International Rescue Committee (IRC)

In Congo, Learning Democracy and Rebuilding Communities

In the Kiswahili language, the word tuungane means “moving forward together.” It’s an apt name for the International Rescue Committee’s expansive community-driven reconstruction program in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where years of conflict and displacement have torn at the social fabric of villages and towns.

Tuungane is designed to support post-conflict economic recovery, social cohesion and good governance practices. The project is unique in its breadth, not only covering a large geographic region, but also targeting 1.78 million beneficiaries in rural areas.

“It’s an opportune time for this type of project in Congo,” says Mark Emmert, an IRC Tuungane project coordinator. “We’re in a post-conflict phase in a large part of the country; displaced civilians and refugees are coming back to their homes.”

A baseline survey carried out by the IRC in cooperation with Columbia University highlights some of the region’s challenges, including the correspondence between violence and declining welfare conditions. Tuungane seeks to foster stability by funding development initiatives managed by the communities themselves.

On a green hillside in Cirimiro, a village in South Kivu province where distance and instability have kept children out of school, some 200 giggly 6- to 13-year olds crowd into six classrooms. 

An IRC team arrived here in 2007 and held an open meeting to explain the Tuungane approach and process. Shortly afterward,  the community organized an election to choose 10 members for a Village Development Committee (VDC), the local version of the wider-scale Community Development Committees (CDCs). Voting for VDC or CDC members often serves as an introduction to democratic elections for civilians in Congo.

After elections, IRC staff trained new VDC and CDC members on good governance practices, financial planning and management, gender issues and conflict resolution. Knowledge in all of these areas helps leaders to execute development projects that follow the principles of transparency and participation.

“Community-driven reconstruction projects like Tuungane are a good tool to teach democracy,” says Muriel Tschopp, IRC Tuungane project manager. “But the tangible impact is readily seen at the village level, where communities are not only learning democracy but are also coming up with practical, immediate projects to improve their socio-economic well-being.”

The VDC used its initial $700 grant from Tuungane to build three classrooms for the Cirimiro school and furnish them with desks and blackboards. A second project involved the drilling of nine water points to provide safe water to the school and village. Later, a neighboring CDC expanded on this idea, putting in a water reservoir and distribution system.

“About three large villages benefit from this reservoir,” explains CDC President Bahova Mushengezi. “In the past, women and children walked for four or five hours to find water, carrying 20-liter jerry cans.”

Mushengezi turns to a group of schoolgirls to ask how much time they spend collecting water now. “Ten minutes,” says a timid girl, her arm draped around the shoulder of a friend.

Tuungane is helping people access services they need most, like education and water, while transferring skills and patterns that help shape the community in the long-run.

“This program is exciting because it seeks to understand and rebuild the social fabric of communities, starting at a grassroots level,” says the IRC’s Emmert. “It’s a program that starts to rebuild trust, it’s a grassroots democratization program, it’s economic redevelopment, all of which the country needs in the aftermath of conflict.”

Tuungane is a three-year project supported by the U.K. Department for International Development.

Learn More

Read a Q&A with a woman elected vice-president of her local Community Development Committee in South Kivu.