For almost two decades, Kalehe and Uvira territories in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), have been repeatedly affected by armed conflicts and the subsequent displacement of their populations as they seek to escape. Intercommunal conflicts have become so entrenched that the peacebuilding, development and humanitarian operations of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international agencies in these areas are like a ‘sword in the water’: worsening tensions and weakening trust.

In contexts of intercommunal violence and insecurity, humanitarian actors, including NGOs, need to be aware of and sensitive to the circumstances, needs and perceptions of local people, including how they view and engage with the organisations and their operations. But what happens when humanitarian aid fails to meet the expectations of beneficiaries? And how can these organisations be fully accountable to them?

Perceptions of humanitarian actors

In 2021, after clashes between the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) and the Raiya Mutomboki militia in Chambucha led people to flee their homes, an NGO, Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, was accused of bias in its distribution of aid and support to schools in South Kivu, including in Kalehe Territory. How can we analyse and learn from people’s perceptions of humanitarian actors’ in such contexts?

Our research into the representations and discourses produced around humanitarian aid in the eastern DRC points to a mismatch between beneficiaries’ expectations and the nature of the humanitarian aid offered by NGOs, in addition to the battle over humanitarian aid redistribution between international and local NGOs.

We identified four critical issues concerning NGO accountability and a failure to understand and engage with the expectations of local people.

NGOs and international agencies in humanitarian entanglements

In 2009, Christian Troubé published his observed clues of a humanitarian crisis in entangled humanitarian spaces during the establishment of Rwandan Hutu refugee camps in 1994 and after the first Congo War (1996):

“…the blue tarpaulins of the UNHCR … the white semi-trailers with the UN logo etc., the Antonov jumbo jets of the WFP… the swarms of 4x4s with logos and stickers, the satellite antennas on the roofs of the HQs…”.

The number of NGOs in DRC increased from 450 in 1990 to 1,322 in 1996 to reach more than 5,000 in 2019. This proliferation of humanitarian agencies operational in the region, competing for spaces and creating confusion between themselves and non-humanitarian actors, has led several analysts and observers to raise questions about their ability to work together to and address issues. Some have even suggested that their presence has helped to perpetuate crisis.

These circumstances have created a violent vacuum for peacekeeping operations and NGOs. In areas deserted by the Congolese state and dominated by armed violence, local people are left in dire need of assistance. With the resurgence of the March 23 Movement militia (M23) and the growing hostility against the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), one local humanitarian actor stated that even if M23 is defeated, humanitarians will have work to do:

“Even if you drive MONUSCO out, we will never lack projects. The volcanic eruption will come, the M23 are already in Rutshuru, there is also a refugee camp in Kanyaruchinya […], the NGOs cannot finish.” (Excerpt from an interview with a humanitarian actor in Goma)

Everyday resistance and controversial perceptions

In their analyses, Bourdieu and Mauss characterise such conditions of purposeful dependency between donors and recipients as being like a loan repayment with interest. Whilst one hand gives, the other sets the rules of the game. Who and where the ‘beneficiaries’ of humanitarian interventions in the eastern DRC are identified is sometimes in defiance of the principle of ‘do no harm’. Several NGOs In Kalehe have reportedly reproduced segregation through their interventions:

“While they should be structures that address the problems of the population and find solutions to them, they shine through segregation in their interventions.” (Excerpt from an interview with a humanitarian practitioner in Goma)

Furthermore, some beneficiaries believe that some NGOs are involved in predatory mining practices and the maintenance of insecurity (Interview with Panzi Foundation staff member), while others are accused of gathering intelligence for neighbouring countries. Regardless of their field of action, NGOs are associated with doing business on behalf of their donors:

“NGOs are like traders who come to deceive the community for the benefit of the facilitators and donors…” (Excerpt from an interview with a researcher in Kalehe)

Finally, humanitarian actors are seen as neither apolitical nor neutral as they present themselves. Many of them have both political and economic agendas that justify their interventions, especially in the so-called ‘red zones’.

Rethinking impact and the ‘let it rot’ approach

While NGO reports argue that their interventions are always successful, local critics maintain that these NGOs are there for profit. In Uvira territory, several interventions in a wide range of fields have been carried out by a plethora of NGOs, with little visibility of their impact. In peacebuilding, some sources claim that NGOs contravene peacebuilding efforts, or even contribute to insecurity to maintain the crisis and legitimise their presence, whilst having the space and time to implement their ‘hidden agenda’.

Amongst the NGOs accused of these strategies are the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Malteser, who have been accused of playing a divisive role in conflicts over land and customary power between the Barundi and Fuliru communities in the Ruzizi Plain. Writing in 2010, Dijkzeul and Iguma noted that these two NGOs, notably the IRC, would support the political objectives of the Rwandan Government – and the plundering of natural resources – because of their American attachment.

‘Sprinkler interventions’ and community wounds

The maintenance of peace between local communities remains one of the aspects privileged by the NGOs. This is done through sensitisation to social cohesion and mediation for peaceful cohabitation. Even if this approach seemed to work in Uvira and Kalehe, communities are convinced that NGO interventions would exacerbate existing conflicts and activate latent ones:

“Their interventions leave wounds in the community. They have tendencies!” (Excerpt from an interview with a civil society actor in Kalehe)

In the Hauts Plateaux of Kalehe, a division was triggered during a cash transfer distribution to people displaced by armed conflict. Some people felt discriminated against because the Tutsi community had been favoured:

“In the Kalehe Highlands, the Tutsis received $120, which they withdrew from the COOPEC. While we, ‘the original Congolese’, received $70 in value for a mat, flour, and beans. A division was created among us displaced people.”

It is these kinds of insights and perspectives that, through thorough listening and analysis, NGOs must pay close attention to if further harm is to be avoided and trust built.


Community perceptions of humanitarians stem from a variety of sources, including personal experience, rumours, and suspicions, and are reinforced by the perceived discrepancy between the level of funding provided to NGOs and their achievements in the field.

Thus, even if positive results are reported here and there, NGOs should take these concerns and criticisms seriously. Meaningful self-assessment by NGOs may help to address some of the negative representations that local communities make of them. Similarly, in-depth and up-to-date analysis of the contexts they work in could help to improve the quality of the services provided to the beneficiaries of humanitarian aid and to strengthen accountability relationships.