Integral and inclusive: Congo villages' operating model
As a Belgian NGO, Congodorpen has been committed to sustainable development in over 200 Congolese villages for more than 50 years. In all these years, however, the general vision of development cooperation has changed considerably. This also applies to Congodorpen, which, with a young, fresh team, resolutely opts for an integral approach, where the local population is in charge.
Najla Mulhondi has worked for Congodorpen since 2019 and recently became director. Aziza Braekevelt only recently joined the team and is responsible for programme management. We speak to both ladies just after their working trip to the project area in northwest Congo, in the provinces of North and South Ubangi. The Ubangi region used to belong to the giant Equateur province, which was split into smaller provinces in 2015. North and South Ubangi together cover an area comparable to Bulgaria. The region is bordered to the north by the Central African Republic and to the west by Congo-Brazaville.
Ecologically, this area is very valuable with diverse ecosystems and economic activities, with rainforests, water basins and an important agricultural sector. The region also has a great diversity of cultures, languages and traditions. Some of the main ethnic groups in this region are the Ngbaka, the Yakoma, the Manza, the Ngbaka-Ma'bo and the Gbanzili. They provide a unique cultural identity and heritage.
Complex living conditions
"Congodorpen has been operating in this region from the very beginning," Najla explains. "Whereas we used to have a larger operating area in Congo, we now mainly focus on Ubangi. What is new is that with the knowledge and know-how we built up in RC Congo, we have also been active in the south of the Moroccan Atlas Mountains since 2022, more specifically in the Midelt province in the Drâa-Tafilalet region. Here we are working with a Belgian NGO of the Moroccan diaspora."
The conditions in both regions where Congodorpen works are very similar and can definitely be called complex. Aziza: "They are each remote villages and rural areas facing major socio-economic and environmental problems as well as complex challenges in terms of gender equality. Also characteristic is the exodus towards the cities. The local population is left in very fragile economic conditions and with very poor infrastructure, both in terms of roads and health care. For their supplies, people in the Ubangi region depend on transport from Kinshasa. A 100-km drive can easily take five days because of the terrible condition of the roads. This also has an impact on health."
Challenges are not only human. The Congolese rainforest is our planet's most important lung. Preserving its valuable ecological reserves is of great importance. For the earth in general, but certainly also for the local population. Because deforestation, for instance to collect wood for heating stoves, causes erosion. Combined with climate change, which is even more noticeable in the equatorial region, this can lead to major flooding in already very vulnerable areas.
So it is impossible to separate man and the environment. And the various social aspects are also intertwined. This is precisely why Congodorpen is so emphatically committed to a holistic approach, approaching health, education, entrepreneurship and environment as a coherent whole. And, more importantly, with and from local communities. "The word 'development cooperation' is still often used popularly, but is actually very outdated," Najla argues. "We prefer to speak of 'international solidarity', which rather refers to partnerships and no longer to 'providing aid', the paternalistic approach of the past. Because for us, strengthening the autonomy and entrepreneurship of local people is paramount. And by exchanging know-how between our programmes in Morocco and RC Congo, we want to put much more emphasis on South-South cooperation instead of the traditional North-South relationship."
Community actively participates
The Congo villages project is supported for 5 years by the Belgian Directorate-General for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid (DGD) and focuses on 4 action points: the construction of health centres, development of infrastructure (bridges and roads), support and creation of health insurance funds and the development of agricultural and non-agricultural economic activity such as coffee growing, fish farming, saffron and couscous cultivation and ecotourism.
From the start of the project, the local population is in the driving seat. After all, they know better than anyone what they need to improve their living conditions. And they don't stop there. "We mobilise them so that they actively participate and contribute to their own development and do so in an integrated way both in terms of health, education and economic empowerment," Aziza says. "For example, in the construction of the health centres, they take care of manufacturing the bricks themselves. In Bosenduni village, 11 000 have already been made. Each community decides in which way they want to contribute. And they will manage this health centre together with the health committee (= structured civil society organisation) and the other members of a local development committee (Comité Local de Développement). Furthermore, we encourage and strengthen the organisations that keep everything running.
Congodorpen is a relatively small organisation with in Belgium only 3 female staff members, all of African origin, operating from Leuven and 1 colleague who is media and press officer. Then again, in RC Congo, only male teams are working for Congodorpen. "I would like to see this change," smiles Aziza. "Because promoting gender equality remains a challenge. I found that out for myself when I traversed our project area on the moto of our Congolese team. A woman on a motorcycle, that was dangerous and clearly not the custom." In Morocco, Congdorpen has no office but works with a local partner where gender balance is balanced.
Despite its modest occupancy, Congdorpen does have an established presence in the international solidarity landscape. In RC Congo, the organisation is known for expanding coffee farming and as a co-founder of the Max Havelaar Fairtrade label. Even today, the NGO continues to lobby the local, provincial, regional and national authorities of its area of operation for the necessary support. That the political situation in north-west Congo is fairly stable, unlike in other regions, is an advantage and creates opportunities for development.
Moreover, the evolution from 'aid' to the current inclusive approach, opened the door for the creation of public-private partnerships. As a result, the buzz words of the past (sustainability, inclusive growth, human rights, empowerment...) do now become realistic goals. Step by step, deal by deal, they are translated into concrete, proactive and solution-oriented actions.
Besides working with local organisations, Congodorpen also collaborates with other Belgian and national NGOs with the aim of setting up synergies and achieving faster results together.
Aziza: "It's like coming home for me"
Aziza Braekevelt only recently joined the Congodorpen team, but has known the organisation for much longer. "The international solidarity sector is a small world in which everyone knows each other well, even though the way it works is changing rapidly. As General Coordinator at the small NGO Rotary Clubs for Development, I was responsible for implementing the joint programme, of which Congodorpen was also a member. Now, in my position at Congodorpen, I come into contact again with the NGO Karama Solidarity, supported by the Moroccan diaspora, for which I worked as South Coordinator 12 years ago. Personally, I have a close relationship with the Moroccan diaspora and that helps me a lot in my work with the team in our project area in Morocco."
Although born in Roeselare to a Congolese mother and a Flemish father, Aziza feels a strong connection to RC Congo. She took her first steps in her mother's family's jungle village Kolé, where she regularly travelled for several months during her childhood. There, Aziza learnt to deal with the laws of the jungle and with the local people who bear many similarities to those in the Congo villages project area. During her work trip in June, she discovered that Kolé is 'only' five travel days from the Ubangi region. "I immediately recognised the similar cultural, traditional mentality and customs, which facilitated my integration. It was like coming home for me there!"