Providing emergency services and brighter futures to displaced families in DRC

A woman in DR Congo holds cash in her hands

In the face of conflict, the choice to leave your home behind isn't always a choice.

As an armed conflict in her village intensified, Madeleine, 47, had to consider two terrifying options: stay in her home and risk her family's safety, or leave and risk the unknown.

Ultimately, the choice was made for her.

She and her seven children, along with other families from her village, were forced to flee in July 2017. The risks of staying were far too great.

For the past 20 years, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Madeleine lives, has been the center of one of the world's worst humanitarian crises — and the situation has dramatically worsened over the course of the last year. Some 13 million people need humanitarian assistance, including nearly 10 million who aren't able to meet their daily food needs.

With one fateful decision, Madeleine became one of them.

The stress of displacement

After traveling about 18 miles on foot, Madeleine and her family arrived in the village of Hombo, which is on the border between North and South Kivu in east DRC. They came with nothing except the clothes they were wearing. For a while, their lives only got worse as they acclimated to their new, crowded conditions.

North Kivu, which hosts one-quarter of DRC's 4.3 million internally displaced people, has become a perpetually insecure and hostile environment. A lack of infrastructure, stunted economy and weak governance exacerbate the impact of the conflict.

In Hombo, there are around 4,000 newly displaced families — about 40 percent of the village's population. These families are in dire need of emergency services like food, shelter, money and essential services like schools and health centers.

Seventy-two percent of children here do not attend school. Without the security of education, they are more likely to be at risk for child marriage and involuntary recruitment to armed groups.

But, as families like Madeleine’s get adjusted to their new home, there is also cause for hope.

Mercy Corps — working with Medair and the Danish Refugee Council — led the UNICEF-funded, "Rapid Response to Movements of Populations" program, where we identified the greatest needs and opportunities to create change in the Hombo community. This program is quickly implemented whenever there are urgent needs from those facing displacement.

How cash distributions empower displaced people

People looking at children's clothes in a street market in dr congo
After receiving money, displaced families buy clothes for their children in Hombo's main market. ALL PHOTOS: Mercy Corps staff

In the Democratic Republic of Congo and other areas facing conflict, cash has emerged as the most effective and efficient way to assist populations experiencing crises.

“Cash support gives me the opportunity to choose what is better for me and my children,” says Madeleine, a smile of relief spreading across her face. “I can divide my take-home allowance and draw a budget based on my own urgent needs, not on what others think I need. I prefer cash support rather than food support.”

As part of Mercy Corps displacement response, Mercy Corps has provided more than 23,259 displaced people and host families in Hombo with cash-based assistance, allowing them to address their most urgent needs on their own. Stabilizing these families now will allow them to build stronger futures.

“For four years, we have been providing families in crisis with cash assistance to improve their temporary living conditions,” says Jean-Philippe Marcoux, Mercy Corps' country director in DRC. “Cash assistance allows these families to pay for their rent, food, and healthcare costs and to make decisions about their expenses in order to address their most urgent needs.”

How cash distributions support local economies

Cash also rebuilds and boosts the local economy, keeping small businesses going despite crisis and allowing newly displaced people to start businesses.

Hombo's main market hums with activity. The stalls and shops overflow with people selling food, clothing, and other household necessities. With the $90 distribution Madeleine received, she bought $15 in clothes and $10 in food.

She kept the remaining money to restart a small business selling fish — something she used to do in her village before she fled.

While the influx of cash has been critical for benefiting displaced populations and business owners in Hombo, cash alone cannot meet all needs in every humanitarian crisis. “Whenever it is possible,” Marcoux says, “we choose to give cash in combination with other types of assistance.”

Saving lives with clean water, hygiene and sanitation

A man treats water with powder while a boy looks on in dr congo
Using water purification powder makes water clean for children — and their families — to drink.

Even with the cash Madeleine receives, there remains a significant challenge to her family's success: protecting her family from water-related diseases.

In Hombo, only three out of ten households have latrines. Seventy percent of the local population goes to the bathroom in an open area, including in Hombo's river. That same water is sometimes used for other domestic needs, like washing clothes and bathing. Unfortunately, not all existing water sources in the area are currently accessible.

Improving water quality and access is crucial. Mercy Corps is leading efforts to improve water and sanitation services in the Hombo region by chlorinating water sources near places like rivers, building latrines, and improving knowledge and practice of basic hygiene behaviors.

But access alone is not enough — showing people how these programs will positively affect their health and well-being makes them more likely to adopt them long-term.

Families like Madeleine’s are still transitioning into their new normal, but emergency services and clean water access are giving them a strong start on their path to recover and rebuild their lives.

*Name has been changed to protect identity and safety.

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