Designing and Building in Central and East Africa

The Largest Development Effort In Africa: Tuungane

Having begun my career in Africa working on small teams, tackling one project at a time, I was often skeptical of big NGOs.  However, as I begin work with the International Rescue Comittee, I’ve come to realize that massive problems require massive efforts.  Working as one of five construction coordinators with the IRC, I have joined an enormous initiative that has been working with over 1,500 small communities across eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.  This is the largest effort of its kind in Africa.

Although many might expect that building schools, clinics and general infrastructure would be the best long-term solution to problems in the DRC, construction by itself doesn’t take into account the complexity of Congo’s problems. The root of these problems is a lack of good governance practices and citizens’ lack of confidence in government.   The only way to pull the DRC out of economic stagnation in a sustainable manner is to help the people and their government take responsibility for the country’s development. The IRC’s program, Tuungane (“Let’s Unite”), addresses governance deficiencies at the most local level.

  • Context of the Eastern Congo

The great wars of Africa occurred in the aftermath of the 1996 Rwandan genocide, and raged across central Africa for over twelve years.  The fighting involved eight countries and killed over 5.4 million people.  Jason Stearns has chronicled the conflicts in DRC in his comprehensive book, Dancing In The Glory Of Monsters.

While the conflicts have subsided, and some consider them “over,” there are still many pockets of unrest. Independent militias continue to roam throughout the eastern provinces. Their ideological motives have morphed into a fight for control of lucrative resources and for the power that comes with that control.  The DRC government’s solution has been to consolidate many of these resistance movements into the national military, but since the government rarely pays these soldiers, they still survive by extortion and violence.

  • Tuungane

The goal of the IRC’s Tuungane project in DRC is to help to establish solid, enduring principles of good governance at the village level. Participating communities lead themselves through local elections and assessments.  Then, they work together to construct schools, health centers, water systems, roads, or markets as a vehicle to strengthen these community driven decision processes.  While the financing for these projects is provided by the IRC, it is the communities themselves that decide which projects are most needed; and it is their elected leaders that engage local government ministries in approvals, monitoring, and in some cases, in construction.

Within this large project, I work as a construction coordinator.  While I believe that architecture and design itself can have a major positive effect on communities and individuals, I play only a small role in this massive program. During my time with the IRC in the province of South Kivu, my personal goal is to empower the communities that I work with through art, design, and construction.  This will ultimately solidify their emotional connection to and their ownership of these projects. For the purpose of this post however, an explanation of the Tuungane program will help illustrate the larger framework within which I work, and lay the groundwork for further posts.

The Tuungane program is vast, working with over 1,500 communities across the provinces of Katanga, Maniema and North and South Kivu.  The protocols for the processes of introduction, elections, project development, and construction are comprehensive, requiring 32 community meetings and milestones, quorum requirements, financing options, and the creation of various subcommittees.  The program has been laid out to ensure flexibility and to maximize the chances of project success.

The process is divided into four phases.

  • Phase One: Preparation, Introductions, Elections

The first half of phase one is dedicated to large-scale preparations: meetings with governors, district commissioners, relevant offices (roads, education, health, etc.), and organizing census information to delineate village borders and population data.

Then, engagements with each village begin. The first meeting is with the chief of the village, as chiefs not only preside over ceremonies (weddings, circumcisions), but also settle disputes and maintain general order throughout the community.  The first meeting is for formal introductions and to explain that the village has been selected to participate in the Tuungane program if it chooses.  This initial meeting is followed by a complete explanation of the governance processes and the level of community dedication that will be required.

Choosing the Development Sector

The three meetings that follow are with the entire community.  These meetings include various group activities that are aimed at helping the community understand and prioritize the problems that need to be addressed.  Once two of the five sectors are identified as priorities (for example, education and potable water), the community elects a development committee.

Elections take place over the course of an afternoon.  Half of the positions are reserved for women, and other “vulnerables” (members of the community who would otherwise be overlooked) are given chances to run for office, speak, and vote.  After the votes are compiled and totaled, the responsibilities of the elected are discussed in an open forum. IRC facilitators ask such questions as, “What will you, the community, do if funds are embezzled?”  At this point, the community and their elected leadership begin to realize that the future of the project is in their hands.

Later, villagers meet with neighboring communities who have chosen the same type of project so that grants can be combined for more effective and coordinated development.  As many as five communities may come together to pool resources and select a location or locations for the project.

  • Phase Two: Proposals, Coordination

Phase Two begins with a self-analysis of conditions in the communities, leading to a formal proposal that outlines goals and available resources (both material and human). This process of putting aspirations into written form solidifies the community member’s understanding of the tasks at hand and their capacity to work together.

Elections - South Kivu

Phase Two continues with field trips for the local elected leadership to provincial government ministries to engage leaders in local infrastructure development via school recognition, allocation of health professionals, etc.  These meetings are one of the most important steps in the Tuungane project: local leaders not only learn the process of working within existing governance systems, but they also begin to hold their local ministries to account.

  • Phase Three: Project Development

During Phase Three, communities begin to define the details of the construction project(s).  IRC representatives meet with the community to clarify the limits of the grant (between $12,000 and $19,000 depending on population).  If, for example, the community chooses to build a school, the number of classrooms, the materials choices, and the overall quality of construction are discussed. This means that the community can choose to build two classrooms with concrete block and iron sheets, or five classrooms with adobe brick and a thatched roof.  This exercise in cost/benefit analysis helps community members to make decisions about how they would like to spend their grant

Project Development

and to improve their community.

After materials are chosen and the scope of construction established, a bid request is issued in much the same way that it is done for any construction project in the rest of the world: construction timelines are outlined, and specific design drawings and material quantities are provided.  Contractors are notified via broadcasts on local radio stations, and through other local media. Once a minimum number of bids are submitted, elected officials meet with the community to open each bid to compare.  A rating system, provided by the IRC, helps ensure unbiased decisions.

If the community finds the bid estimates to be too high or otherwise undesirable, the community can opt to assemble its own construction effort.  IRC field personnel explain the pros and cons of these two options, along with the different financing structures.

By the end of Phase Three, everyone, from elected officials to each member of the community, has a complete understanding of what is expected.

  • Phase Four “A”: Construction

The first half of Phase Four covers the execution of the project.  Construction is monitored by IRC technicians and by the construction manager.  After predetermined milestones are reached, the contractor or the community asks for release of funds.  If agreed-upon milestones aren’t reached, the community may fire the contractor and hire another.  Most of the contractual language and construction monitoring methods follow the same models as are used in privately funded projects in the west.

When construction is complete, the contractor, the community and the construction coordinator sign off on the project, authorizing the final release of funds and progression to the last phase.

  • Phase Four “B”: Monitoring

The final phase begins with a series of monitoring exercises that take place 30 days after construction has been completed.  The community is given an outline that helps pinpoint any concerns about how the programs are being run.  Further, any staff that may be involved (for example, teachers or nurses) are given the chance to write their own reviews, one in response to the community and one outlining any administrative problems that have prevented them from doing their jobs.  This is followed by a series of meetings with the community, providing a forum for further problem solving.

It is the goal of the Tuungane program that these town meetings and election processes continue after the IRC staff have moved on to other communities. Some communities have since started subcommittees to address public health or maintenance of community spaces.  This unity has the potential to bloom into larger grass roots movements that can influence the national government.

Not every project has been successful. Since the IRC works with many communities in a very large territory, complete oversight is impossible. Money has found ways to disappear and contractors have abandoned projects.  When these problems occur, the communities are given a small time frame to come together to find a solution.  Some lose their chance participate in the program, while others commit to raising the funds themselves to replace what has been embezzled.

As this blog continues, I will be writing not only to document the progress of the Tuungane program, but also to comment on it as an architect: addressing design, construction, and community involvement.


3 responses

  1. Odon

    Thanks a lot IRC, for this major undertaking!

    Hope these efforts lead to good governance at the local and later at the national level. Ultimately, communities need to take their development in their own hands. When local communities learn to become critical to not only their national authorities but also to the International Community, then sustainable development can be triggered and implemented.

    It is worth recalling that the International Community is also major player in the collapse of the Congo as a nation, in addition to Congolese leaders themselves. Ill designed programs from the IMF and WB have led to a total destruction of the Health and Education sytems. “Western” support to a corrupt dictatorship and ineffective leaders in the Congo has not helped the country. Large appetite for minerals from the “West” is the underlying cause of the invasion and looting of the Congo through surrogate states neighboring Congo.

    Too much focus on the Easten Congo, while understandable for the reasons cited, is suspicious and worrisome. This situation will lead to uneven development of communities in the Congo and lead to further problems. Despite the lack of wars in the Western Congo, the situation is very much the same and communities have the exact same needs for roads, health care, education etc…

    Any trip begins with a step and may this project be this first and much needed step towards a modern and truly independent Congo!

    February 14, 2012 at 10:18 pm

  2. Odon –
    Thank you so much for the comments. You are very right in bringing our attention to the fact that the international community has had a part in creating the problems that plague the Congo … and I have often reconsidered wether my work here in Africa is actually doing any good in the long term.
    The Tuungane program however seems to fall into lock step with my ideals and goals for the communities I work with and for the region as a whole.
    Stay tuned – and look forward to documenting the ins and outs of these community driven processes.

    February 16, 2012 at 4:28 pm

  3. Pingback: Forcing debt upon local entrepreneurs « afritekt

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