Roadblock Ethnography: Negotiating Humanitarian Access in Ituri, Eastern Dr Congo, 1999-2004

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Based on field research carried out in 2004, this article focuses on how Ituri-based Congolese relief workers negotiate humanitarian access with roadblock militias. Experiences and testimonies highlight the importance of sociocultural and political awareness during relief work induced by conflict. It is demonstrated that relief workers in conflict zones do not (and cannot) shed their ethnic identities; that instead they accept that a perceived ethnic identity brings strategic advantages as well as disadvantages. Further, a relief worker's bargaining power is shown to be influenced by militia perceptions of how his/her organization is positioned in the conflict. The overall argument responds to the renewed policy interest in debating the political context of humanitarian intervention.

RESUME

S'appuyant sur des travaux de terrain realises en 2004, cet article s'interesse a la maniere dont les travailleurs humanitaires congolais bases a Ituri negocient l'acces humanitaire avec les milices en charge des barrages routiers. Les experiences et les temoignages soulignent l'importance de la connaissance socioculturelle et politique dans les operations humanitaires suscitees par des conflits. Il est demontre que les travailleurs humanitaires en zones de conflit n'abandonnent pas leur identite ethnique (et ne le peuvent pas) et qu'ils acceptent au contraire qu'une identite ethnique percue presente des avantages en meme temps que des inconvenients strategiques. D'autre part, l'article montre que la puissance de negociation du travailleur humanitaire est influencee par la perception qu'ont les milices de la position de l'organisation de ce travailleur dans le conflit. L'argument general repond a l'interet accru a debattre du contexte politique de l'intervention humanitaire.

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This article focuses on the negotiation skills of Ituri-based Congolese relief workers in their dealings with roadblock militias. The testimonies I collected highlight the importance of socio-cultural and political awareness during relief work induced by conflict. It is hoped that their availability will stimulate discussion within the humanitarian community and thus help improve future access policies. The article demonstrates that relief workers in conflict zones do not (and cannot) shed their ethnic identities; that instead they accept that a perceived ethnic identity brings strategic advantages as well as disadvantages. Further, a relief worker's bargaining power is shown to be influenced by militia perceptions of how his/her organization is positioned in the conflict. The article is based on fieldwork in war-torn Ituri, carried out in April-May 2004, prior to which I interviewed expatriate relief workers and missionaries with Ituri experience.

NEW CHALLENGES IN HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION

Despite the ferocity of the six-year conflict in Ituri, which caused the deaths of some 60,000 civilians, (1) only half a dozen international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) brought relief throughout or during most of the crisis. They included: Medair, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Oxfam, Caritas-Belgium, German Agro Action (Welthungershilfe) and the Italian NGO Cooperation Internationale (COOPI). My research was restricted to relief agencies and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA); it did not cover humanitarians working for the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC). By focusing on access negotiations, and especially on the role of local humanitarians, this article captures an aspect of political awareness that is rarely acknowledged. The testimonies contextualize Hugo Slim's argument that every relief worker, whether part of a UN force or a relief agency, needs to have 'a strong sense of his or her individual position in relation to the violence' in order to maintain morale (Slim 1997: 3). …