Why didn’t all the aid reach the poorest? Here’s why.

So you donated a week’s lattes to save refugees from an African civil war; you suspect the refugees received only an ordinary cup of Joe…

Julia Lewis, Area Manager, Democratic Republic of Congo in Concern Worldwide, presents a field report on four of the harsh realities in delivering aid assistance within the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Beneficiaries line up to receive kits of essential household goods. Photo by Concern Worldwide
Beneficiaries line up to receive kits of essential household goods. Photo by Concern Worldwide

When academics or the media criticize aid organizations for inefficiencies or promises unfulfilled, I think about the vast and endlessly tangled complexities of this work. Crisis follows crisis, harsh realities are compounded by harsh realities, and every day there are situations where we are forced to make decisions when no option offers the perfect solution.

That’s often the case here in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the epicentre of what was called “Africa’s World War” (1998-2003), the deadliest conflict since World War II. Especially in the eastern reaches of the country, violence and terror have continued since the supposed end of that war. Conflict and preventable disease take the lives of tens of thousands each month—five years ago a fellow international organization here put the toll at more than five million. The situation has changed little since then.

In November, the M23 rebel group invaded Goma, a city in the country’s war-torn east. The Congolese army put up little resistance, leaving Goma largely for the rebels’ taking. When the M23 first took over, upward of 100,000 people fled their homes, often leaving everything behind to seek refuge in official camps, churches, and schools—anywhere that provided some semblance of safety.

Harsh reality #1: 100,000 people are displaced and in urgent need, in a province where approximately 400,000 more people were already displaced by conflict.  

People needed everything with which to eke out a basic existence away from home, from food to medicine, blankets, clothes and kitchen utensils. When the M23 took over, we at Concern Worldwide — together with other organizations — immediately started preparations to provide basic households goods (or as we call them, non-food items, NFI) such as blankets, jerry cans, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets, sleeping mats, clothes and women’s hygiene kits. These items would help families to keep warm and dry, to prepare food, to wash themselves and their clothes, and to store water.

Unfortunately, our plans were stalled by reports of lootings and rapes in and around the sites.

A constant struggle in reaching people in need is the fact that multiple armed groups operate in DRC and order is hard to come by. It would have been impossible to hide that we were planning a large-scale distribution. To carry on in such circumstances would have added fuel to the flames and placed those we were supposed to be helping, as well as our own staff, at unacceptable risk. Frustrating as it was, we were left with little choice but to hold out until the camps could be secured by the police and UN peacekeepers.

Harsh Reality #2: Aid often has to be targeted to the poorest and most in need, amid a population who are often barely better off.

Approximately 100 people, Concern staff among them, set off while it was still dark one Tuesday morning to make sure our aid reached those most in need. We visited different camps around Goma to try and count people while they were still asleep and before outsiders could arrive and pretend they too were living there. With an understanding of how many people were in each camp, it was decided that Concern was responsible for distributing to 6,000 families in Mugunga 1, a camp on the western outskirts of Goma.

Meanwhile, back at base, Concern’s office suddenly resembled a mixture between a builder’s yard and Santa’s workshop. Trucks loaded with goods came and went. Our logistics team worked frantically and tirelessly to prepare thousands of kits—each of which contained 20 items—and every square inch was covered with tarpaulin-wrapped piles of blankets, plastic sheeting, second-hand clothing, soap, jerry cans and sleeping mats.

After all this preparation and planning, the first day of the distribution finally arrived.

My alarm went off at 4:30 am. By dawn we were setting up the distribution site, creating separate areas for people to line up, be marked off the distribution list, and receive their items. As the team got to work, a generator was set up, and loud Congolese and Nigerian pop music blasted through speakers. The mood lifted. A group of 30 kids gathered around, dancing in time to the beat. In the festive mood, my tiredness evaporated.

Within a couple of hours, the real work began. By the end of the first day, some 1,500 households received assistance. By the second day, we reached 1,713 more. This left some 2,800 households to be served on the last day—an ambitious, but not impossible, target.

Women leave the distribution center carrying essential nonfood supplies. Photo: Concern Worldwide.
Women leave the distribution center carrying essential nonfood supplies. Photo: Concern Worldwide.

Harsh Reality #3: External forces, especially insecurity, often delay assistance or prevent us from reaching those most in need.

The last day of any distribution is always the most difficult and highlights some of the challenges in providing humanitarian assistance. There is an awareness that the end is nearing. As more and more bystanders gathered near the site, tensions ran high. By lunchtime, they were palpable. Our job now was to get the distribution done as quickly and calmly as possible.

Despite the presence of the national police and a UN peacekeeping force, the situation was deteriorating. We decided to suspend the distribution until security could be guaranteed. To try to finish would only have put everyone there, our staff and the people we were there to help, in harm’s way.

With around 700 households still to be served, it was difficult to leave the job unfinished, but we were left with little choice.

Even though the situation was out of our control, it was impossible not to feel deflated after being so close to reaching all 6,000 households. I tried to focus on the 5,300 households we did reach, and I knew that planning would start immediately to make a second attempt to reach the last 700. Indeed, a second registration process is underway, and these households will soon receive assistance.

Harsh Reality #4: As long as the constant crisis that is the DRC goes unnoticed by the rest of the world, Concern and our partners will continue to struggle to provide life-saving relief, let alone work hand-in-hand with communities to achieve lasting change.

Since our distribution, a relative calm has settled in over Goma, but the situation remains volatile. The M23 is no longer in control of Goma, but it is stationed just four kilometres away, and armed groups elsewhere in the Kivus continue to aggravate any hope for peace.

All eyes are on negotiations that are underway in Kinshasa between M23 and the government, but the outcome is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that the situation could deteriorate again at any moment, provoking further suffering and reinforcing the cycle of conflict and violence that communities, women and children here have suffered for decades.

This article has been cross-posted with permission from a Concern in Action blog post on the Take Part website.