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Should international aid go local?

Local initiatives may be the best solution, say experts
Local initiatives may be the best solution, say experts

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), much effort has been focused on aid and peacekeeping from the top down, but should it all be carried out from the bottom up? Laurinda Luffman takes a look.

Over the last decade, huge reconstruction efforts have been underway to support the national government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) and to restore civil order. The DR Congo is home to one of the largest peacekeeping forces in the world, the UN's Mission de l'Organisation de Nations Unies en République Démocratique du Congo (Monusco), which has more than 22,000 uniformed personnel. But while international politicians and aid agencies remain committed to rebuilding the state at a national level, some experts are questioning the effectiveness of this approach.

The relationship between any state and its citizens if often split into two distinct levels, where citizens deal with their local community governments and these local authorities then liaise with the national government. Where local governance is weak or disrupted by conflict, it is often impossible for national initiatives to work. And as has been seen in the eastern provinces of the DR Congo (as well as in other African countries such as Mali), regional instability can easily spread and lead to national insecurity.

Planting shrubs in DRCSome experts therefore say the United Nations should mainly finance and lend its support to locally-based non-governmental organisations and initiatives. They believe that in terms of peacekeeping, local NGOs are better placed to mediate between different ethnic groups and sort out local issues fuelling violence. Their argument is that only when issues are tackled and resolved at a local level, will the state have any chance of being able to reassert authority and control.

Local humanitarian initiatives

The ‘local’ or bottom-up approach may also work best for humanitarian programmes, particularly in a vast country such as the DR Congo where central authority is extremely weak. In the recently published annual index on African governance produced by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, the DR Congo is ranked second from bottom for poor governance (based on indicators and data in four categories – safety and the rule of law, participation and human rights, sustainable economic opportunity and human development).

Many international aid organisations therefore focus their work not only on certain developmental areas, but also on particular regions, where they focus on solutions involving local people and groups.

So for example, a new approach is being used in the DR Congo to distribute emergency aid items, backed by the Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Money from the CHF is being spent on setting up regional fairs where local stallholders and sellers set up shop to supply people who have been displaced by fighting. Displaced families are provided with coupons by the fund, which they can spend at the fair on any supplies they need, such as clothes, cooking utensils or other emergency shelter items. At the end of the fair, the local merchants then redeem the coupons for cash from the organisers.

Vaccination in DRCThis approach allows families to choose exactly what they need, rather than being given a set package of items, and they can haggle and barter for bargains, just as they would in normal everyday life. Since the initiative supports local traders, it also minimises the effects which an influx of free aid can have on small businesses and the local economy. And just as importantly, it encourages a sense of independence and community which is essential to rebuilding life at a local level.

Necessity of national campaigns

Despite the success of such local initiatives, some aid organisations continue to see the need for nationally led campaigns, particularly in areas such as health. So for example, a countrywide vaccination programme is being carried out to immunise children in the DR Congo against polio. Only with such a mass vaccination programme, coordinated across the whole country, can a disease like polio be eradicated.

This goes to illustrate how in some areas of development there is a strong interdependence between local and national authorities and to work effectively, both levels need to be supported for the common good of all the DR Congo’s people.

Want to learn more about locally-based humanitarian work in the DR Congo? Find out what SOS Children is doing to help...