How to conceive resilience in a protracted crisis situation like eastern DRC?

An abridged version of this article was published on the Resilience Compass Blog.

Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has a long history of pervasive violence and instability. Aid agencies have been sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into this region for the past 25 years now, while the situation for millions of Congolese is merely improving. Decades of armed violence, human rights violations, extreme poverty and instability have displaced millions of people in South and North Kivu provinces, creating a situation of protracted emergency, where traditional ways of programming aid intervention have turned out to be inadequate, not to say disappointing, and seem to do little to help people restore livelihoods or repair torn social relations over the long term. Humanitarians are searching for new ways to boost the resilience of people living in a protracted emergency situation. What does that mean when it comes to designing a project in such a fragile and insecure context that is also affected by climate and environmental risks?

The challenge of thinking long-term impact programming in a day-to-day survival mindset

The majority of people in eastern DRC are suffering from protracted and repeated displacement, caught up in the crossfire and power-plays that take place between numerous armed groups. In addition to psychological trauma and sometimes physical and health injury, people have lost key assets, their education has been interrupted, social networks have broken down, housing and shelter damaged, and coping strategies weakened (IDMC 2014). Both IDPs and host communities are affected by displacement. Their ability to respond and recover from shocks and stresses – that is to say their resilience – is weakened every time they suffer a new displacement. This in turn reduces their ability to cope with climate- or environmental-related risks such as changing rainfall patterns.

The structural problem of governance in DRC is one of the main obstacles to resilience in that context. In addition to armed violence and insecurity, people have to deal with a blatant lack of state infrastructure and rule of law, inequitable land distribution and tenure, extremely poor governance structures and basic service provision, and more frequent and intense environmental-related stresses, all of which are major underlying causes of their vulnerability. For people affected by protracted displacement, life is a matter of day-to-day survival, with the fear of being displaced again impeding them from looking ahead in the future, constraining their investment capacity and their wellbeing development. The famous use of the Congolese expression 'article 15' dating back to Mobutu’s time (a fictive article of the constitution that means basically 'le Système D' in French, or fend for yourself) reflects how it is embedded in the culture that people have to look after themselves, without any help from state institutions. The state is characterised by a patrimonial and clientelistic governance system, whose institutions remain without substance, preventing them from functioning in a clear manner (International Alert 2015). The absence of strong, accountable, participatory and effective local governance contributes to fuelling the lack of perspective and confidence in the future among the local population and therefore seriously reduces the impact and sustainability of projects that seek to benefit the population. Governance is not the only one, but is a key parameter for resilience in DRC.

"Building resilience in eastern Congo somehow sounds like an oxymoron." Anonymous INGO staff, Bukavu, DRC

Knowing that external interventions have to deal with those deep-rooted power dynamics and defaulting structures, which are not easy to transform, how should humanitarian actors conceive resilience in such an insecure and fragile context, where little exists to protect what has been built so far, in the short, medium or long term?

How to build resilience in such a protracted crisis context? Trying new ways to programme in eastern DRC

Donors are calling for change in this long-troubled region, where a clear donor fatigue is visible after years of investment with unsatisfying value for money. There is an increasing push for adopting a transformative approach, using resilience as a new paradigm for programming.

But so far, it has been particularly challenging to determine what it means to build resilience in such a conflict-affected context.

"I have been living in the Kivus for a while now, and it seems that nothing has worked here so far. Existing interventions are numberless, and there is a visible fatigue in donating money into a black hole. At the same time, the existing heavily administrative and bureaucratic system to manage grants because of the rife fraud in DRC is clearly hindering interventions' efficiency on the ground." INGO staff, Bukavu, DRC

The three-year UK Department for International Development-funded project undertaken by the Norwegian Refugee Council, International Alert, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Climate Interactive, is one of several initiatives seeking to reach a common understanding of vulnerability in the context of protracted and multiple displacement in eastern DRC, and inform humanitarian practice and programming to strengthen the resilience of people affected by multiple displacement.

After a year of research, the consortium is starting to design the pilot project in North and South Kivu based on a common understanding of what comprises resilience in that specific context. Research findings highlight the need for focusing on human and social capital (strengthening family, religious and civil society networks in communities and favouring their inclusiveness; reinforcing individual skills based on market demand to diversify livelihoods and income generation abilities; improving skills to manage local conflict and foster social cohesion) to strengthen people's resilience in a context of multiple displacement.

International Alert is bringing in its peacebuilding and conflict sensitivity perspective into programming. Initiatives designed to consolidate peaceful relations – by strengthening people's and institutions' skills in managing conflict peacefully, by promoting social cohesion or strong local governance structures – support people's capacity to better cope with shocks, including conflict, displacement and others like climate- or environmental-related ones.

"When there is a displacement event or a shock in the community, be it a climate or environmental disaster or a violent conflict event, increasing social cohesion is the key to keeping people safe and maintaining the social fabric, and finally helping people facing a difficult time." International Alert staff, Bukavu, DRC

Indeed, pathways from social cohesion to resilience have been widely recognised. Social cohesion can have cascading positive impacts on access to social and protection networks and safety nets, increased mobility and access to natural resources, and increased potential income opportunities, helping them to bounce back better when a shock strikes them.

However, the most important thing to remember is that contributing to resilience in such a volatile and insecure context is not about a miracle recipe of activities. It is much more about how you do something than what you do. Resilience is highly contextual and pathways to enhancing it vary greatly from one context to another. Though there are some key safeguards to bear in mind in order to contribute to resilience in conflict settings and protracted emergency situations. Here are some of them.

The peacebuilding contribution to resilience in protracted conflict settings

Understand risks in a compound way

One of the first steps to understanding the local context is to try to understand risks in a compound way, as people never face one risk in isolation. As our project looks to increase community resilience to displacement, it is important that it keeps looking at the broader picture of risk interaction in eastern DRC, even if violent conflict remains the most important one. For example, during the research phase of the project, environmental conditions were raised repeatedly as an issue during discussions with communities and environmental degradation can be seen as a stress both endogenous and exogenous to displacement. People highlighted the challenge of planning the agricultural cycle due to rainfall variability and uncertainty, and recognised the role of local deforestation in changing rainfall patterns. The knock-on consequences on agricultural yields is a major issue for most of the people reliant on climate-sensitive livelihoods. Those climate impacts interact with other stress factors such as the growing population pressure due to high birth rates and waves of displacement in certain areas, and with the land grabbing issue for private use that push more people into smaller areas of public land. This increased concentration of agricultural activities contributes to soil exhaustion, erosion and sometimes deforestation, further exacerbating other trends in climate change. In addition to those compounding risks, there is a need to understand climate–conflict interlinkages to better inform interventions in this context. Climate sensitivity cannot be overlooked by any project seeking to build long-term resilience in a context affected both by conflict and climate- and environmental-related risks. Overlooking one major risk might be counterproductive or even worse harmful, unwittingly exacerbating conflict risks or vulnerability for local populations. This is why peacebuilding, humanitarian and development programmes need to be climate-proof, ensuring that its progress is not disrupted by the effects of climate change that could and should be anticipated (International Alert 2009).

Conflict-sensitive approach in the project cycle

When designing a project in such a conflict-affected context, the first thing to flag is the need for a strong understanding of the local context and power dynamics. Bringing a conflict-sensitive lens to the project cycle is necessary to avoid unintended consequences of the project like exacerbating vulnerability or unwittingly triggering conflict. During my time in DRC, I heard of so many interventions that failed, or worse, exacerbated local vulnerability due to a very poor understanding of what people really rely on to cope with problems on a daily basis.

"As part of a programme to boost livelihoods by increasing agricultural productivity, we have heard about this renowned INGO that have distributed a new generation of cassava seeds to vulnerable communities in South Kivu, with supposedly higher yields and quicker maturation. They encouraged people to switch their native seeds for these new ones. After the first harvest, people were highly disappointed when they realised that the roots couldn’t be stored in the soil for a long time (not more than 6 months), while native seeds could stay two years in the soil and serve as subsistence food all year long, providing higher food security for their households." International Alert staff, Goma, DRC

Many poor interventions have occurred due to this lack of conflict and context sensitivity. Some INGOs still promote enhanced seeds distribution while people have no space to sow. They end up seeing those seeds the next day on the local market place. Therefore, adaptation to climate change or development programmes needs to be context sensitive – responding to the needs of the people, involving them in consultation, taking account of power distribution and social order, and avoiding pitting groups against each other.

An integrated approach between peacebuilding, development, humanitarian and climate change adaptation response for building positive resilience

There is a need to stop programming in silos and start designing projects in an integrated way, to contribute to real resilience. We need to integrate climate, development and humanitarian aid, and peacebuilding efforts to compound climate and fragility risks. Because on one the hand risks are interconnected and on the other such an approach could help achieve resilience as an overarching objective of the three areas (International Alert et al 2015).

Look at the broader picture: Governance is key for resilience

The absence of strong, accountable, participatory and effective local governance is one of those major underlying causes of vulnerability in eastern DRC. A large proportion of donor funds are spent on projects that do not target (specifically enough) the problem of governance in DRC. Yet, functioning governance institutions and structures that fulfilled their mandate in an active, responsible and transparent manner could help resolve and prevent a lot of conflict dynamics in eastern DRC (International Alert 2015), and improve the impact and sustainability of projects that seek to benefit the population. Furthermore, promoting good governance over the long term could help switch the mindset from the short-term, day-to day perspective to a more long-term approach, contributing to improving people’s confidence in the future. Building positive resilience without improved governance is inconceivable in eastern DRC.

Sustainability and flexibility in the entire aid system

Behaviour change is a big issue in DRC. But Behaviour change takes a long time. When building a programme that is intended to have a medium- to long-term impact, sustainability in terms of financing and impact on the ground is essential, but more often funding structures and processes do not allow long-term programming. Even if a lot of donors have started turning to development with durability built in since M23 left Goma in November 2013, the majority of funding opportunities are still available for a short-term period. And it is hard to address deep-rooted causes of vulnerability in 18 months, particularly in eastern DRC.

In addition, we have to stay humble about what we can achieve in such a difficult context. Trying to build resilience is therefore about flexibility, questioning approaches, learning from failure and adapting to the moving context. Saying that is not new, but it seems that concrete change is hard, involving a whole set of reform from funding to programming approaches, methods and process. Learning by doing is still highly relevant in fragile and volatile contexts, so is accepting when something has not worked and learning from it. There is not one way of doing something; we don’t have the silver bullet. But analysing the local context and how risks interact in a compound way, mainstreaming conflict and climate sensitivity into the project cycle, favouring an integrated response, and always trying to address – even in a small way – the deep rooted causes of vulnerability as poor governance in eastern DRC will enable avoiding unintended consequences and will hedge towards addressing people’s core vulnerabilities and strengthen their resilience.

Photo: Women carry firewood in Mugunga camp near Goma in eastern DRC, 2013. Courtesy of Eddy Mbuyi/Oxfam under Creative Commons