Ituri, a district of Oriental Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, saw a major outbreak of violence triggered by a land conflict that started in 1999 between landowners and farmers. The conflict quickly spread and divided the population into the two main ethnic groups, Hema and Lendu. Groups have continuously worked for reconciliation in Ituri. But what is the contribution of local and international organisations respectively to that process? In May and June 2011, I conducted a series of interviews aimed at answering that question.

The situation has calmed since 2004 and numerous signs of reconciliation can be observed. These include the interaction in market places, joint attendance of school classes and church services, investment in housing construction, denunciation of armed groups’ recruitment attempts, as well as the fact that travelling to places inaccessible during the conflict has become possible again.

But reconciliation is not achieved by merely ending the violence
But reconciliation is not achieved by merely ending the violence. In the district of Ituri, obstacles to reconciliation are still present. They comprise the circulation of arms, residual armed groups in the South of the district, sexual violence, road blocks and suspicion between different groups. As one interview partner put it:

Peace is here, but it should be accompanied by reconciliation in order for people to live without fear

Contributions to reconciliation

The approach local organisations seem to take is focused on small-scale projects which might only unfold their full impact in the long run. In contrast, international actors rather seek to act on a large-scale from the beginning, but their longer-term impact is sometimes questioned.

The role of international organisations

A top-down approach seems to have been necessary in the beginning to stabilise the region
In Ituri, a top-down approach seems to have been necessary in the beginning to stabilise the region. International actors had the necessary financial and personal resources to achieve this. Their presence – especially of MONUC (now MONUSCO) – dissuaded the continuation of the violence.

Moreover, it enabled social and economic activities to resume. The armed conflict had disrupted interaction between different groups and hence halted the economic flow. Inter-ethnic commercial activities were central to reconciliation in Ituri because the specific roles of the actors in the economic cycle were divided according to ethnic affiliations. Interlocutors agree that MONUC has contributed to building confidence between groups in creating the environment which enabled markets to function again and thus the encounters between different population groups.

The so-called “Security Posts” created by MONUC in Bunia, the capital of Ituri, are an example for this. They allowed people from one ethnic group to go to an area mainly controlled by the other ethnic group. This enabled spontaneous commerce to take off again. Moreover, as pointed out by several local interview partners, the construction of roads by international NGOs was equally essential in the process of reconciliation because people could travel to the markets more easily and therefore different population groups could frequent the same places again.

The contribution of local organisations

The contribution of local organisations to reconciliation throughout the conflict was also important
The contribution of local organisations to reconciliation throughout the conflict was also important. Their activities were generally less expensive than the ones from international actors. Moreover, their being from the conflict area bears specific advantages as they speak the local languages, they have access to very remote places and most importantly: they have lived through the conflict. As one interview partner put it:

international actors act by what they have heard, we act according to what we have seen and lived
Beneficiaries also know that local organisations will stay even after the conflict has ended. This creates trust in their approach as they also have to live with the consequences of their own programmes. International actors, in contrast, often face the financial constraint that “as soon as the budget finishes, the edifice crumbles” (Interview by author, May 2011).

Some interviewees pointed out that international actors might be considered more impartial than local ones. However, what counts is the perception. An example can illustrate this: Internationals were said to have reached out to local actors for information, especially at the beginning of the conflict. In Ituri, it was reported that they often believed what one group told them without considering a potential bias. Therefore, they were not perceived as impartial by the population because they would act according to whatever information they received.

Local people are without any doubt stakeholders in the conflict and can thus almost never be seen as entirely impartial. However, if – for instance – a local organisation dominated by one ethnic group reaches out to different ethnic communities and does not make any distinction of who is involved and who is not in their projects; it can send a very strong signal of impartiality in its programmes.

Both locals and internationals are central and have indisputably contributed to reconciliation in Ituri
This shows that there is a place for everyone. Both locals and internationals are central and have indisputably contributed to reconciliation in Ituri. In the absence of an unambiguous state presence, the communities have organised themselves on the road to promote reconciliation. In their endeavour, they have been supported by both locals and internationals.

Cooperation between locals and internationals

Apart from their individual contribution to reconciliation, the even more essential issue is cooperation between local and international organisations. With regard to division of tasks, for instance, the local organisations clearly have their place as intermediaries between internationals and local communities. The internationals, in turn, can serve as linkage between local organisations and the government because often the former do not have the necessary access to state authorities.

In Ituri, this has not always worked smoothly. Locals feel a certain competition for funding with internationals. The latter gain terrain by, for instance, paying per diems (a payment for attending workshops and seminars) to project beneficiaries – something that local organisations cannot afford.

A similar issue is the recruitment of qualified staff perceived as problematic by some local NGOs. International organisations pay higher salaries and can thereby promote a 'brain drain' away from the local organisations. One local interviewee said that when it came to funding and meetings with donors, internationals portrayed locals as lacking the necessary competences. He raised the rhetoric question, of how they could build capacities if most of the people they train left to work for internationals afterwards.

Local organisations also shared an impression of internationals only implicating them when they needed information or faced security risks. But, as one observer said, sometimes they did not even want more information because it would prevent them from transplanting a model they know to the context in Ituri.

At the same time, internationals criticised the local organisations expectations. The former feel to be perceived as mere channel of funding and that some local organisations were only created for the sake of getting access to money. A problem was also perceived in the lack of specialisation of local organisations. It was criticized that “they do whatever is asked by the donor community” (Interview by author, May 2011).

The issues of discontent regarding the cooperation between the two should be addressed more openly, instead of swelling underneath the surface. Because in the end, how can reconciliation in Iturian communities, families and individuals credibly be promoted if no (re-)conciliation takes place between international and local peacebuilding organisations?