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Economic support for thousands of families in Congo-Kinshasa - A major challenge at a time of global food crisis

13-08-2008 Interview

To cope with the tragic situation in North and South Kivu, the ICRC has nearly doubled its assistance to people affected by the internal armed conflict. Ian Byram, who heads the ICRC’s economic security unit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, explains the action being taken by the ICRC to meet people’s needs.


  Ian Byram, head of the ICRC’s economic security unit in the DRC.    

The ICRC has implemented two types of economic assistance programme in the DRC. The first is an emergency scheme to supply food and other essential items to displaced people, host families in areas affected by the conflict, and people returning to their homes following displacement. Ove r 15,200 families have received such support, including seed, since the beginning of the year. The second type of programme is longer-term and involves projects to restore or increase food production.

Almost 20 ICRC delegates and local employees are working on economic security in the areas of North and South Kivu affected by the conflict. They receive vital support from numerous DRC Red Cross volunteers.


 At present, the bulk of the ICRC’s budget in the DRC is earmarked for economic security work. Why is this?  

©ICRC/C. de Keyzer/cd-e-00685    
Displaced persons’ camp in Minova, South Kivu. The number of civilians affected by the conflict continues to grow.    

We allocate our resources according to need, and the recipients are always victims of armed violence. In emergencies, such as the one in the eastern DRC, our priorities include distributing relief to civilians, who are often lacking the basic necessities for survival. That's why we've had to increase our budget and, with it, our ability to respond to emergencies.

Our budget is used primarily to distribute food, seed and other essential supplies. Depending on their needs, affected civilians receive kits containing items such as blankets, jerrycans, buckets, clothing, mats, soap and a hoe. If we find that civilians need food, we also try to provide corn, oil and beans. At a later stage, when people are finally able to return to their villages, we do our best to ease the resettlement process. We also assist families who are hosting displaced persons, since population movements place great strain on the resources of local communities.

There is no standard response to an emergency. It's important to find out the main problems facing the population concerned before responding. For example, we can't simply distribute agricultural items to civilians whose primary problem is lack of food.

 Numerous humanitarian agencies are present in the DRC, especially in North Kivu. What's special about the ICRC when it comes to economic security?  

The ICRC has an " integrated " approach: it carries out several activities – protection, health care, water supply and so on – simultaneously and in a complementary fashion. This is crucial since large-scale emergencies generate a variety of needs. Likewise, protection work can't be separated from assistance. For example, a family may find itself without essential supplies because its house has been looted. This is a problem that must be dealt with on several levels: the looters must be reminded of humanitarian principles, but the family also requires rapid, practical assistance in the form of food and essential supplies.

©ICRC/C. de Keyzer/cd-e-00686    

Preparing for a food distribution. More than 323 tonnes of corn flour have been distributed since the beginning of the year to meet urgent civilian needs.


We always try to make sure supplies actually reach the most vulnerable people affected by armed violence. The ICRC goes “door to door” registering families prior to each operation of this type. At the same time, delegates raise awareness among the various communities, the authorities and weapon bearers in the area. We coordinate our work with other humanitarian agencies. However, our staff also work in areas to which only we have access.

 What are the main constraints you face in the field, particularly in areas directly affected by the conflict?  

The two major problems, the ones that sometimes deny us access to the people we're trying to help, are poor security and the dreadful state of the roads. In the Rutshuru area of North Kivu, for example, we had to suspend an operation after armed men attacked one of our teams.

At the beginning of the year, an initial distribution of food in the Masisi area of North Kivu was only partially completed because the road, badly weakened by the rains, simply collapsed. For several days our trucks couldn't get to the distribution site.

Although we sometimes have to cut short an operation and leave, we always do our best to return once access has improved, as we did in Masisi, for example, a few weeks after the initial attempt failed. After all, we have made a commitment to the people we've registered.

 Red Cross volunteers in the DRC provide considerable support during relief distributions, particularly in places affected by the conflict. How important is this partnership?  

Red Cross volunteers help us with family registration and we work hand in hand during the distributions themselves. Most of these men and women live in areas directly affected by the conflict. They understand the context better than we do. They can tell us what happened before we arrived, and what impact our operation will have. Their experience gives us an understanding of the environment that we would never have on our own.


 What impact is the global food crisis having in conflict areas? How is it affecting your field activities in the field?  

The impact of the food crisis is reflected in our field surveys. The rising price of certain basic products is placing an additional burden on the population, which is already extremely vulnerable as a result of the conflict. Not even local farmers can benefit from these increases since they have to contend with rising petrol prices and increasing difficulty with access to land and markets owing to the worsening security situation.

The ICRC has made a financial and moral commitment to continue distributing food in the areas affected by the conflict. Despite rising food prices, we have no intention of scaling down our work.