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Transforming local communities amidst conflict

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woman being interviewdLocal woman, of a family of six, is interviewed at the market place in Rutshuru, North Kivu. Photo: UNDP DRCongo

In this blog series leading up to the World Humanitarian Summit, UNDP experts and practitioners share their experiences and views on responding to conflict and disasters.

I’ve visited Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo several times over the last seven years. During this time, two violent conflicts took place between rebels and the Congolese state, with the citizens caught in between.

The recurrent fighting for control of the mineral rich and fertile soils of Eastern Congo has uprooted and traumatized whole communities, leaving the local economy in ruins and people poor and powerless. Most valuable are cassiterite and coltan, used in the electronic equipment and cell phones underpinning the technological revolution.

During my last visit, I met a woman in Rutshuru, epicenter of the latest violence. “We are tired. We have a plot of land that saves us from starvation but we want an easier life for our children. Today, those who killed are still living among us, youth without families and with nothing to do. All we want is to live in peace, send our children to school, and to work.” The woman looks much older than she is. “Before I was selling my tomatoes by the road, but I was always bothered by the police, local chiefs, or rebels who wanted money or taxes. We were always exploited by them. We don’t want to go back to what we had, we want a new future.”

Empower the whole community to create a new future

Complex and recurrent crises, corruption, social inequality, and lack of economic opportunities are weakening the social tissue in communities and the social contract that links citizens to their government. To respond to growing tensions and prevent conflict escalation, UNDP believes that improving access to basic services and enhancing economic opportunities and public participation (especially for the most vulnerable groups) is essential to peace, stability, and development. Using community level approaches and building strategic partnerships helps UNDP to achieve these objectives.

In Eastern DRC, Central African Republic, and the northern provinces of Mali, UNDP has partnered with peacekeeping missions and UNCDF to help the most vulnerable communities recover. The state has broken down, infrastructure is destroyed, few have access to services, and tensions are murmuring. All three countries have in common the legacy of a centralized state, which exploits resources and consolidates power among the few, disregarding the general population living on the brink of poverty.  While these countries have laws that support decentralization of political, fiscal, and administrative powers, local governments are kept weak to preserve the status quo.

We at UNDP help local authorities open up to allowing the population to drive local development process. Communities are empowered to voice their needs, municipalities are given the capacities to respond, and structures are built where local issues are addressed to avoid conflict escalation. This helps the population see the direct benefit of their civic engagement, hold the authorities accountable, and build trust and stability for the future.

In Rutshuru, the woman I talked to helped negotiate for a marketplace to be built on the crossroad between the two ethnic groups’ villages, benefiting both and decreasing tension. She also negotiated to connect the market to electricity so a cooling facility could be installed to store unsold goods. With access to a fridge, the women don’t need to drop their prices at sunset to avoid carrying foods home and expose themselves to attacks by thieves. The women also pushed the authorities to engage disarmed youth in rebuilding infrastructure damaged during the conflict.  

Engagement at the local level can help societal transformation take root, as empowered local communities and authorities together create stability for a brighter future.

blog series Sustainable development Gender equality Democratic Republic of the Congo Crisis response Disaster recovery Hanne Kristoffersen Jobs and livelihoods Political participation Conflict prevention Governance and peacebuilding Blog post Africa