Confessions of a humanitarian: I’ve never met a meeting I couldn’t sleep through

As you might know, my research is on inter-agency coordination. So, today’s expressive description of coordination meetings in the guardians ‘confessions of a humanitarian’ series drew my attention. The pseudonym aid worker Dara Passano starts her amusing rant with a telling opener “I’ve never walked into a development meeting that I couldn’t fall asleep in. Sometimes I resist; often I don’t.“ She continues to describe how she has tried everything to stay awake in these meetings from drinking caffeinated beverages to inflicting self-harm, but to no avail. Clearly, the author has not stayed objective but instead indulged into the full subjectiveness of her experiences. And probably, she exaggerated and simplified the spectrum of her own perceptions to one important argument: there is something fundamentally wrong with these meetings.

Some people have gotten stuck in the details, reproaching here to have invented some of these stories. In seems unlikely that she ever really invented data, and who cares? Her point is that no one would notice if she did, so it does not matter what the detailed truth is. Besides following the series’ title of making a confession, the literary writing style is probably more effective in bringing the point across. It definitely is more entertaining than a thorough analysis and finger-pointing (that is about to follow).

Some people could be offended by her text. It mocks many hard working people that spend a lot of time and energy to communicate across institutional divides. Some of the conveners, for instance Goma’s former protection cluster coordinator, are incredibly dedicated and capable. In addition, it ridicules development work which makes working in the sector increasingly difficult. Through the feedback loop of public opinion and policy-making, tarnishing the aid world’s reputation reduces trust and might just result in tightened regulations. Sympathetically, I would argue that the author is very much aware of the urgency and the consequences of flawed coordination (beyond the level of individual meeting participants). Arguably it is this awareness that motivated the piece.

Nevertheless, I have two issues with this text:
1) She does not really say why these meetings are so boring. The closest she gets to an analysis is by stating that “some organisations mandate ‘active participation’ in order to raise their profile; staff must create complications in order to be recorded, in the all-important meeting minutes”. She adds general stuff about people that like to talk, repeat themselves etc. But, if her criticism is not just making fun, then she misses out on telling us what is wrong. Is her messages so banal as that sitting in meeting is boring? Or does she think that there is something peculiar about the aid sector? I think the half-done analysis would have much more bang if she would actually address a problem. But then again, this is my interpretation, the author does not claim such a thing as an agenda.
2) Connected to the lacking identification of an issue, the character doesn’t do jack about this non-issue. The Zen challenge of the character is to sit in these meetings, not to do anything about them. Yes, the story is honest and exaggerated at the same time; the reader quickly understands how challenging and frustrating such meetings must be, but it remains a story. So then, why does the aid worker have to be mainly cynical? Given that this series is probably read mainly by aid workers, why can there not be something more inspirational than staying awake long enough to see the others napping off? Or did I just miss the wake-up call?

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Lessons from Field Work

One thing that I have really learned the hard way is to always, ALWAYS do interview transcriptions and analytical notes immediately. We have all heard this before, but it really gets painful when weeks or months after your fieldwork there is so much raw data. Of course, you forget much of the context, some statements don’t really make sense anymore or you simply can’t read what you wrote. Plus a pile of transcriptions becomes really daunting to do, so starting does not get easier. Remember, you won’t have more time unless you seriously planned for it, and even then your professional and private obligations are likely to creep in, because this part of the work is simply not taken seriously enough. Instead of planning a tour de force to push through with this rather boring work, I advice to do a few hours every day. More experienced colleagues have added that you can always benefit from the data at a later point in time, which is why you need to do full transcriptions including the stuff that does not seem so relevant right now. And don’t forget to organize everything (voice recordings, transcriptions, memos) neatly so that you will intuitively find it in three years (probably form a new computer). Here is a little oath that I will make this whole process a lot easier for myself during future fieldwork.

Crisis Group Report 225: Is Democratic change possible?

International interventions can operate pretty independently from local contexts. In Congo, most of the staff from international organizations do not know much about the country’s politics, and I would argue that this is because they don’t have to. A good way to exemplify this is asking “who is Boshab”? Having failed this test myself in the past, I want to highlight that many staff members have technical professions far removed from diplomatic interaction and that a lack of (quality) Congolese media make it difficult to follow local politics. Yet, knowing the name of the Deputy Prime minister, former Speaker of Parliament (till 2012) and former Secretary General of the ruling party (till last week), might be considered good style when you are attempting to “help” another country.

During recent fieldwork in Congo, my attention was drawn to the other extreme – the “Congo nerds”. These are westerners, typically researchers and journalists, who have an applaudable knowledge about the country.  These people know the army regiments and hundreds of commanders within them; they know national, provincial and local politicians and are sometimes intimate with armed groups.  They talk about these things, are curious and ask questions. Although the name-dropping can get a little irritating, the knowledge and underlying experience is enviable.

The upcoming local/ provincial (2015) and national (2016) elections in Congo are the reason behind the Report at hand. The comprehensive report situates the analysis of the election preparations in a description of the key political moments during the recent years such as the “national consultations” and the M23 rebellion. It also explains the structural and institutional issues of Congolese politics, such as the lack of independence by the electoral commission (CENI), the highly fragmented political landscape and the tightly controlled security apparatus. In this manner, the report identifies several risks connected to the decentralization process, the overly ambitious electoral calendar and divisions within both the opposition and the ruling majority. Some of these aspects, such as the voter role, are quite technical, but nevertheless important for understanding the framework in which action takes place.

The report does justice to the role of key actors from politicians, to police, military, civil society and church leaders. More than 30 individual stakeholders are introduced. Being still quite ignorant on the Congolese actors, I appreciate this thirty something pages full of background knowledge, names and institutions as a great opportunity to study up. However, I am wondering how effective this detailed description is for people who merely want to get the bigger picture. It might divert attention from the analysis, which could have benefitted from a more central argument as organizing principle.

With a coup attempt and on-going fighting in Burundi, the intentions and action of Congo’s president deserve scrutiny. Just as in the case of Burundi and Rwanda, Congo’s constitution foresees President Kabila stepping down after having served two terms in office. But like Pierre Nkurunziza and Paul Kagame, Kabila seems to be decided to continue. He has not publicly clarified his intentions, which in itself is oil in the fire of pre-election tensions. However, there are clear indications that the regime tries to stay in power by all means. The report identifies three subsequent strategies: first, the regime attempted to amend the constitution. When that did not work, Kabila attempted to create legal obstacles to delay the elections. Since the new electoral law was abandoned due to widespread protests, the Congolese Government is now deliberately trying to produce chaos through pushing ahead with the elections and the decentralization process: “The sheer magnitude of the electoral agenda, in particular the local and provincial elections, combined with the sudden urgency in the otherwise stalled establishment of the new provinces, is likely to result in massive confusion and disarray…Such a scenario would justify an indefinite delay of the elections.” (P. 17)

The report naturally ends on recommendations. And here I see a big discrepancy between the analysis and the proposed action: While the report develops a picture of a power-hungry, Machiavellian Kabila regime, it suggests that this very regime could be compelled to a turn around through the threat of the withdrawal of international support. To be successful, this step requires that the regime would care. However, the earlier descriptions as well as other sources suggest that these men are primarily concerned with holding on to power. From the very beginning, they have been beneficiaries of this predatory state and are likely to cherish continuing more than they fear the withdrawal of international support. If they are attempting to compel the regime to anything, international negotiators ought to imply consequences for personal assets and traveling freedoms.

Moving forward against the FDLR

On Wednesday the International Crisis Group (ICG) published a new briefing on the current stalemate in DRCongo. The twenty-page report highlights that the hopes of moving towards peace and stability through regional cooperation and Congolese reforms are essentially shipwrecked by diverging interests between DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania and South Africa. The briefing identifies the handling of the Rwandan Hutu rebel group FDLR as the “stumbling block” for the Peace Security and Cooperation framework – an agreement between the states of the region signed in February 2013. As a result no meaningful action can be taken against the plethora of armed groups, which continue to kill civilians, tarnishing the legitimacy of the peacekeeping mission and the Southern African Development Community. The briefing concludes that instead of being played by these regional actors, the UN should threaten to withdrawal the Force Intervention Brigade and incentivize the DRC, Tanzania and South Africa into finally taking effective action against the FDLR.

16th Humanitarian Congress Berlin

This weekend I participated in the Humanitarian Congress in Berlin. The two-day event is the biggest of its kind, this year’s theme being ‘Protection: A Broken Promise’. The keynote speech was held by Roméo Dallaire, commander of the UN Peacekeeping troops in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Unsurprisingly he critiqued “the problem of prioritization” during humanitarian interventions, stating that geostrategic interests of powerful states count more than human lives. According to Dallaire, 450 peacekeepers had been deployed during the on-going Rwandan genocide, while around the same time 67.000 troops were deployed in the former Yugoslavia, although more people were killed in 100 days in Rwanda than in 5 years of Yugoslavia. Hence the need for objective criteria, as formulated in R2P concept, that give clear guidelines when the international community needs to intervene. Dallaire proposed to include the use of child soldiers as one such criterion, as it generally indicates that “these guys” are going to commit a lot of human rights violations.

The rest of the two days meant difficult choices between 24 sessions that were partly organized parallel in four different venues. It was quiet crowded, a lot of the participants being humanitarian practitioners (mainly MSF and ICRC) and many students interested to know more about the issue-area and its job opportunities. In a friendly and open atmosphere a wide array of important protection issues were discussed, from medical protection to the use of force to protect and possibilities of evaluating protection efforts. Personally, I appreciated the case studies of Syria and Central African Republic, although they would have benefitted from more a more analytical approach. The question of perceptions and expectations towards protectors was also treated, and it was concluded that although nobody seems to actively promise protection anymore, interveners should become a lot more modest for themselves and towards populations (an interesting issue, which I will formulate some thoughts on during the next days).

case study car Dallaire

CLA Best Practice Review

So finally one product of many months of hard work with MONUSCO is out – the CLA Best Practice Review. In September 2013, I was recruited to conduct such a study on this protection instrument developed by the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. It was a great experience including travelling all of the Eastern provinces with helicopters, military escorts and the like. In the process, I learned a lot about peacekeeping and the UN, which if known before, would have spared me a lot of the difficulties. Hopefully, I will be able to produce something out of these observations in the upcoming (busy) months. For now, I would like to share this CLA review.

Note that this is not an independent review as my bosses were involved in the making. On top of that, final rounds of editing were done without me. Although I wish they had given it to a graphic designer instead of keeping my phony text boxes and word picture add-ins, I am pretty comfortable with the content. Thanks are due to my colleagues from Civil Affairs and MONUSCO’s Strategic Planing Cell for the editing, Daniel for being a great friend and to Victry for giving invaluable support.

Here is the link to the file for people within the UN system.
Here is the PDF for everybody else.

do not hesitate to contact me for information and expertise on the instrument or its implementation.

Congolese Local Elections Calendar

Although Severine Autesserre (2010) and Zoe Marriage (2013) have, amongst others, heavily criticized the focus of international donors on organizing Congolese elections in 2006, the upcoming one are widely seen as tremendously important not just for the legitimacy of the government and Congolese politics, but also for their interconnected role in mitigating conflict across the East.
While the State’s monopole on violence is undoubtedly an issue in DRC, legitimacy does not just derive from being in control. Particularly in a country as big as Western Europe representation is important, as many conflict hotspots in the East are more than 1500 km away from the capital. The issue of elections in DRC is two-fold:

1) National elections: The last national elections in 2011 have been criticized by the international community, the main concern being that a delegitimized president Kabila might not be able to effectively govern the country. Although there have been outbreaks of violence mainly in Kinshasa, it seems that the degree of manipulation was small and within the acceptable limits for Congolese populations and elites. The opposition was divided and Kabila would have probably won anyway. After this experience and with five more years of relatively unsuccessful Kabila reign, tolerance for manipulation both from the Congolese and the International Community would probably be less this time around. However, the Congolese constitution only permits two terms for the president and Kabila would have to step down. He seems unwilling to do so and has tried to change the constitution, which has met quite a lot of resistance. The issue of national elections is thus quite a thriller.

2) Local elections: I personally think that these are even more important precisely because national Congolese politics are likely to remain flawed. In addition, local elections have not taken place before and will mark the beginning of the country’s decentralization, something that is utterly necessary. This is critical because of an assumed high correlation between representation and violence. Put simply, people that do not feel represented and do not see any chance to influence politics, government and administration are more likely to take up arms. The inverse is probably also true, if you have elected your representatives, you are less likely to take violent measures against him/ her even if that person is incompetent. Currently, there is no such thing as local elections and given that illegitimate national-level politics, it is no wonder that local communities feel totally disconnected from the government whose military and police representatives also happen to commit most human right violations. Local elections can give the state that people actually interact with more legitimacy and also make it more accountable. Below the schedule of the urban, municipal and local elections (Communique de presse N°024/CENI/14):
• Du 10 juin au 09 juillet 2014 : Accréditation des observateurs à long terme;
• Du 01 octobre au 20 octobre 2014 : Audit externe du fichier électoral;
• Du 03 au 20 novembre 2014: Examen de l’annexe à la loi électorale portant répartition des sièges ;
• Du 10 décembre 2014 au 18 janvier 2015: Convocation de l’électorat et dépôt des candidatures au niveau des bureaux de réception et traitement des candidatures ;
• Du 19 au 23 janvier 2015 : Retrait, ajout ou substitution des candidatures ;
• Le 13 février 2015: Publication de la liste provisoire des candidatures aux élections des Conseillers des communes et des secteurs/chefferies ;
• Du 14 au 24 février 2015 : Dépôt des recours en contestation des listes des candidatures et leur traitement auprès et par les tribunaux administratifs ;
• Le 25 février 2015: Publication des listes définitives des candidats aux élections des Conseillers des communes et des secteurs/chefferies ;
• Du 30 avril au 29 mai 2015 : Accréditation des témoins, des observateurs et des journalistes;
• Du 15 mai au 14 juin 2015 : Affichage des listes des électeurs par site de vote et bureau de vote ;
• Du 29 mai au 12 juin 2015 : Campagne électorale pour les élections des Conseillers des communes des et des secteurs/chefferies;
• Le 14 juin 2015: Jour du scrutin municipal et local; ouverture des bureaux de vote et de dépouillement pour les municipales et locales;
• Le 30 juin 2015 : Annonce des résultats pour les élections des Conseillers des communes et des secteurs/chefferies;
• Du 01 au 08 juillet 2015: Dépôt des recours relatifs au contentieux des élections des Conseillers des communes et des secteurs/chefferies;
• Du 09 juillet au 06 septembre 2015: Traitement des contentieux des élections des Conseillers des communes et des secteurs/chefferies;
• Du 15 juillet au 18 août 2015: Installation des Conseils municipaux et locaux ;
• Le 07 septembre 2015 : Publication des résultats définitifs des élections des Conseillers des communes et des secteurs/chefferies;
• Du 05 au 18 juillet 2015: Réception et traitement des candidatures des Conseillers urbains, des Maires, des Bourgmestres et des Chefs de secteur;
• Le 3 août 2015 : Publication des listes provisoires des candidats Conseillers urbains, Maires, Bourgmestres et Chefs de secteur
• Du 04 au 12 août 2015: Contentieux des candidatures des Conseillers urbains, des Maires, des Bourgmestres et des Chefs de secteur (dépôt et traitement) ;
• Le 14 août 2015 : Publication de la liste définitive des candidats Conseillers urbains, Bourgmestres et Bourgmestres adjoints, Chefs de secteur et Chefs de secteur adjoints;
• Du 25 au 27 août 2015 : Campagne électorale des Conseillers urbains, des Bourgmestres et des Chefs de secteur;
• Le 29 août 2015 : Jour du vote des Conseillers urbains, des Bourgmestres et des Chefs de secteur;
• Du 29 au 30 août 2015 : Agrégation et annonce des résultats provisoires des Conseillers urbains, des Bourgmestres et des Chefs de secteur ;
• Du 31 août au 14 septembre 2015 : Recours et contentieux des résultats relatifs à l’élection des Bourgmestres et Bourgmestres adjoints, des Chefs de secteur et leurs adjoints;
• Le 15 septembre 2015 : Proclamation des résultats définitifs des Bourgmestres et Bourgmestres adjoints, des Chefs de secteur et leurs adjoints;
• Le 20 septembre 2015: Investiture des Bourgmestres et Bourgmestres adjoints et des Chefs de secteur et leurs adjoints;
• Du 31 août au 06 novembre 2015 : Recours et contentieux des résultats des élections des Conseillers urbains ;
• Du 14 septembre au 08 octobre 2015 : Installation des Conseils urbains;
• Du 11 au 13 octobre 2015 : Campagne électorale des Maires et Maires adjoints;
• Le 15 octobre 2015 : Jour de scrutin des Maires et Maires adjoints;
• Le 15 octobre 2015: Agrégation et annonce des résultats provisoires des Maires et Maires adjoints;
• Du 16 au 30 octobre 2015 : Recours et contentieux relatifs à l’élection des Maires et Maires adjoints;
• Le 31 octobre 2015 : Proclamation des résultats définitifs des Maires et Maires adjoints ;
• Le 05 novembre 2015: Investiture des Maires et Maires adjoints.