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Getting beyond seeds and tools in eastern DRC

Written by Paul Harvey on 01 March, 2013 : 15:24

"Difficult and risky contexts should not be an excuse for inaction or inadequate action when it comes to securing livelihoods"

Paul Harvey, SLRC Director

I’m just back from a short trip to DRC which included a few days in Bukavu with our DRC research partner ISDR and meetings with people working for international agencies. One of the things that I was asking about was what different actors were doing to support livelihoods in eastern DRC. It’s a familiar and pretty thin list. There’s some food aid, although less than I expected with 350,000 beneficiaries in 2012 from a population of 4.6 million and half of those accounted by school feeding. There’s a fair amount of seeds and tool distributions and now seed fairs and vouchers. After that you have to start scratching around for further examples – a bit of micro-finance, surprisingly few market chain focussed interventions, a little bit of agricultural extension advice, some support to small livestock (chickens, goats and surprisingly guinea pigs) and not much else that I came across. Now that summary comes with a hefty caveat that I was only in town for a few days, didn't talk to everyone and make no claims at all to being comprehensive (do let me know what I've missed in the comments section). But it’s a list that’s depressingly consistent with the findings from ‘Missing the Point’ from a review for ECHO of their funding for livelihoods programmes  and work for WFP evaluating their approach to livelihoods programming.

There are, I think, three basic problems with much aid intended to support livelihoods in fragile and conflict affected places. They are:

  1. Lack of scale and coverage
  2. The one cabbage problem
  3. Lack of imagination and creativity

The first problem is that any livelihoods programming is often relatively small-scale and covering a tiny proportion of the population in need (whether through food insecurity, poverty or displacement). When asked why this is, aid agency staff generally cite the difficulties of scaling up given ongoing insecurity and conflict. But in eastern DRC there are large-scale aid programmes supporting health care, IRC has been implementing a large-scale community driven development programme (Tuungaane) for several years and UNICEF coordinates a large-scale non-food item response to displacement. So the security constraints don’t seem insurmountable – if you can get drugs to clinics and kitchen sets to displaced people then assistance to help people make a living shouldn't be impossible. The lack of scale also seems wrapped up in the idea that support to livelihoods is ‘developmental’ and that donors are reluctant to fund longer-term approaches in a situation where humanitarian funding streams and approaches remain dominant. That’s depressingly true but hasn't stopped longer-term approaches in other sectors such as health and again seems an insufficient and bad reason for inaction. Maybe the new enthusiasm for resilience will help to reinvigorate the old need for better ways of linking relief and development and help donors and agencies see the need for both short and long-term approaches to helping people make a living.

The second problem is one that I've labelled the ‘one cabbage problem’ ever since seeing too many community vegetable gardens in southern Africa in the early 2000s. What I mean by it is that too often, if you dig into the detail of expected benefits from a programme aimed at supporting livelihoods then the net impact on the income of an individual household is likely to be tiny. There are myriad examples of this – ‘community’ projects where each individual household can expect little in return for high investments in time and effort, cash and food for work projects where participation is rationed so any one household can only get a few days pay and food aid where traditions of sharing mean rations are spread thinly between many more households than the intended target.

And the final problem is back to where I started – the depressingly short list of interventions that are being tried to support livelihoods. We still haven’t got much beyond seeds and tools. It would be exciting to see more attention to markets and value chains, to livestock, to petty trading and casual labour, to urban livelihoods and rural to urban links, to remittances and financial inclusion and to land rights but there isn't much sign of it. And there’s not much sign of the humanitarian system learning from best practice in support to livelihoods elsewhere. For an example of scale and ambition there’s the Chars Livelihoods Programme in Bangladesh.

None of which is meant to imply that supporting livelihoods is straightforward in places where conflict and violence are still pervasive. There’s an obvious objection that investments in livelihoods are likely to be reversed when the recipient is robbed or has to flee his / her village for the 3rd time in 3 years. And the risk that livelihoods investments can themselves put people at risk of violence. So supporting livelihoods needs to be sensitive to how conflict affects peoples’ choices and linked much more strongly to protection. But the fact that it’s difficult and risky should not be an excuse for inaction or inadequate action. So here’s hoping that when I'm next in Bukavu I hear about a 12 year programme aiming to support the livelihoods of over a million people in a significant way.


William Fiebig
I have lived and worked in the Bandundu Region of the DRC since 1975. Lacking the natural resources of east DRC, Bandundu (Kikwit where our compound is) has not seen the violence and as it is the breadbasket of the DRC, there is investment in building value chains to get food into Kinshasa. My comment is that one cannot talk about the DRC only in terms of what is going on in Eastern DRC. It is a huge country...
Drew Bishop
I understand your feelings about long term livelihood support. I have been involved in humanitarian relief and development for nearly 40 years - I grew up in a family that worked in this field and moved into it professionally after military service and college. There are additional questions that would need answers so please forgive me if I make some assumptions that additional information might later disprove. First, I would like to know the level of input from those affected by the crisis. What has their input been? What solutions do they see? Or, do they feel there is a solution in their current environment? I directed a refugee care and maintenance program for Liberian and Sierra Leonnean refugees. I spent 7 1/2 years living in Gueckedou, Guinea, as a UNHCR partner. Our programs included vulnerable refugee care, food distribution and livelihoods. Livelihoods was a challenge for a couple of reasons. First, the refugee population lived with the worldview that their current living situation was temporary. They constantly heard stories of impending peace as well as reminders they shouldn't consider Guinea to be their home. The Guinean government was not oppressive, but it saw that the additional population in that region would not be sustainable. The second issue, as you point out, is the lack of creativity, or vision about possibilities. When we worked with livelihood training for women, there were three occupations they wanted - tie dying, hair styling or bakery. Now, in themselves, those are great occupations. However, given the market conditions, these were already saturated. Training them would only add to the pressure and not really achieve the self-sufficiency goals we, and they, had. And, while we could train in livelihoods, training in business skills was not supported. A third issue is money supply. In our region, even if there were additional livelihood options, the region's money supply was limited. Besides subsistence farming, trading, the relief programs and wildcat gem mining, there were not a lot of avenues to bring in outside cash. For livelihood programs to succeed, there needs to be a cash flow that can meet the sustainability goals. A fourth issue was culture. Successful family members were obligated to assist relatives in need. It did not matter if the one in need was truly in need or just wanted to live off the hard work of their relatives. The challenge was to either be just successful enough to get by, or be so successful you could support your relatives. The tricky part was that period of time between those two states. For a livelihoods program to succeed, it will take a multi-level approach. It means finding ways to expand thinking about what livelihoods can be pursued that are new to the region. It may include introducing new products, especially ones that can be produced from local materials. In Myanmar, for instance, I introduced a simple salsa to the ladies I was working with that was quickly embraced. It was a simple matter of going to the market, selecting the items that were there, and showing them how they went together. All were tastes they had in their regular diet, just combined and used in a new way. In addition to finding new livelihoods, we have to include basic business skills that help run a successful business. Keeping track of costs, inventory management, reinvesting in future growth potential all have to be ideas that are presented. We also have to look at the culture and how do we influence some paradigm shifts? If we are assisting someone start a new business, how do we build a hedge around them that protects them from family back lash? One approach is to create a system where our input is all in-kind. Some see this as paternal, but this is more of a Western guilt concept. If we're working with a tailor, our input is the equipment and supplies. If any cash is needed, it is issued based on documented needs. We provide a place to keep business cash for a designated period of time. It's helping our beneficiaries see the difference between business funds and personal funds. And, it's providing a transparency that allows them to honestly show their relatives they don't have the money they seem to have. At some point, it means addressing the "temporary" mentality. You asked why agencies could invest in long term health infrastructures. It is because these infrastructures can be left & used by the host communities. The long term INGO investments deal with issues that are larger than those of the displaced population. They deal with the whole population. Livelihoods is a different matter. And that is why it is so difficult to find funds to invest in the long term support for them. I'll leave off here as I've been a bit long winded. Open to feedback and differing opinions. Drew Bishop, MSOD
Paul Harvey
I entirely agree with your comment William and you'll be more pleased to hear that DFID also very much agree with you. In their strategy for DRC DFID are moving to a more area based approach and looking to invest more time, money and knowledge in other parts of the country as well as the east.
Paul harvey
Thanks Drew for a fascinating set of comments. Refugee livelihoods raise a particularly tricky set of issues as their options are so often hemmed in by the regulatory environment of host countries. But there's hot competition for the most likely to fail income generating project for refugees. Tie dying is always up there but sanitary towels in eastern Sudan gets my vote. Uganda stands out as an interesting exception to the constrained regulatory environment and a recent paper http://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/publications/working-papers-folder_contents/wp86-refugee-livelihoods-private-sector-201212.pdf provides a good overview. In Myanmar I think the Building Markets project looks fascinating http://buildingmarkets.org/our-impact/myanmar .
Charles Vincent
Hey Paul, I agree with your observations. Any concrete proposals or suggestions from your end on how to do improve on this?
Eric Boa
The evidence of broad-based interventions that support livelihoods is faint. I've been visiting the northern part of North Kivu (Beni-Butembo axis) for seven years. We began with a simple idea: start plant health clinics in market places using local extensionists to diagnose and advise on problems. The clinics are still running every week in Butembo, held by the university, with new sets of students attending to farmers' needs. The students' technical knowledge is weak and relatively few farmers use the clinics compared to the many who need wide and varied support - including seeds and tools. But the clinics are still running six years later, they've had little outside support, thus suggesting the stirrings of sustainability, and overall we've demonstrated that the solution to problems lies in local efforts. The plant health clinics began when I was Director of the Global Plant Clinic, working at CABI, and now taken up by Plantwise, also managed by CABI. There are now nearly 20 plant clinics in and around Beni, including the original ones still being held in Butembo. The potential outreach is probably quite limited - I would hesitantly suggest that tens of thousands of people have realistic access to the clinics - yet the major succes is not so much scale of the intervention but proof of a very simple, robust concept. (The GPC and now Plantwise train plant doctors in short courses, and provide some logistic support, with the University Catholique du Graben in Butembo and a commodity export company contributing staff time and associated costs.) The stirrings of sustainability are good but of course we need more people to run clinics. There we run into the sand a little. The government services are almost nil and usually void. But there are farmer groups and other associations which fill the gap left by the absence of public extension. There are NGOs in abundance, especially in the southern end of N Kivu. There it becomes a little frustrating. What does it take for such organisations to run regular clinics which help bridge the gap between individual and community needs and access to technical information and advice and inputs. The people who give the seeds and tools should, I imagine, be interested in DIY extension (so to speak). Yet someone like the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI - Ben Affleck) has rules about who they will support, while other NGOs ostensibly lack the flexibility to adopt simple methods that have a strategic benefit. As I said, plant clinics won't move mountains but they will help illustrate and suggest how to join up different interventions. The huge sums spent rightly on humanitarian support for beleagured women and families tend to focus on health and general well-being. Maybe such programmes could also look at simple tools in extension that don't require huge amounts of technical inputs, invariably led and promoted by scientists. The Great Lakes Cassava Initiative focuses on one crop and seeks to achieve scale through extension. This is only one example of a few agricultural interventions I know of that need connections to influence livelihoods long term. Hope this gives some food for further thought - and direct action! I've got reports and other stuff you might be interested to read. I can be contacted at e.boa@cabi.org.

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Welcome to SLRC's blog.

This blog will feature reflections from our team of researchers on the practicalities of actually conducting research in conflict-affected situations. We will also be posting guest blogs written by key researchers and practioners working on livelihoods, basic services and social protection in conflict-affected situations.