A Congolese space of aid: reflections from national staff

  • Tony Kiumbe
20 April, 2018

Myfanwy: I have recently returned from North Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I was conducting fieldwork with the aim of understanding how humanitarian organisations have negotiated and maintained access to operate in a province with such a diverse and shifting constellation of power holders – a patchwork of political alliances and armed networks that includes over 100 armed groups.

I explored interactions between humanitarian workers and conflict actors through the lens of everyday micro-practice. I hoped to capture the reality of ongoing, iterative negotiations and interactions between humanitarian organisations and conflict actors.

My research focuses on the individuals involved in these interactions – because ultimately, humanitarian practice involves ‘people and their interactions’. And, aid interventions are ‘ongoing, socially constructed and negotiated processes’ that are shaped and transformed by their social actors, rather than a simple execution of pre-planned policies. I set out to spend time with, and learn from, a range of humanitarian workers with first-hand experience in North Kivu.

It soon became evident that Congolese staff are fundamental to how humanitarian organisations operate in North Kivu: they collect and analyse information from the field, form and maintain a network of armed and non-armed political actors that are essential for international organisations to operate, and play important roles during negotiations with armed actors in the field. Ultimately, they are essential to how international organisations implant themselves in complex, shifting contexts and successfully navigate the security and political environment at a local level.

My doctorate explores their role in these interactions, often as mediators or ‘fixers’, and the overlapping identities that they mediate during humanitarian performances in the field. It highlights the importance of personal identity in everyday humanitarian practice in North Kivu.

Below, Tony Kiumbe – a humanitarian worker with over ten years’ experience in the Kivus – shares his experience in the field, and reflections on the ways in which his personal identity as a Congolese national has impacted on the dynamics of his negotiations with armed actors as a humanitarian worker. 

Tony: When negotiating with armed groups, I’ve always emphasised honesty and the neutral character of the humanitarian action. As humanitarians working in protection, my colleagues and I draw from international humanitarian law and try to appeal to a sense of common humanity.

Within our interactions with armed groups, I’ve found that there are advantages to being Congolese. I’ve found that foreigners provoke distrust and suspicion. In fact, during meetings with armed actors, it is usually the Congolese staff member who must reassure the armed group of the trustworthiness of the expatriates who are present. Often, I have been asked questions in Swahili that my expatriate colleagues cannot understand, such as: Your whites here, who are they collecting this information for? Have they come here to spy on us? Why do they want us to trust them?' Often, for our armed interlocutors, it seems that white or 'muzungu' expatriates come to represent or symbolise several things at once: financial means, dangerous spies, the people responsible for poverty and suffering in Congo, and/or potential funders of armed groups’ activities. Here, it is the national staff who must play a pivotal role as a mediator between the two parties. It is the shared cultural references, the fact you belong to the same country and share a common language that can help create an initial degree of acceptance and trust.

But, at the same time, being Congolese poses disadvantages, dangers and challenges in this line of work. For instance, I always approach armed interlocutors in their own language – Swahili. I’ve found this helps build trust and a connection. However, a certain degree of proximity poses dangers: it’s also very important to avoid this trust and connection turning into a friendship. This becomes especially difficult as armed groups tend to try and approach you as a friend, or slowly push you towards this direction. This can put you in a difficult and potentially dangerous position – not only endangering your impartiality, but also creating expectations on the part of armed actors, who may in turn put you under pressure with requests and demands.

Therefore, it is essential to find a balance: you mustn’t create expectations or misunderstandings with your armed interlocutors. Yet, at the same time, I’ve found that to successfully maintain communication with armed groups for humanitarian purposes, it’s not enough to just have short-term contacts – you must maintain that relationship and connection over time with specific individuals. In other words, the struggle is to maintain a relationship over time that does not become a friendship.

And, at the same time, you must mediate the government side. Government authorities are also suspicious of humanitarian workers who work in my domain and have frequent contact with armed groups. I remember one time in a meeting with a state official, he asked whether I was a Congolese national. When I replied that yes, of course I was, he replied by warning me that ‘this government will not come and look for you if you are captured by rebels when you are out there!’

Tony Kiumbe is a humanitarian professional with over 10 years’ experience working in the Kivus, specifically in the domain of interactions and negotiations with armed groups. He is currently based in Goma, North Kivu.

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About the author(s)
Myfanwy James
Departmental Lecturer in Development Studies
Tony Kiumbe