Review: Humanitarian Action and Stabilisation in the DRC

On 21 January 2011, Sarah Bailey, a Research Officer for Humanitarian Policy Group/Overseas Development Institute, delivered a presentation on the history and current state of humanitarian and stabilisation policies in the DRC.


  • The DRC is one of the most complex conflicts of the last several decades with severe human costs.
  • Presentation focus: how the international community provides assistance to people affected by the conflict, and how  systems aren’t very well set up to deal with the complexities that it presents. Humanitarian aid and stabilisation – but other forms of assistance are inherently linked. Development. Statebuilding. Peacebuilding.
  • Part of research for HPG – hence the focus on aid as opposed to conflict drivers, etc. – but objective is to provoke discussion around DRC and the provision of aid, more so than present research findings.

Background information on how I’ve come to study topic

  • Aid worker in DRC. I’d done my undergrad thesis on DRC but never anticipated going. Started in Niger, moved to Maniema (eastern DRC) (2005), then Katanga (2006)
  • Researcher at HPG – humanitarian focus, but protracted conflicts like DRC make it really hard to stay within the remit of humanitarian action.

Background on DRC

  • Not going to give a summary of the conflict, which could take up whole discussion. The wars between 1996/97 and 1998/2003 were driven by a combination or regional alliances, national conflicts happening in Rwanda, Uganda and other countries, and conflicts and tensions within Congo itself, including related to citizenship and identity, with Zaire already run into the ground by decades of rule by Mobutu.
  • The Lusaka Peace Process established a transitional government that was put in place in 2003. Presidential elections held peacefully in 2006 were won by Joseph Kabila, who had been head of the transitional government following the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila.
  • Humanitarian disaster. According to IRC, more than 5 million. Disease and malnutrition. It’s a disputed figure, but no one disputes that DRC is a severe crisis with human costs.
  • Today: developments in peace and security since 2003, but armed actors + military efforts = displacement.
  • 1.7 million displaced
  • World’s largest peacekeeping operation –MONUC now MONUSCO
  • Government = weak capacity overall and little willingness for SSR, rampant corruption – doesn’t make it donor friendly like Rwanda. Poster-child.

International assistance

  • In short, how does the international community help people?
  • See graph of many types of interventions/actors at the end of this post (humanitarian, development, stabilisation, statebuilding, peacebuilding). This equates to a shared humaniratian space.
  • Will focus on aid – humanitarian, development, stabilisation
  • Assistance not easy! Practical level = insecurity, infrastructure, access and the capacity and willingness of the government all pose serious difficulties.
  • Combination of acute and chronic vulnerability: humanitarian or development ‘boxes’.
  • Grey area: basic services in returnee areas, supporting livelihoods and markets are more of a grey zone often described in terms of transition, recovery or early recovery.
  • Humanitarian aid: Meant to be neutral, impartial and independent. In practice, this isn’t always easy. But very important that its not used as a political tool.
  • Humanitarian aid has been long-term and increased; humanitarian response has grown on all accounts in DRC. Has grown 6 fold since 2002.
  • But humanitarian donors and govt not comfortable with this trend – humanitarian assitance will go down if no major outbreak of conflict. The UN at least has been looking for a new assistance mechanism, stabilisation, to cover more of the grey areas/recovery – including assisting return and reintegration.
  • This sets off some alarm bells for humanitarians, because it’s a departure from providing neutral assistance, since the goal of stabilisation is to use aid for security purposes.


  • MONUC to MONUSCO – what’s the S?
  • Stabilisation = loaded term. Afghanistan/Iraq, but…
  • Other research by HPG on stabilisation shows that it’s much wider concept than these military-led efforts, and one that it means different things to different actors.
  • Stabilisation has emerged as a framework for the UN mission, but without much interrogation about what stabilisation means within the context of DRC, and whether it constitutes a shift in strategy or a relabeling of pre-existing political and security objectives
  • There are two stabilisation strategies – govt and UN:
  • Both seek to: Improve stability in conflict-affected areas through a combination of security sector reform, restoring state authority in zones previously controlled by armed groups, facilitating the return and reintegration of IDPs and refugees, and reducing the trafficking of natural resources.
  • Also military operations conducted by the FARDC against armed groups, with the UN troops providing fire support to some operations.
  • Since achieving peace and stability has been the objective of more than a decade of peacekeeping in DRC, ‘stabilisation’ = not new!
  • New = shift towards supporting the DRC government and state-building
  • From the standpoint of a humanitarian, stabilisation matters.
  • The plans seek to return IDPs, restore basic social services and infrastructure; promote livelihoods and employment = these issues become part of a political and security agenda (the idea of peace dividends, but where’s the evidence for this?). Also, they seek to facilitate local reconciliation linked to land and property, which has been problematic, can discuss later.
  • Also, really slow to attract funding and donor confidence.

Are there tensions between humanitarian action and stabilisation? Or can humanitarian assistance and stabilisation happily co-exist?

  • Overlap on several fronts: they involve many of the same actors, since UN agencies and NGOs undertake projects funded through both approaches; and they both seek to support return and reintegration.
  • Divergence is that they have fundamentally different objectives. Humanitarian action does not have overtly political aims to transform the context in which it operates, whereas stabilisation – this is what it’s trying to do.
  • Not seeing huge tensions yet because stabilisation is slow in attracting funding.
  • However, for assisting return – targeting will be an issue. On the basis of improving security by stabilisation, on the basis of need by humanitarians. I argue that reintegration shouldn’t be a security agenda (not to say that it shouldn’t be informed by strong conflict analysis, which it should be!).
  • Most important tensions =  how these approaches more broadly relate to one another – whether stabilisation can undermine, or support, humanitarian action and vice versa in eastern DRC.
    • Protection, specifically the impact on civilians of interventions to increase state authority through military operations and deploying state officials (e.g. police).
    • Humanitarian space
  • Protection – FARDC military operations to chase out rebels. FARDC troops did not distinguish between combatants and civilians, provided no advance warning of attacks, executed hundreds of civilians, perpetrated sexual violence and overall violated their obligations under international humanitarian law to minimise harm to civilians. Also increased harassment in areas where state officials are being deployed, like police.
  • For humanitarian space, opinions are divided. DRC is an integrated mission, coherence between political, security and humanitarian priorities is by no means a new trend, but stabilisation injects more of a security focus in how assistance is taken forward, thus moving UN aid agencies closer to the security agenda of the mission.

Emerging conclusions and recommendations

  • There is a real danger that stabilisation is being seen as the only vehicle for transitional programming in DRC, without recognising the tensions, not simply between stabilisation and humanitarian mechanisms, but within the stabilisation agenda itself.
  • Funding that is flexible, medium-term and independent of security objectives is needed, which neither humanitarian assistance nor stabilisation can offer
  • Development: really hard to say if/how development funding is filling this role because of the lack of coordination among development donors and tracking of development projects, but the scale of needs and underdevelopment in DRC suggests it that it falls vastly short
  • For humanitarians there is no better time than the present for renewed reflection on the role of humanitarian action in DRC: what principled humanitarian response means in the context stabilisation, an integrated mission and (potentially) increased government regulation; the role of humanitarian agencies in promoting protection amidst failures to respect International Humanitarian Law; and how to be savvy actors amidst political and security agenda.
  • Broader discussion about policy coherence (security, political, development objectives), and what statebuilding means when the state you’re building isn’t a warm and fuzzy one.
  • Development assistance in DRC well outpaces humanitarian and stabilisation streams. It is unrealistic to create synergies with development initiatives and explore the potential for more risk-tolerant, flexible and longer-term funding sources without a solid picture of development financing and its impacts.

Challenges in doing this research

  • Very hard to track development aid – where is it all going?
  • Nearly impossible to talk about programming impacts, whether humanitarian or development
  • Competing narratives and divided opinions on the role assistance does and should play
  • That this subject area taps into broader questions, so narrowing and shaping an argument isn’t easy. Much of these issues have been shoved to the humanitarian side but are actually about how pursue longterm assistance when you don’t trust the government
Humanitarian space?
Humanitarian and Overseas Development Aid