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Despite Cash Aid, Congolese Refugees in U.N. Camp Still Go Hungry

In the second part of her story on hunger among Congolese refugees in Rwanda, anthropologist Emily Lynch discusses an initiative to replace insufficient, poor-quality food rations with cash aid, and why refugees say it hasn’t helped.

Written by Emily A. Lynch Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Congolese Tutsi refugee children, displaced from their homeland to Rwanda, wait aboard a United Nations bus for relocation in 1997. Many such refugees have remained in Rwanda, with little support, including food for survival. AP/Brennan Linsley

This is the second part of a two-part story on hunger in Gihembe camp over the last six years. In the first story, Emily Lynch describes the refugees’ complaints about insufficient, unhygienic food rations. In the second story, Lynch describes the U.N.’s recent initiative to replace food rations with cash aid.

GIHEMBE CAMP, Rwanda – Hunger has become a routine and painful experience for the Congolese refugees living in Rwanda’s Gihembe refugee camp since 1997. The unintended long-term residents have been appealing for more and better quality food for nearly two decades.

During my ethnographic research in the camp for the past six years, many residents told me about widespread malnutrition and bouts of sickness caused by rotten food rations in the U.N.-run camp.

In the first part of my story, I detailed the chronic ailments that the youngest refugees in the camps experience due to poor nutrition and lack of hygiene.

To counter the gaps in food supply, last year the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and the World Food Program (WFP) introduced a new pilot program called mVisa in the camp, providing cash funds in lieu of the pre-selected rations and enabling refugees to independently purchase food items in the camp’s markets and from registered mVisa dealers.

The program emphasized autonomy for refugees, and it was a move that the camp members largely supported. Some residents envisioned purchasing milk and preparing meals that would include potatoes and vegetables, deemed luxury items under the ration system.

One woman told me she looked forward to “missing” the children’s deposits of excrement in the residential quarters when they are unable to make the trek to the pit latrines in time. Diarrhea and irregular bowel movements are one of the effects of extended starvation.

Another mother discussed how the new food program might “fix” the visible reminders of malnutrition, especially the sickened hues of the children, with their ruddy skin and light-colored hair – all signs of critical starvation.

Refugees even hoped that the mostly empty malnutrition center might become fully operational – their reasoning being that humanitarian workers would no longer spend as much time coordinating and moving unwanted and unhygienic food. For those living the camp, the need for nutritional healthcare and medical treatment of long-term malnourishment is immense.

But despite the general optimism, some leaders in the camp opposed the mVisa program. Even before the amount per individual was decided, they told food economists at the WFP that they were concerned that the cash payments would not suffice in meeting their needs.

At the same time, these local leaders knew they had very little power to convince the WFP or to block decisions made on their behalf, as with many other aspects of running the camp.

So the program was piloted in January 2014, with standardized assessments, and fully adopted last year. The cash aid amounted to about 200 Rwandan francs (around 25 U.S. cents) per person, per day for nutritional sustenance.

Yet Gihembe camp residents continue to tell me how little food they have to eat. “We are still hungry, sometimes more hungry than before;” this statement has echoed through the homes in the camp that I visited.

Despite the program’s original emphasis on flexibility, its failure as a solution shows the glaring discrepancy between the amount of food refugees are able to purchase and how much they actually need to eat per day.

Another drawback of the mVisa program is that it precludes other kinds of autonomous economic exchanges that the food ration system had enabled. For example, refugees would previously sell part of their food rations to Rwandans to generate cash to purchase other important items, such as clothing, toothpaste, sanitary pads and soaps. Now, refugees are often unable to generate alternative forms of income to buy basic supplies.

“Before, we liked having larger quantities of food more than we liked having the high quality of food,” a friend of mine in the camp, Felix, explains. Now, he says, “we are forced to maximize the time [value] of the money” under the mVisa system. Felix was among those who felt there would be more, albeit different, problems under this new system of food allocation, but he had little say over whether and how it went ahead.

Since the implementation of the mVisa program, refugees overwhelmingly believe that malnutrition rates are as high as they have ever been in Gihembe, and that the illnesses that they experienced in the food ration system continue unabated.

They have noticed one change: less visible diarrhea in the residential quarters of the camp. But the refugees can explain the difference – when there is less food to eat, there is less food to excrete.

The end result has been the same in terms of the level of hunger, with camp residents wondering how they can possibly improve their lives, given that they do not have even the most basic means of survival – food.

While refugees are constantly bringing up these questions, it appears that the humanitarian organizations that make decisions on their behalf have failed to treat them as human beings worthy of engaging in discussions and making decisions that directly impact their lives. The humanitarian sector often treats refugees as distant subjects that are “beneficiaries” of their “missions,” while ignoring the humanity at the heart of the matter.

Is the food quantity better now? Do fewer stomachs contain worms? Are fewer gastrointestinal infections diagnosed and more treated? Is the malnutrition center regularly open and still needed? The simplest questions are often not posed. As a result, the most basic standards are not met.

There is also a gap between the perceptions and experiences for both the refugees and humanitarian organizations. Refugees are sometimes willing to believe that camp life can improve, just as humanitarian systems posit that “better solutions,” such as food allocation systems, are being crafted. Neither have happened in practice.

The cash-for-food programs is yet another example of how “subject”-oriented thinking and programming can repeatedly fail to produce more autonomy, better conditions and a more dignified human experience for those in forced exile.

The first part of this story can be found here.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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