Human Rights

Foreign Aid Agencies in DRC Treat Local Workers Poorly, Protesters Say

 

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Archias Bahati, president of the Intercommunity Youth of Masisi, also known as JICOM, sits in his office in Masisi territory in Democratic Republic of the Congo in November. JICOM, which advocates for unemployed youth, complains that international aid agencies fail to hire qualified local workers. Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ Democratic Republic of Congo
Democratic Republic of Congo

Foreign aid agencies operating in Democratic Republic of Congo seldom recruit local workers, and when they do, they’re paid far less than foreign workers, local people say. Frustrated with high unemployment and lack of job opportunities, protestors are demanding that international organizations hire more qualified locals.

MASISI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — In a country that has among the highest unemployment rates in the world, the many well-heeled foreign aid agencies in the area could be a natural place for qualified local workers to find jobs.

But people in this perpetually-struggling region say that rarely happens.

“All project stakeholders are foreign nationals and very few locally-recruited staff, [who] are paid far less than expats,” says Abdoul Bitsibu, the executive secretary of Intercommunity Youth Association of Masisi, known as JICOM.

The issue is not that local people don’t have the qualifications, adds Agnès Bwira Mubawa, a JICOM advisor. Even those who have the necessary education and work experience are often passed over by international nonprofits, she says.

And when they do snag a coveted job, JICOM leaders say, they earn well below what a foreigner earns.

According to a study conducted by JICOM, 64 humanitarian organizations currently operate in the territory of Masisi. JICOM is demanding, through public protests and other actions, that those organizations consider local talent to help ease the area’s scourge of unemployment.

All project stakeholders are foreign nationals and very few locally-recruited staff, [who] are paid far less than expats.

In one dramatic example of the group’s seriousness, it blocked a main road between Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, and Masisi, a common destination for international organizations. Vehicles belonging to those organizations were prohibited from passing. That action was part of a three-day protest held in August.

The protests are rooted in ongoing frustration over the region’s high unemployment rates, despite international companies and nonprofits being major employers. It’s not clear how many foreign workers are in the country. It is also unclear how many Congolese people are employed by international companies, whether aid agencies or others, such as mining companies.

According to Global Humanitarian Assistance, which tracks international aid and development financing, DRC received $2.4 billion in total assistance in 2013, $449 million of which was humanitarian assistance.

Local people say that money often benefits foreigners more than it does Congolese.

“An expat can receive $15,000 per month, while a locally-recruited staff member hardly earns $300,” Mubawa says. “Most of the project funds are used on expats. This is considered by many to be a form of neocolonialism. NGOs and U.N. agencies cannot justify the big chunk of money spent on their so-called projects carried out on our territory.”

Balthazar Kasereka, head of the employment and labor division for the North Kivu provincial government, confirms that local people earn less than their expatriate counterparts.

“Whenever we raise these concerns, they say what they offer is the [minimum wage] applicable in their home countries, which is higher than the one applicable in Congo,” he says.

Maitre Bienvenue Kalinda, a lawyer in Goma, a base for many international aid agencies, says foreign organizations are not obligated to follow Congolese labor codes, so they often employ local people repeatedly on one-year contracts, despite a local law barring that practice.

And foreign agencies often terminate those workers’ contracts without notice, he says.

There is no definitive data on the number of jobs foreign aid agencies provide, whether to foreigners or Congolese, in North Kivu Province specifically or in DRC in general.

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Claudine Bwamwase stands in front of the office for Intercommunity Youth of Masisi, also known as JICOM, in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bwamwase is the Bahunde vice president of JICOM.

Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ Democratic Republic of Congo

Between 2009 and 2012, the country’s average unemployment rate was 53 percent, according to the Banque Centrale du Congo. But the problem is especially dire among youth, in part because DRC is such a young country. Sixty percent of the population is under the age of 25, and about 12 percent of the 15- to 24-year-old labor force is unemployed, according to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators.

According to the African Development Bank Group, nearly 80 percent of Congolese people work outside the formal labor market — a sign of a tough job market.

Given the limited number of jobs on offer, graduates often have no choice but to become street vendors, money-changers, traders, public phone operators or security staff. The lack of work and the absence of effective supervisory structures also drive many young people into a life of crime.

Luc Katembo, a consultant at Search for Common Ground and a former field agent at IMA World Health, a health organization funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, says the wage gap creates divisions among staff members.

“The bulk of the budget earmarked for the projects goes on administration,” he says. “Expats earn wages that are several times higher than local staff.”

That claim is roundly denied by IMA World Health officials, who say that of its Goma-based team of about 25 people, just one person, a medical doctor who is chief of party, is not Congolese. In some cases, IMA World Health communications director Matthew Hackworth says, donor regulations require that a certain position be filled by an expatriate. But the organization strives to employ local people, he says.

“I wouldn’t work for IMA World Health if it were a helicopter NGO, if it dropped in with a bunch of global north white staff and tried to do its work,” Hackworth says. “It is antithetical to who we are, it is antithetical to sustainable development, and it runs contrary to what we try to do every day, and that is work in partnership with communities to address public health problems.”

All IMA employees, whether expatriate or Congolese, are paid at an “acceptable market rate,” he says.

Katembo says that expatriate benefits go beyond base salary. They often choose exotic vacation destinations, he says, on the company’s dime. That can cause bitterness among staff members who take jobs with international organizations with the expectation that they, too, will have such an experience.

“Local staff who arrogate to themselves the right to expect these types of benefits from their employer end up falling prey to the urge to build castles in the air,” he says.

Benefits for expats often include additional safety protocols, says T.L., who works for an Italian humanitarian aid agency operating in Goma. GPJ is not publishing his name because revealing his identity could result in his firing.

“Just to give you an example of their bourgeoisie life, they are paid hardship allowances to which we have no right, while we all work in hazard-prone areas,” he says. “They are given opportunities to pamper themselves with luxury vehicles without paying a single cent, while local staff are doomed to use bikes as our primary means of transport.”

There is clear evidence that international aid agencies sometimes offer huge salaries to non-Congolese workers, but those workers aren’t always Western.

Just to give you an example of their bourgeoisie life, they are paid hardship allowances to which we have no right, while we all work in hazard-prone areas. They are given opportunities to pamper themselves with luxury vehicles without paying a single cent, while local staff are doomed to use bikes as our primary means of transport.

Yawo Douvon was the DRC country director for CARE International, a large international nonprofit, from 2011 to 2014. According to CARE’s 2013 tax documents, which were submitted to the U.S. government to fulfill reporting requirements, Douvon earned more than $320,000 that year. He is now country director in Mali for CARE, where he has earned about $257,000 per year in recent years, according to CARE’s 2014 tax documents. Douvon was educated in Togo, according to his LinkedIn profile.

People at CARE International’s headquarters office in the U.S. did not respond to requests for a comment for this story.

Other organizations specify salaries for expatriates. According to publicly available documents, a top-tier regional manager at the Danish Refugee Council earns between 32,500 and 45,000 Danish krone (about $4,647 and about $6,434) per month, in addition to 13,500 DKK (about $1,930) per month in a per diem living allowance and housing and relocation allowances, among other benefits.

Mubawa notes that not all organizations reserve good salaries for foreigners. Médecins Sans Frontières, the organization known in English as Doctors Without Borders, hires many local workers, she says.

“Of 210 workers at Masisi Centre Hospital, nearly 175 are locally-recruited workers,” she says, quoting JICOM’s data. “At Mweso, where another hospital is located, of 177 workers, 115 are locally recruited. This is an example that ought to be followed by other organizations operating here.”

According to publicly-available documents, the starting monthly pay for an entry-level worker at MSF is $1,193, on top of paid accommodations in the field, a per diem allowance when traveling and other benefits.

MSF officials declined to comment for this story and referred GPJ to JICOM’s data.

Archias Bahati, the Bahunde-area president for JICOM, says his organization will continue to plan protests as long as unemployment continues in Masisi.

“These NGOs should not enjoy by eating money brought into our country using pseudo-projects while the rest of us languish in misery and have trouble finding jobs,” he says.

 

Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ, translated some interviews from Swahili and French.