The migration of Congolese workers to foreign organizations

In the province of South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo a multitude of local organizations operate in the humanitarian arena. Local agencies across South Kivu work to improve education, health, agriculture and economic outcomes, advocate for human rights and child protection, promote governance reform and more. Alongside these local organizations operate numerous international organizations that do similar work in comparable fields. This similarity is not without consequence. In this article I examine the consequences of a “brain drain” from local, Congolese organizations to international organizations. The DRC, I would argue, offers a telling case study of the broader global phenomenon of the challenge local civil society organizations face in retaining qualified staff attracted by higher pay and perceived career opportunities with international organizations.

The Congolese nonprofit/voluntary sector is a world of cooperation, one in which local associations collaborate with international organizations in project implementation, training sessions, workshops and so on. However, aside from this “horizontal,” or collaborative, relationship, there exists what might be called a “vertical” relationship. In the vertical  relationship, one side (normally, the international side) has the most access to donors, while the other side (Congolese organizations) is generally the recipient of technical and financial support. This vertical partnership is difficult to navigate: both parties seek to further their respective missions through this vertical relationship and neither party wishes to harm the other, yet unintended consequences can and do result.

Through these vertical partnerships, and the interactions resulting from them, staff members from Congolese associations familiarize themselves with international organizations and vice versa. As familiarity develops, the staff members from each organization learn to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of the other. At their best, these partnerships include mutual learning between Congolese and international organizations. However, in time, highly qualified and skilled staff of Congolese organizations become coveted by international organizations who can offer much more attractive employment contracts. This dynamic contributes to a noted “brain drain,” in which the most qualified workers from Congolese organizations migrate to international organizations to the detriment of local initiatives.

Because of legal restrictions, Congolese nonprofit associations do not receive state subsidies and are barred from engaging in for-profit activities. With local fundraising options within the DRC fairly limited, Congolese organizations must finance themselves through grants from external donors. Often, the funding they receive through these channels is insufficient for the activities that they wish to undertake. Local associations thus work with limited funds and, it follows, can only pay their staff according to the amount they obtain from donor organizations.

The structure of funding short-term projects can operate to the detriment of Congolese organizations. Often when a local association has finished executing a project, it must wait for further projects to be approved before more funding arrives. Between sending a project plan to a donor and the eventual receipt of funds for an approved project, associations can sometimes be forced to reduce the number of staff in their employ. Congolese organizations can and do seek to protect themselves against this danger by diversifying the number of grants they receive, yet funding core operational costs in order to provide employment continuity for key staff is a significant challenge for these organizations.

Beyond the international development agencies of particular countries (e.g. USAID from the U.S., DFID from the United Kingdom), one can identify two broad types of foreign organizations active in eastern Congo: first, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), or associations of states bound by treaty to fulfill certain functions of common interest, with permanent structures and legal personalities distinct from that of their member states; and second, international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), who receive funding from private and governmental donors. The best examples of IGOs are various United Nations agencies, such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Food Program (WFP). IGOs are created by states for the purpose of achieving specific goals and therefore benefit from ample budgets (at least in comparison to Congolese organizations). INGOs, meanwhile, have typically developed diverse, multifaceted funding streams (even as they also have to compete for funding from governmental and other donors) and so do not usually experience the lack of funding that local organizations regularly suffer.

Often IGOs and INGOs provide financial support to Congolese organizations. So, for example, the Human Rights section of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) provides grant support to the projects of several Congolese human rights associations.  In comparison to the staff of Congolese organizations whose projects they fund, IGO and INGO employees enjoy a raft of benefits, including (in some cases) diplomatic immunity, optimum living conditions and very high salaries. Not surprisingly, ambitious, qualified and motivated staff of Congolese organizations find it hard to resist the advantages offered by employment with IGOs and INGOs. But it is also no secret that INGOs and IGOs have limited mandates: their missions are not, at least in principle, open-ended.

This stands in stark contrast to Congolese organizations whose missions endure long after international organizations have pulled out. Unfortunately, though, these local organizations lack sufficient operating resources and so often lose their most skilled workers to the hefty salaries offered by international organizations. Congolese employed by foreign organizations are, for the most part, highly qualified and experienced.

Yet while these workers gained their extensive experience in Congolese agencies, international organizations rather than Congolese organizations benefit most from that experience.

To be sure, the “brain drain” effect is not limited to a shift of workers within a country. Often, skilled Congolese workers are transferred within international organizations to other countries, thus contributing to a flight of skilled workers from Congo.

In sum, the migration of workers from local organizations to international organizations is caused by:

• Lack of stable and sufficient funding for Congolese organizations, resulting in low salaries and job insecurity for the staff of those organizations.
• The constant search by international organizations for highly qualified and experienced Congolese staff.
• The various benefits of employment with an international organization, which cannot be matched by poorly-funded Congolese organizations.

The migration of skilled staff from Congolese organizations to international organizations has adverse consequences for the strength of Congolese civil society. The departure of qualified personnel can lead to reduced productivity. Irregularities in funding cycles often result in waves of workers leaving their organizations, and local agencies in turn often do not have the ability to hire new people. The reputations of local organizations also suffer, as waves of departures of qualified personnel discredit those organizations in the eyes of their donors.

How to address the negative impact of the migration of Congolese staff from local to international organizations? I would argue that the responsibility for this problem is shared among the IGOs and INGOs in Congo, with their policies related to funding for local, Congolese organizations bearing most of the blame. When the level of international donor funding does not allow for Congolese organizations to compensate their employees at a level that will convince them to stay with Congolese organizations, then IGOs and INGOs are, wittingly or unwittingly, contributing to brain drain. Given that Congolese organizations often do better work than their international counterparts (and have permanent mandates, instead of the limited mandates of many international organizations), donor governments and international agencies should search out opportunities to heighten their support for Congolese organizations in their missions.

Raphael Wakenge Ngimbi has worked in the field of human rights (where he specializes in transitional justice) for the past twenty years. He currently works at the Congolese Initiative for Justice and Peace.

For more, check out the Summer issue of Intersections on Conflict, Reconciliation and Partnership in Africa’s Great Lakes Region. 

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