Food assistance: Intra-household vulnerability in eastern Congo

In this article, Vanessa Hershberger and Annie Loewen share insights on the existing dynamics in host-IDP households in relation to humanitarian responses in the distribution of food assistance, with eastern Congo as a case study.
Households are more commonly places where competing claims, unequal power, diverse interests and access to resources are frequently negotiated and shaped by differences in age, gender and position within the household, among other factors.

Residents of the Mubimbi IDP camp near Minova, DR Congo, are pictured with a pile of eggplant and a pile of cabbages that were harvested from their community garden. ECC Photo/Patrick Bulonza
Residents of the Mubimbi IDP camp near Minova, DR Congo, are pictured with a pile of eggplant and a pile of cabbages that were harvested from their community garden.
ECC Photo/Patrick Bulonza

MCC has been working with partners in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 2008 to implement humanitarian programming in response to internal displacement. During pre-planning for food assistance projects, MCC’s program partner, the Ministry of the Church of Christ in Congo for Refugees and Emergencies (MERU)-North Kivu, conducts thorough assessments of target communities, including displaced families and their host communities. MERU’s analysis has brought to light the differing gender roles within households, particularly surrounding control over resources and the division of household labor, with women largely in charge of food storage and preparation as well as agricultural work.
Observation and monitoring by MERU staff showed that households where women were primarily responsible for managing food stocks were more often able to make food last longer and refrained from selling assets for the purchase of items considered to be non-essential. Households with male-controlled food stocks were more likely to sell food to buy items that they considered personally important, but were non-essential for the household. In response to this finding, MERU staff sought to raise awareness of social spending within the community and to encourage male participation in agricultural work as a way to share the burden and increase crop productivity. This critical understanding of intra-household dynamics allowed MERU staff to explain how placing women in key decision-making roles would be beneficial for the well-being of the entire family.
MERU staff worked with the community to define responsibilities for both men and women in the implementation of the food assistance project. Men accepted responsibility for specific work in agricultural production, namely, clearing and preparing the soil for planting and ongoing field maintenance, including applying insecticide, transporting fertilizer and pruning. Knowing that these agricultural activities were taken care of, women were able to turn their energy to other activities, including planting, weeding and harvesting. Because of MERU’s ability to work closely with participants, understand the differing needs of different groups and make project adjustments accordingly, MERU successfully implemented its food assistance project and received strong affirmation from the communities participating in the project.
MERU’s food assistance programming also seeks to account for intra-household vulnerability due to the high number of IDPs in eastern Congo who do not take refuge in official IDP camps but rather live with host families. In combined host-IDP households, it becomes more difficult to assess the food security of IDPs, as the use of household targeting may prevent a clear understanding of additional vulnerability experienced by IDPs. Not only should more widely understood household dynamics related to gender or age differences be accounted for when designing food assistance programing: the additional power dynamics within mixed host IDP households must also be considered.
MERU’s analysis conducted at the end of each six month project phase showed that while the average number of meals eaten per day increased significantly for all participants over the course of the project, host family food consumption saw a greater level of improvement than that of IDP families. Based on the intra-household dynamics observed by MERU staff, sensitization of the particular vulnerabilities of IDP families was prioritized and resulted over time in narrowing the gap of food consumption between IDPs and host families. By the fourth phase of the project, the average number of meals eaten per day was identical for both host and IDP families. A critical learning from the project is the need to assess the specific vulnerabilities experienced by the host-IDP households in order to reduce the burden on IDP and host families in negotiating how to share food, agricultural inputs and labor responsibilities.
Abandoning the household unit as a means of grouping and interacting with project participants is not likely to happen anytime soon. Thus, we at MCC must equip ourselves and our partners with tools and critical lenses through which to pay attention and respond to the complex dynamics within and between households.
Vanessa Hershberger is MCC program coordinator for the eastern provinces of the DRC, based in Bukavu, South Kivu. Annie Loewen is a humanitarian assistance coordinator for MCC, based in Winnipeg, MB.

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