Refugees International (RI) Field Report says a concerted effort to tackle aggressively road access issues in northern Katanga can accelerate the creation of basic services and stimulate economic activities.
The aid organisation says Congolese authorities, international donors and development-oriented agencies “should seize this opportunity to rebuild the region and reduce the risk of a relapse of violence”.
Return is Just the Beginning
RI notes in the report that between 1999 and 2002, Katanga was the battleground for occupying Rwandan forces confronted by Congolese and Zimbabwean armies. Then in late 2005 fighting erupted between the Congolese army and local militias, generally known as Mai Mai.
The Mai Mai had fought the Rwandans alongside the army, but later resisted participation in the disarmament and demobilization process and deliberately attacked civilians.
Since the conflict ended in mid-2006, up to 450,000 previously displaced people have returned home. Another 43,000 Congolese refugees, who lived in camps in bordering Zambia in the late 1990s, have started moving back to their original areas. Many more, who settled outside the camps, are returning spontaneously without any assistance, and nobody really knows how they or others displaced internally are managing to survive.
Since May 2007 the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has facilitated the return of around 15,000 refugees, RI says. “Despite logistical challenges posed by long distances and ruined tar roads, the process is proceeding smoothly.
“Transit centres and way stations are equipped to host 400 people arriving by weekly convoys, while returnees receive six months of food rations and essential items, including basic construction materials and agricultural tools and seeds. Not all the returnees manage to reach their remote areas of origin and end up settling in and around urban centers where economic opportunities seem more promising.”
Although returnees should enjoy free access to health assistance for one year, medical services are minimal and facilities are ill-equipped. In addition, teachers unpaid by the state demand fees that families cannot afford despite the fact that children should be receiving free primary education.
“A very encouraging note, however, is that returnees are being welcomed back with enthusiasm by local communities. Even when conflicts arise between returnees and residents around access to land and property they are successfully arbitrated by the National Refugee Commission and local authorities.”
Nothing to Reintegrate Into
Once people return, the real challenge is to start life again: building a house, establishing a sustainable livelihood and sending children to school. “All is priority here. Cholera epidemics are recurrent and access to clear water limited. There are not enough schools, health posts. All is far away and very difficult to access given the absence or disastrous conditions of the roads. Returnees and residents are both facing huge difficulties,” a humanitarian worker told RI.
The results of the work of the return and community recovery cluster, a UN coordination mechanism, are still to be seen as many issues have yet to be addressed. UNHCR, which co-chairs the cluster together with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), has only recently trained and contracted local organizations to visit areas of returns and identify gaps and unmet needs. This important monitoring effort will probably confirm what a number of inter-agency needs assessments conducted in the past two years have repeatedly highlighted: food insecurity, widespread vulnerability of large portions of the population, chronic lack of basic services and a stagnating local economy.
Kick-start Recovery by Unlocking the Interior
RI says the “current reintegration and assistance activities implemented by UNHCR partners and a handful of international non-governmental organizations are very much needed, but their impact is short-lived and the efforts seem negligible when compared to the magnitude of needs and the amount of resources invested.
“One agency, for instance, had to transport 800 sacks of cement and 600 metal bars by bicycle for hundreds of miles to build a well for 300 people. Despite the huge availability of fertile land, farmers are cultivating just what they consider the minimum necessary to feed family members since they have no means to take any production surplus to markets in distant urban centres.
“With the current inaccessibility, any project aimed at building schools and medical centres, or hoping to revitalize economic activities and trade, face daunting obstacles and will not address people`s needs in a sustainable and successful manner.
“What is required is to reinvigorate the local economy through a coordinated effort by different actors that prioritize and execute road rehabilitation and construction to connect communities in the interior to the coasts of lakes Tanganika and Mwero, to Zambia and the provincial capital Lubumbashi.
“Although the cost of achieving greater access is very high given the logistic constraints, the constant need of maintenance and the long distances involved, its benefits will be long lasting and will reduce significantly the costs associated with any other social and economic programs,” RI argues.
Grab this Opportunity Now
“The current window of opportunity has to be seized quickly since the persistent lack of recovery and economic options could easily facilitate a relapse into banditry and violence,” RI adds.
“The reintegration of the Mai Mai militia is still incomplete. Many civilians have not been disarmed yet and there are alarming reports of continuous shipments of light weapons reaching the area.
More importantly, there remains almost complete impunity for all crimes committed, in particular acts of sexual violence and rape. The judicial system structures are non-existent or located so far away that victims cannot afford to travel and testify in court or to arrange legal advice there. “Despite the end of the war, sexual violence is becoming too normal and is affecting the entire society. Even one traditional chief has been accused of rape. Judicial inaction is a very serious problem and it is sending a wider message that criminal acts are tolerated,” a government official told RI.
Provincial authorities have completed a multi-sector development plan and, according to UN and government officials, it should be implemented after January 2009. But throughout its visit, RI heard that funding for it is lacking.
Budget discussions to finance the plan are currently ongoing, but the expected fiscal reform provision which would return to the provinces 40 percent of all tax revenues is still not happening. Katanga is a province rich in minerals and potentially very wealthy, and this perception is keeping international donors from committing important resources. In reality, however, people are facing the same hardship and misery as in many parts of the country.
Agencies working within the UN logistics cluster, which deals with communication infrastructure for humanitarian operations in partnership with the Congolese authorities, are also struggling. The cluster`s work plan is underfunded, behind schedule, and it requires permanent human resources to provide the needed technical support. Finally, road rehabilitation programs do not get adequate support for their maintenance, turning the roads impassable frequently because of torrential rains.
· The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo should urgently provide provincial and local authorities with the financial resources necessary to carry out the multi-sector development plan, particularly in areas of high returns.
· Donors should increase funding for existing and proposed road rehabilitation programs in northern Katanga through the coordination of the United Nations logistics cluster, and address the need for permanent technical capacity and road maintenance.
· Donors should channel resources for basic services and new livelihoods programs in areas of high returns through local authorities working in partnership with international and national development oriented non-governmental organizations.
· UNHCR should urgently analyze the results of its return and protection monitoring activities, identify the conditions of spontaneous returnees and returned internally displaced people and develop recovery programs that respond to vulnerability.