Is 'do no harm' peacekeeping possible in the DRC?

Violence and under-development continue to plague the people of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, despite more than a decade of efforts to end conflict in the region. In a lecture on 6 May at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester, DLP Research Fellow Suda Perera asked why international and domestic approaches to peacekeeping haven’t changed, even though the possibility of a lasting peace seems more remote than ever.

The official end to hostilities in the DRC came in 2003. Since then, international intervention to help rebuild the country and encourage development has taken many forms. Until 2013, DRC was the second-largest recipient of development assistance from the OECD. A huge number of NGOs are still based there, delivering a range of aid and development programmes that are underpinned by a massive UN presence, the longest and most expensive mission in UN history.

However, the DRC’s democratic experiment seems to be failing, given the reluctance of the incumbent president to relinquish power. Meanwhile, more than 70 armed groups continue to fight for territory and influence, particularly in the east, with devastating consequences for its communities. An estimated one million internally displaced people have been driven from their homes and livelihoods and rely on the World Food Program.

Findings from Suda’s research on armed groups and political inclusion in the DRC suggest that state actors are often, in effect, responsible for the creation of armed groups. The state can use them in a number of ways; to fight its enemies, for instance, or to avoid delivering services to citizens - effectively delegating this responsibility to aid agencies. This places humanitarian agencies in the position of inadvertently propping up a predatory state.

It is difficult for humanitarian agencies to find a way out of a situation like this, Suda argues. Many are constrained by their mandates and few would consider, for instance, working with armed groups, even those seen by their communities as legitimate protectors filling gaps left by an unreliable state machinery.

The result, however, is that humanitarian NGOs are viewed with increasing suspicion in the DRC. Often they are seen as supporters of a predatory status quo: when they work willingly alongside state armed groups but refuse to work with non-state armed groups, it is assumed by many that they give implicit recognition to an illegitimate state.

Humanitarians may also, in fact, be perceived to be acting in their own interests rather than as altruistic and impartial agents. One participant in Suda’s fieldwork interviews said:

Why are these NGOs not asking [themselves], why are we delivering food to farmers, to people who could grow their own food if they could go home? Why for 20 years are we doing the same thing and still people are dying?...They don’t ask because if they do they’ll be out of a job, and if they find a solution they’ll be out of a job…Conflict in the Congo is just another resource for the West to exploit.

Interview with a Congolese lawyer: Goma, 2014

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