“Having lived and worked in Democratic Republic of Congo as an humanitarian aid worker I could identify with everything portrayed. The juxtaposing of Congolese and expatriate perspectives and also of historic and current events, has brought us a very real vision of the trials and tribulations of humanitarian intervention.” Andrew McKenna, United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs, Kinshasa
“Heart of the Congo represents the incredible challenges and hardships facing the Congolese in light of impacts of ongoing war and the legacy of a brutal colonialism. The film lays a great foundation for a further dialogue about international aid, and the necessary support for structural changes within the Congo. The Congolese know that only through courage and perseverance on a day to day basis can true progress be made.” Katie Sternfels, Grantmakers Without Borders
“Heart of the Congo accurately captures the real lives and the personal stories of the people working in international development in Africa, both the foreign nationals and the local people. It tells those stories in the context of the larger cultural and political realities and manages to tell a story that finds good reason for hope, endurance and perseverence in a hard situation.” Kevin Jones, The Anglican Malaria Project
Tom Weidlinger asks the right question about an international aid group in the Congo, and by implication all do-gooders everywhere, and that is how to they get the recipients of their largesse to take back their destinies after they have gone? This heartwarming but unsentimental documentary suggests an answer to that tantalizing question. Phillip Fradkin, author and former foreign correspondent of the LA Times
U.S. Reach Abroad: Making humanitarian aid work for the long haul
San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
by Tom Weidlinger
In 2003, I spent a month in Malemba Nkulu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, filming a team of humanitarian aid workers restoring health to a sick and starving community. The beneficiaries had been victimized by a series of rapacious governments and by a civil war that killed 3.5 million people and left millions more dispossessed of their land and livelihood.
The Congo is a beautiful country, blessed with natural resources. Yet many of its 50 million citizens have been driven from their lands and robbed of all possessions by both government and rebel militias. Most disastrously, many Congolese have lost the tools needed to farm, fish and produce sustaining income. Hospitals, schools and the infrastructure to bring harvests and other goods to market have been looted and allowed to deteriorate.
In small pockets around the country, aid organizations such as Action Against Hunger, whose team I filmed, are effective at alleviating malnutrition, educating communities, preventing epidemics and supplying the tools necessary for displaced families to become self-sufficient again. But in the Congo (indeed, around the world), the support that such organizations need to be truly effective falls short. Paradoxically, we see generous examples of giving in the wake of recent disasters. Last December's tsunami in Asia, for example, spurred donations of hundreds of millions of dollars. Nongovernmental organizations reported that for perhaps the first time in history they had enough resources to address the crisis. Similarly, recent reports of famine conditions in Niger and accompanying footage of dying children on major TV networks triggered huge deliveries of food.
The point is that emergency response is essential -- but so is support for long-term solutions that build lasting self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, financing for these solutions is more grudging than for quick fixes. Once sudden catastrophes pass, donors typically move on to the next one. As a result, aid organizations combat the same problems of disease and malnutrition, over and over, as if digging fruitlessly in the sand (which, incidentally, fuels the general perception that humanitarian aid is largely ineffective).
But it doesn't have to be this way. Things can change if donors learn to be more intelligently pro-active, supporting ongoing efforts to give communities the knowledge and tools to be self-sustaining rather than merely responding to the crisis of the moment. In the long run, such efforts would save millions more lives (and be a good deal less expensive) than all emergency rescues put together.
Another reason for the lack of funding for long-term solutions is a widespread perception that humanitarian aid is co-opted and wasted. Often it is. But there is a difference between money that goes through central governments, where it can be easily diverted into corrupt channels, and help that goes directly to beneficiaries through international aid organizations that are on the ground. In fact, to protect against resources being co-opted, some nongovernmental organizations maintain strict rules against accepting intermediaries between themselves and their beneficiaries.
It is also important to realize that diversion not only occurs on the recipient side. Often donor and donor governments attach politically and ideologically motivated conditions to aid that are counterproductive.
Realistically, both big and small aid projects are needed to end the woes of the Congo, and more resources will have to be allocated. But the as yet untested experiment in international aid is to fully fund the micro-programs being implemented by smaller aid agencies that have a real impact on changing the lot of the poorest of the poor. If we really want to lessen the problems of Africa, it is time to put our trust in organizations that have a history of building sustainability and not just responding to crises.