in 13 women dies in childbirth; an estimated 31 percent of school-age children have never set foot in a school.
The International Rescue Committee has been present in Congo since 1996, and is now one of the largest non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the country. I recently talked to Ciaran Donnelly, the IRC’s regional director in Congo for the past three years, about the realities on the ground, the importance of recent general elections, and the IRC’s work—past, present and future.
Q: Congo has long been deemed one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The 2011 ratings were particularly harsh, but is the situation on the ground really that bad? 
A: It is important that we recognize the enormous challenges Congo faces today, but I do not see that this country, which is the size of Western Europe and has a population in excess of 70 million, is engulfed in conflict or in a humanitarian crisis as it is often portrayed. Yes, this was the case for a long time, and yes, there are huge problems in certain parts of the country. In the east, where conflict is ongoing and where civilians continue to suffer at the hands of various armed actors, there is still a significant humanitarian crisis. But this is not the main story of Congo today. We can talk about an extremely fragile state but not about a failed state. The country is slowly moving in the right direction, with the state gradually able to carry out its core functions. That said, there is a very long way to go.

Q: In November 2011, Congo held its second general elections. What is their relevance in the context you just described?

A: That the elections were held is already a big achievement considering the size of the country and the resource constraints. They were also reasonably peaceful and enjoyed the participation of a very large number of people, which is a huge testament to the desire of the Congolese people for peace and democracy. At the same time, we have to recognize that there were serious procedural shortcomings, even if the political crisis didn’t deteriorate into a security situation similar to that of the 2006 elections.

Q: Congo has terrible indicators in all areas. Of all the things that require significant improvement, which issues do you think should be prioritized?
A: First and foremost, protection of civilians in the regions still affected by conflict and displacement. Women and girls especially are vulnerable to abuse, and the needs far outweigh the resources available to support them. Measures must be taken to reduce violence against civilians and to provide safe access to quality services and justice mechanisms for survivors.
For the population as a whole, much remains to be done to increase affordable and equitable access to basic services, in particular health care and education. There is an acute need for health centers and schools as well as improved access to clean water and sanitation. Beyond the infrastructure, Congo needs better trained and better paid doctors, nurses and teachers, in ever greater numbers. 
Another priority is to strengthen accountability and transparency throughout the fabric of Congolese society. In particular, Congolese men and women should have an active voice in decisions that affect their welfare. Only by putting citizens in the driver’s seat will this vast and complex country benefit from political, social and economic growth.
Q: Have the recent elections affected the IRC’s work in Congo?
A: On a temporary basis only. For a short period, we downsized our field operations as a pre-emptive measure to protect our staff and programs in the event of widespread civil disturbances. Thankfully, in the end, such disruptions were limited, and in recent weeks operations have resumed at normal tempo. 

Q: Congo is currently the IRC’s largest program, with more than 1,000 staff working in seven of the 11 provinces. How does the IRC ensure quality in an operation of this scale?
A: The IRC’s steady growth in Congo over recent years can be linked to several related dynamics. We have successfully demonstrated that we can implement increasingly large programs while maintaining a high level of quality. At the same time, we have strengthened our partnerships with key donors who have ramped up their investments in post-conflict programming as Congo slowly emerges from decades of humanitarian crisis. To ensure the continued quality of our programs, we are also conducting impact evaluations with academic partners such as Columbia University, NYU and Johns Hopkins University, to better understand what’s most effective in addressing the needs of Congolese communities. 
As in all the countries where we work, I strongly believe that the key to successful operations is the fact that we ground our programs in the priorities of the communities we serve. We support access to basic services for all Congolese people. We empower men and women to choose and manage their own development projects. We work to bridge the distance between communities (the consumers of services) and authorities (the service providers). We address the emergency needs of the people forced to flee their homes due to conflict. We assist survivors of sexual violence and other vulnerable women and girls through our medical and psychosocial services, and we help them acquire skills to rebuild their lives.
Q: There are hundreds of NGOs operating in Congo, and on more than one occasion this has given rise to a concern: Are they supporting or undermining the Congolese state? 
A: It is important in a transitional context like Congo that NGOs gradually align their strategies with those of the government and work toward enabling its responsibility to its citizens. This has been central to IRC’s approach all along, as shown in our strong relationships with the Congolese ministries of health and education. These partnerships have enabled us to strengthen the health and education systems as well as improve access to quality of services for the most vulnerable. 

Q: What is your recommendation to the international community about active participation in Congo?
A: Whether it is donors, NGOs or governments, it is important to keep in mind that there are no quick fixes in Congo. Success will only come through steady commitment to a long-term vision, grounded in realistic and achievable short-term objectives. There continue to be overwhelming challenges to progress in Congo, and it’s critical that everyone working here does so in a coherent way, to maximize both the impact and the efficiency of our programs.

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