What can a Water Project in DRC tell us about Adaptive Management in fragile/conflict affected settings?

March 23, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

My last trip pre-Covid was to the DRC, to look at a water project in Goma, and the resulting research paper (co-authored with Patrycja Stys, Tom Kirk and Tom Mosquera) has just been published (yep, just three and a half years later). It charts an attempt by MercyCorps to drive change in a water sector that has massively failed citizens in the city through a project called IMAGINE. It’s a very complex story (lots of acroynms and tangled processes), but if you can dig down, I think it’s very revealing about how attempts to reform a crucial service sector do/don’t succeed in a ‘fragile and conflict-affected setting’ (FCAS).

It’s very hard to blog about such a nuanced, complex story. My co-author Tom Kirk introduces the paper’s focus on how ideas of adaptive management and public authority played out on the ground in a so-called ‘fragile and conflict-affected setting’ (FCAS) here. I’ll opt for one of the interesting attempts to conceptualise how things actually work in Congolese politics, via a ‘4 logics model’. Here’s the extract (I’ve deleted the innumerable references – see the original if you want those):

‘Our first logic is that of basic needs, and specifically, people’s need for water. A recent study of 24 households in Goma’s low (earning USD 2–3 or less per day) and medium socioeconomic strata found that water is the third largest monthly expenditure after food and education. Yet, acquiring it is an uncertain and, sometimes, risky activity with predatory providers prone to changing process and harassing women sent to pumps. The need for water also creates its own politics. As a civil society representative we interviewed put it: “Everything about water here is political. But for the population, water talks louder than politicians.” For civil society movements, such as Les Deboutistes, poor water provision has proved fertile ground for social mobilization. In 2018, members marched through Goma with empty jerrycans to highlight the plight of three underserved neighbourhoods. For politicians, water provision and infrastructure are important signals of their power. For example, in 2019 the DRC’s new president, Félix Tshisekedi, financed a pumping station on Lake Kivu next to a well-known public park and ensured that his name was prominently displayed on the building.

Our second logic is that of leisa punda (roughly “feeding the horse” in Lingala). It implies that unless one’s boss or an authority figure is well fed and happy, they will not provide opportunities for others. The feed consists of the more or less “official” taxes regularly charged to the DRC’s citizens. They include small fees for signatures and stamps on documents; tolls to pass checkpoints along roads; and anticipated contributions for public servants like water for police on a hot day or beans for the children of someone gatekeeping a service. These tracasseries (harassment or petty annoyances) are rarely discussed as corruption. Instead, they are matter of fact descriptions of how politicians, state officials, and a host of connected public authorities (e.g. fixers, customary leaders, protection groups, and faith-based organizations) must be motivated before citizens can access services.

Other commentators and our interviewees often use the term rapportage (reporting upwards) to describe similar dynamics. By one estimate, money collected in this way may be double what the Congolese state officially declares, and triple that contributed by donor organizations. Much of it travels along patronage networks to the powerholders in Kinshasa, with network members “eating” portions along the way. Most analysts also agree that if such practices were abruptly stopped the state would cease to function. Indeed, rapportage ensures street-level administrators and other public authorities, whose wages are often undelivered, are remunerated for their activities.

The third logic concerns the processes of negotiation, reciprocity, and respect that structure state actions in the DRC. It stems from a more recent literature that stresses how statehood in FCAS can often be the outcome of “co-operative conflicts”. These conflicts are rooted in the way colonial era state institutions were layered atop existing societies’ own, with little ability to enforce one set of rules over the other. Put another way, many FCAS have been described as suffering from “strong societies and weak states”. The result is a form of statehood under which every state activity, policy, or service delivered requires a lengthy negotiated agreement that reflects the ever-changing balance of power.

Those involved in the DRC’s negotiations evaluate one another’s power based on their formal statuses, access to resources and positions within wider patronage networks. Where this is not possible, it was argued by our interviewees that consulting everyone concerned—often a lengthy process—ensures potentially obstructive stakeholders are not offended. This accords with an ethnographic literature that suggests that personal relationships have taken on greater importance in the absence of state institutions able to enforce rules. However, negotiations can also be used to obscure the politics of leisa punda and to thwart unwanted demands for transparency, meritocracy, or reforms. Indeed, the politique de glissement (politics of slippage) or seemingly glacial progress is a well-known tactic for ensuring better negotiated outcomes.

We term the fourth logic, which IMAGINE attempted to propagate, the Washington Consensus. The Washington Consensus usually refers to a set of policy prescriptions championed by Western development agencies, in the 1980s and 1990s. Broadly, it held that commercial companies and competitive markets provide public goods more efficiently than states, that trade liberalization encourages specialization and attracts foreign investment, and that countries should not run large fiscal deficits. Some proponents of these ideas also argued that due to developing states’ multiple failures, the poor were already turning to unregulated commercial water providers. Accordingly, development organizations and international companies can play stewardship roles and assist the further privatization and professionalization of its provision.

Although long since challenged, the principles behind the Washington Consensus became increasingly identifiable in IMAGINE as it evolved. The programme initially sought to involve itself in the commercialization of water provision, thereby bucking the trend of humanitarians providing unsustainable emergency relief and REGIDESO (the state water agency) enjoying a natural monopoly.’

March 23, 2023
Duncan Green