Prices are high in Goma, because as some relief workers pointed out on Monday, its volcano attracted dozens of humanitarian organizations in the aftermath of the eruption. They say Goma has become an example of how non-governmental organizations can sometimes hinder, not help, people in need.
“My gripe is, too often we only go where the media goes,” said Sinead Tynan, a Concern desk officer for Central Africa, who is visiting the eastern Congo from Dublin. “There are parts of the Congo where families are living on less than 50 cents a day. In North and South Kivu [Congolese provinces] four out of every five families have been displaced in the last three years.”
Two dark gray and hardened rivers of lava split Goma, and burned out buildings and vehicles can be seen dating from last year’s eruption. Smoke and ash from Mount Nyirogongo can be seen rising in a vast cloud from the volcano’s classic cone shape. At night, it is possible to see fire and sparks emitting from the volcano’s mouth.
Aside from its volcano eruption, Goma has also been a center for refugees displaced by the Congo’s recent spate of wars and skirmishes.
As a result, NGOs were present before the eruption, driving up prices and burdening the crowded city with Western personnel. Today there are more than 30 NGOs in Goma.
Wandey Agahmed is a Concern worker from Mali who is based in Goma. He remembers the changes in the city after the eruption.
“It started in 1994 [in Goma] with the arrival of the UN High Commission for Refugees,” said Agahmed, a small, intense man with a neatly trimmed goatee. “Businesses started then, and a car for rent was suddenly $400 a day — $400 a day.”
On the surface, development and relief organizations seem to achieve exactly what they say they do. Agahmed noted that “you have a lot of expats coming in for two, three, six months, and then leaving.”
Agahmed’s wife, Virginie Vaux, echoes his opinion that a glut of NGOs, all trying to help in their own way, can have a negative impact.
“For me Goma is crazy. Life is so expensive and the NGOs are contributing to the cost of life,” said Vaux, a French native who works for Medicin sans Frontieres.
Some relief workers draw a distinction between the NGOs and the United Nations, by far the largest and wealthiest of humanitarian organizations in the world. The UN’s bureaucracy frustrates many projects.
Said Agahmed about UN decision making: “They call Kinshasa, who will call Nairobi, who will call Cairo, who will call New York. It can take forever.”
Vaux added that the local population who are most in need of help, sometimes resent the presence of so many obviously well-funded Western humanitarian organizations.
“UN people are seen badly by some people,” she said. “They see their big cars, and they then see the UN and NGOs as one.”
Other relief workers in much more remote parts of the eastern Congo complain that Goma’s “sexiness,” its appeal to many NGOs because of the volcanic threat, harms efforts to highlight much poorer regions.
“Goma draws attention away from places like Kasongo,” said Auriol Miller, Concern’s DRC country director, who is based in the remote town near the banks of the Congo River. Since late last fall she has helped start a therapeutic feeding program for malnourished children in Kasongo.
“Outside of Kasongo it’s like a slow decline to death, and no one sees any reason to pay attention because it’s not dramatic,” she said.
With so many NGOs based there, Goma is likely to continue to be a necessary hub for humanitarian activity, both for good and ill, and driving up prices so that something like a pizza, a rough measurement of the cost of living, can cost as much as a pizza in New York or London.
Yet the volcanic threat to Goma is very real, as are the frequent violent activities of many armed groups involved in the aftermath of the Congo’s recent conflict. It can take little to start a panic among the local population.
“On Dec. 21, the wind changed and the smoke from the volcano came over the town and there was panic,” remembered Agahmed.
A vulcanologist from France, Jaques Durieux, monitors Mount Nyirogongo and said that the city may get as little as a few hours’ warning of another eruption. More serious is the possibility of fissures opening up right in the center of the city, spewing lava or poisonous, odorless vapors.
Agahmed sees the value of long-term development programs such as that in Kasongo, versus emergency work, say, responding to another eruption in Goma.
“With emergency there may be one million people in need and you can only really help 10,” he said, whereas a development project, properly funded and with other positive factors, not least luck, can achieve immense benefits over years. And ultimately, even in Goma, life would be a lot worse if no one responded to an eruption or a crisis involving renewed fighting and a surge in refugees.
“It’s like a knife cutting — it has two sides,” he said. “On one side you have nothing without NGOs and on the other side you have some people living instead of dying. You always have this dilemma.”