Thursday, April 3, 2014

You can’t study Congo without the Congolese


Written by Gavin Finnegan- Texas A&M Program Coordinator in the DRC
This article was written for Texas A&M University. 

I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). I read the views of media pundits and self-proclaimed DRC experts that claimed foreigners interested in the DRC should work at arms length because a quagmire endemic corruption has spoiled local institutions. Fortunately, the terrific Congolese counterparts at Caritas and Catholic Relief Services immediately invalidated these ludicrous notions and for the past 10 months Texas A&M has benefitted enormously from working in close partnership with local Congolese institutions.

Sometimes just the site of me can make a child cry. 
From the onset of our research, Texas A&M University and USAID encouraged me to rely extensively on local institutions for support. This local support allowed me to travel to remote areas of North Kivu and work with isolated populations that rarely experience outside support but intimately experience conflict.

From this unique vantage point in rural Butembo, DRC, I spent the next few months gaining access to city officials, university administers, United Nations staff and even a local rebel leader (with the UN’s support and supervision). It was the very institutions that I was warned to be mindful of that I now was working with and even depending on for security advice.

It didn't take me long to fit right in with the wonderful people at UCG hospital.  
At this point Dr. Price and Dr. Gawande realized we had a special opportunity to leverage my position in the DRC to perform some very innovative research with a Texas A&M capstone.  The most critical element of the success of the capstone research project was that we immediately involved the prominent local university Universit√© Catholique du Graben (UCG) in our research question’s formulation. This initial collaboration between Texas A&M and UCG provided a scene of buy-in for everyone involved and set the positive tone for the entire research project.

First they cry when they see me; then I can't get them to go away. 
The research partnership between the two universities wasn’t the typical donor recipient relationship; at its core this was a mutually beneficial partnership. In a region of the world where the Internet is still struggling to gain a foothold and even electricity is at best unreliable, it’s imperative that a partner institution be intimately involved “on the ground”. UCG proved to be instrumental in providing logistical support, translations of surveys, academic support, security, access to rural communities etc. The value of a local perspective cannot be underestimated. In turn, Texas A&M transferred valuable program evaluation methods while performing evaluations on UCG programing and provided research experience for UCG staff and students.



Because we only had one academic semester to design and perform our research, the two universities moved at a blistering pace. After UCG provided a list of potential research topics to Texas A&M it took just one conference call for the two universities to agree on two research topics- evaluations of UCG’s former child soldier reintegration program and their severe malnutrition recovery program. 

I viewed my role in the research as a facilitator that had three objectives:
·      Keep the expectations of both universities in line with one another.
o  I took part in a lot of phone calls and meetings
·      Ensure the safety of everyone involved.
o  I utilized local UN security experts and government officials for this
·      Ensure the smooth implementation of the research
o  There was a lot of logistical work from acquiring visas to making sure we had enough pens for the survey. 

Dr. Gwande and I towards the end of an amazing research project. 
While the research project was still in the initial phases, Texas A&M professor Dr. Gawande warned me that there was going to be more work than I may be expecting and he was exactly right. I spent a lot of late nights and weekends working, but it was an enjoyable learning experience.

Fortunately I wasn’t working alone. During the original conference call we decided to imitate the Texas A&M capstone structure comprised of graduate students and an advisor. UCG selected a small group of local graduate students and two professors to work with me to prepare the research design.  The Congolese research team made countless valuable contributions including the decision to move the nutritional survey from the city to a village in order to obtain a more representative sample of the population where most of the nutrition clinic’s patients reside, organizing surveyors, designing a radio campaign to advertise our survey, administering pre-surveys, etc.   I also had Texas A&M’s capstone designing the survey and providing direction.  Whenever possible I ensured that UCG and/or Texas A&M were making the decisions.

The Congolese students in the UCG capstone, the real stars of the research. 


The biggest challenges we faced during the survey preparation were the logistical challenges in obtaining large survey sample sizes:

For the youth employment survey we utilized: radio advertisements at 4 stations; church announcements at more then 15 churches; and word of mouth.  A UCG staff member also helped us select the day which surveys would be administered- Congo’s own Mother’s Day. The staff member knew that most people would not be working on Mother’s Day and most mothers would encourage their children to take part in our survey.

For the nutritional survey, a UCG hospital staff member pointed out surveying a scattered rural community would be extremely time consuming so by visiting the community multiple times we selected a centrally located church to base our survey. We then gained the support of the local pastor to invite other neighboring congregations to the church on the day of our survey. Performing the survey on Sunday ensured that we had a large sample size because most people do not work on Sundays. Feeding over 2500 people was considered as an incentive for the survey but a UCG student recommended we instead distribute uncooked soya because of its high nutritional content and its ease of distribution.

Needless to say, the research project had a distinctively local feel to it.

I planned a recuperation day in Texas A&M’s eight day research schedule because I was concerned culture shock and the heavy workload would cause a few of the members of the Texas A&M delegation to become overwhelmed.  But I was astonished how quickly the capstone adapted to the Congo and how dedicated the entire delegation was surpassing the lofty expectations of the trip. Their perseverance was critical in overcoming unforeseen obstacles and led us to schedule additional surveys during what was intended to be their recuperation day. Each member of the group performed critical roles in the implementation of the research and they equally shared leadership roles. The phenomenal dedication of both UCG and Texas A&M working groups was the driving force behind the success of our research.
Two of my Congolese friends on the right and left, the Texas A&M research delegation and two Congolese children. 

I highly suggest foreign institutions establish research partnerships with Congolese institutions not only to strengthen local capacity but to access the tremendous wealth in the local capacity that already exists.





Saturday, February 1, 2014

Malnutrition- Protein Deficiency (5 of 5)

Without a trained eye, malnutrition can be easily overlooked, especially in North Kivu. Caloric intake is not the most pressing nutritional concern here; instead persistent protein deficiency causes many children to develop and often die from kwashiorkor, otherwise known as oedematous malnutrition. 


Kwashiorkor is a confounding factor in nutritional surveys because it causes a child to retain fluids throughout the body leading to deceiving weight-for-height and weight-for age results. Leading the fight against malnutrition in Butembo are two hospitals-  Katawa Hospital and  Universit√© Catholique du Graben’s (UCG) hospital. Both provide three-week rehabilitation to children and mothers but the hospitals limited capacity cannot address Butembo’s nutritional nightmare.

The struggle to acquire sufficient nutrition is faced by a vast majority of Congolese in North Kivu. The diets of many Congolese here rely heavily on cassava, bananas and fruit.

 UCG’s agricultural department is attempting to address one of the roots of malnutrition by developing protein rich varieties of soya and improving breeding techniques for rabbits and guinea pigs but this research is still in early stages. The immediate future looks bleak but researchers, NGO’s and mothers remain hopeful.  

Graft (4 of 5)

...Redacted....

Sample of Monthly Salaries in Butembo
Position
Salary
Primary School Teacher
$47
Immigration Office, Director
$50
Road Maintenance Personnel
$20
Police Officer
$40
Airport Passport Processor
> $50
Gasoline Stand Operator
$80

To be clear, I'm not negatively portraying the government or any public officials. I'm grateful for their public service and the security they provide me. 

Struggling Education System (3 of 5)

Each school day Shakes, a 12 year old boy in Butembo, arrives to school before any other children and is the last to leave. Like many children in his situation, Shakes isn’t going to school to learn, he goes to school to earn money for his family. Shakes sells sugarcane and bananas, earning roughly 75 cents a day. With four brothers and sisters, the income Shakes earns is likely necessary for survival.


Shakes selling bananas to students
Though attending school is constitutionally compulsory and free, in reality even the price of public education is at least $20 and many children are not registered to attend. The argument to send a child to school isn’t always convincing when the cost of school means having to sacrifice somewhere else like food, clothing or shelter.

The low benchmarks of standardized education found during the Buffett survey clearly manifest themselves in the markets in North Kivu where women and children peddling produce don’t understand more than a few words of French.  French is the primary language used in schools so it’s clear these hard working individuals did not receive a standardized education.

Surprisingly, staggering levels of truancy do not correlate with low number of universities in Butembo, North Kivu. Butembo recently shut down nearly half of its 23 universities and colleges for not registering with the ministry of education. There’s a high demand from parents and children for higher education but there’s also a growing concern within the local community that many of the universities are scamming their students by providing educations without providing valuable skills.  

Reputable universities such as Université Catholique du Graben (UCG) struggle to address concerns within their student body about rising tuition (currently $243 a semester). UCG students have demonstrated their concerns in the form of three walkouts within the past year.

While many children’s parents can’t afford sending their children to school, some universities are scams and others are struggling to keep costs down.  Aat least the streets of Butembo are safe enough for the children to go to school. It’s a start.

The Price of Communication (2 of 5)

In an age where telecommunications has been taken for granted throughout the majority of the world for at least a decade, North Kivu struggles to maintain basic contact with the outside world and according to a few benchmarks of communication, North Kivu is regressing. 

In 1930, Butembo, North Kivu opened it’s first and only post office. Today a dilapidated building with hundreds of unused mailboxes remains. With unreliable dirt roads that are prone to rebel attacks connecting major cities, international mail handlers DHL Express and Express Mail Service (EMS) must use expensive air transport for their limited operations. According to the EMS office in Butembo, the minimum shipping rate for a package weighing up to 1.1 pounds being sent from Butembo to the Goma is $62- a price that limits it’s operations to only two packages being sent out of the EMS office per week to Goma. Instead, the merchants of Butembo use a decentralized network of baggage handlers utilizing large cargo trucks and cell phones.


Development of the DRC's internet and broadband market has been held back by the poorly developed national and international infrastructure. Exasperating the scarcity of communication, the three telecommunication providers Airtel, Vodacom and Orange routinely experience outages lasting for days, and because the DRC doesn’t have a fiber optic cable, internet must pass through these sluggish and expensive telecommunication providers. Only one hotel and two or three internet cafes in the entire city of Butembo, population roughly eight hundred thousand, have internet capabilities that allow a user to stream a low resolution video with frequent re-buffering. 

Estimated market penetration rates in the DRC’s telecoms sector – end 2013
Market
Penetration rate
Mobile
35%
Fixed
0.1%
Internet
2.3%
(Source: BuddeComm based on various sources)

When a Plague of Locusts is a Blessing (1 of 5)

From Mid-November to late December swarms of long-horned grasshoppers descend on North Kivu. Instead of fearing these green invaders, children, parents and grandparents alike search every nook and cranny to collect and then devour them. 

Mouths, caterpillars and larva are also consumed in North Kivu. Because of the high protein of insects in this protein deficient region of the world, insects provide a recess from chronic hunger faced by the majority of the local population.

Some ingenious Congolese erect large aluminum sheets with extremely bright lights that attract the insects and then funnel them into baskets where they are collected throughout the night.  In Butembo, North Kivu, a single trap can gather as many as 50 – 400 – 15,000 kilograms of grasshoppers in a single night. At $2 USD per kilogram this is a substantial income.