The Question of International Aid

How a documentary about a radio station provides a window into aid policy in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

A patient at the health clinic in Bunyakiri, DRC. (Morgana Wingard via USAID Flickr.)

In 2013, Alkebu Film Productions released a 34-minute documentary, ‘Mabele na biso’ (Our Land), that profiles a community in the Isangi region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that has staunchly refused to be controlled by international aid. Within the matrix of extraordinary initiatives organized in this region, the film focuses primarily on the Mabele Community Radio, that not only offers local programming, but is powered by a generator fueled by locally produced palm oil. Through its programs, the radio has made significant impacts in the domains of education, agricultural production, women’s rights, and health. As such the radio emerges almost as a character of its own in the film’s larger critique of international aid in Africa. Yet, while the radio is an admittedly inspiring example of community empowerment, the analysis of aid policy offered by key figures in the region is arguably the most compelling aspect of this project.

And this is precisely where things get complicated, for this is a project that both criticizes international aid and is–at least in part–funded by it. What follows is a brief reflection on this film and the ways in which the process of its creation and its potential future shed light on some larger questions of international aid. Here’s the film’s opening scene:

The project that became ‘Mabele na biso’ has two beginnings. First, in 2010 France Expertise International (FEI) and Radio France International (RFI) Monde partnered with Isangi-based GOVA (Groupement des Organisations Villageoises pour l’Auto-développement) to supply a generator that had been converted to run on palm oil. By drastically decreasing dependence on petrol (which is expensive to purchase and must be transported to the remote radio station by small pick-up trucks), the new generator more than tripled the airtime for Mabele Community Radio. As GOVA (founded in 1992) is a program that insists on autonomy and self-sufficiency, this partnership avoided many of the characteristic pitfalls that accompany so many international aid efforts. Indeed, the conversion of the generator was a successful response to a local need that did not involve a foreign organization imposing its ideas and practices on reluctant locals. Instead, this project struck a rare balance in which FEI and RFI Monde applied international technological expertise to support an initiative that had been identified as a real need by GOVA and the local community. As such, this project has many of the illusive qualities of a ‘win-win’ situation: Mabele Community Radio is materially improved by extended operating hours, reduced costs, and self-sufficient products, while FEI and RFI Monde get the satisfaction and publicity of having administered responsible aid.

Except, however positive, radio publicity in a comparatively remote region of Congo does little for the larger constituents of organizations based in France. Thus, through one of its Congo-specific sub-projects (Médias pour la démocratie et la transparence en RDC) FEI decided to support the production of a documentary film about the generator project. According to FEI’s mandate, the film was supposed (1) to profile and thus bring greater international attention to the generator project, and (2) to be directed and produced by a Congolese filmmaker. FEI’s choice to award the contract for this film to Petna Ndaliko Katondolo was, in effect, the second beginning of Mabele na biso.

Selecting Mr. Ndaliko in particular to direct this film has a number of implications.

Mr. Ndaliko is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker and activist who is best known for his potent social critiques, his insistence on a new paradigm of representing Africa, and for creating a growing movement of artist-activists in the east of Congo. As a steadfastly independent filmmaker with a reputation for refusing any funding that comes with editorial control, associating Mr. Ndaliko with this story not only yields a specific aesthetic language, but also, to some extent offers FEI greater legitimacy by association. Without retreating too far into cynicism, it is clear that in this circumstance, Mr. Ndaliko’s history of insisting on independence amounts to cinematic capital of a sort for FEI as a foreign organization.

At the same time, this story provides a platform for Mr. Ndaliko as a ‘local’ director to offer a rare perspective and alternative to some of the increasingly urgent problems associated with international aid. That this latter possibility was enticing enough to prompt Mr. Ndaliko to accept FEI’s contract speaks to the personal nature of his interest in making a film exposing a different view of aid. Indeed, in his Director’s Statement he says,

Growing up in Goma, North-Kivu, I have had occasion to witness the hegemony of aid organizations on local communities and the devastation that over-dependence on aid can leave in its wake. This story has the potential to not only stand as an example of the possibilities that can come of resisting aid, but also to serve as a model for a larger dialogue. My hope for this film is that it contributes to providing a different perspective on the relationship between aid donors and recipients, a perspective that will challenge both groups to develop new policies.

The aim to provide a different perspective on aid and thereby effect policy is, for Mr. Ndaliko, a multi-directional goal. Indeed, beyond the obvious issues of challenging the conception and implementation of many projects, Mabele na biso also shifts the dialogue by offering a concrete and well-substantiated example of international aid within a grounded and specific context. This approach itself stands in stark contrast to the more abstract ethos of popular criticism that generates such a flurry of social media buzz and such a clear absence of anything else.

Clearly, for Mr. Ndaliko this film has the potential to make a significant social contribution in one of the more fraught aspects of life in ‘developing’ nations. Yet, working with him in my capacity as a primary researcher for Alkebu Film Productions, we became increasingly aware of deeper ironies at work in this project. For instance, while it is perfectly logical that FEI would choose to focus the film on their own contribution to the region (the generator), within hours of arriving in Isangi, we began to discover a host of other GOVA projects that were frankly even more compelling and would better make the point about international partnership with rather than dependence on foreign organizations. Yet, because the generator had the backing of a larger international organization, its story superseded mention of, say, GOVA’s higher education program that has paid university tuition and housing for over forty young men and women since 2002, or the locally funded network of medical services that includes the construction of hospitals, the training of medical staff, the collection of medical supplies, and the recent addition of an emergency transportation system. So, while on the one hand we were able to push the boundaries of our contract by going into greater depth about the programmatic and historic content of Mabele Community Radio than about the generator itself, all the while we were painfully aware that numerous other projects that rely exclusively on local organizing and funding do not have the means with which to bring their achievements to a broader audience. In short, despite the comparatively positive stance FEI takes toward foreign aid, even when doing ‘good’, the power of international funding is still a double-edged sword at best.

A second irony we encountered with this project was the time limit FEI put on the film. While it is in some senses a minor detail, this limitation in format diminished the film’s potential to serve as an educational document and increased its salience as a fundraising tool for an already powerful organization. This is, of course, a known risk with any commissioned film and did not come as a surprise. It remains, however, an indication of the subtle ways in which foreign institutional policies have the power to shape global narratives without committing the kinds of major transgressions that bring bad press. In this instance, limiting the film to 30-minutes not only limited the focus to the radio, but also indirectly elevated FEI’s role in the region by giving it proportionately greater attention than it would have received had we had the freedom to discuss GOVA in greater length. For, placed side by side, the accomplishments of FEI would not compete with those of GOVA, yet, as the proverb tells us, the hunt will always glorify the hunter until the lion gets his own griot. Or, in other words, access to the financial means with which to make a film allows for control of narrative and thus of global opinion.

A third irony arose at the very end of post-production, when, upon final review of the film, FEI instructed us to include a standard disclaimer at the end of the film stating that all content and opinions were strictly those of Alkebu Film Productions (and not of FEI). While on the surface this statement is in fact true (we did not include anything that was not our opinion), it does not account for the significant omissions, which shaped the film as profoundly as the material that was included. Among the most salient omissions was a powerful interview with Samuel Yagase, founding member of GOVA, in which his analysis of international aid policies positions him as an expert on foreign organizations. When he states, for example, that part of GOVA’s objective is to “aider les européens à arrêter leur aide” (to help Europeans stop giving aid), he shifts the traditional power dynamics that designate ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’ and threatens the established dominance of aid organizations. Indeed, it is one thing to insist that foreign organizations need to listen to the local people when administering aid, but it is another thing altogether to insist that local people ought to have a voice in determining how international organizations function in their Western countries of origin.

Beyond ignoring omissions, the disclaimer mentioned above also obscures the motivations and roles of all participants involved in the film. By simultaneously designating the generator as the focus of the film while also suggesting the film exclusively represents the opinion of Alkebu Film Productions, FEI subtly capitalizes on Mr. Ndaliko’s existing reputation as a champion of local autonomy. For if he has made a film celebrating Mabele Community Radio and thereby endorsing its international partners, then they, FEI and RFI Monde, must indeed be enlightened practitioners of responsible aid.

And, to a certain extent they are. But one of the more powerful lessons from behind the scenes of Mabele na biso is that even projects about autonomy, even projects supported by comparatively non-invasive funders are, at the end of the day, still controlled (at least in part) from outside. This fact in no way diminishes the potency of Mr. Ndaliko’s optimism. Indeed, having worked on this film for nearly two years now, I believe his optimism is well warranted, as, in the final analysis of this project, there are significant gains. For if nothing else, this project (like any relatively successful instance of aid) has been a kind of mutually beneficial dance in which we each gradually advance our own interests while performing the requisite rituals of mutual appreciation. The final score: GOVA has its first international cinematic profile, FEI has a compelling documentary by an acclaimed Congolese filmmaker that confirms their relevance and uniqueness as a ‘good’ foreign donor, and Alkebu Film Productions has not only released a powerful film about an inspiring local project, but has gathered an arsenal of material with which to tell ‘the rest of the story.’ In this tally, GOVA and Alkebu are ultimately ahead, because the connection of two like-minded organizations working towards autonomy in Congo is an irrefutably strong platform on which to build future work. Furthermore, audience reception at the handful of screenings Mabele na biso has had indicates a clear appreciation for the film and interest in an extended version thereof. It seems scholars and students of Politics, International Studies, African Studies (to name a few fields) are hungry for narratives that complicate the standard critiques of aid through compelling and sustained examples. Beyond the story of the Mabele Community Radio, are there many among us who wouldn’t want to also know about the women who so powerfully control the local economy, have built houses in Kisangani to support the higher education initiative, and have challenged and ultimately overthrown gender-biased traditions? Or what about the growing trend of highly educated young people – men and women – breaking the ‘brain drain’ pattern and returning to the village to implement the fruits of their education? Or the network of locally sustained modern medical services developed in response to Doctors Without Borders’ failure to address sleeping sickness (among other diseases) in the region? Clearly, among both enthusiasts and skeptics, there is a market for such a film.

But even in the winning score there is another irony: precisely because they are dedicated to autonomous community development neither GOVA nor Alkebu has the financial means to produce the ‘rest of the story.’ So in a certain way we ended up in a strikingly similar place to where we began: we have identified a real need, we have the skills and capacity to meet that need, and are, alas, without precisely the sort of means offered by the very organizations whose participation in a narrative like this is likely to dilute its potency.

Further Reading

Congo blues

Until Joseph Kabila publicly recuses himself from running for a third term, many Congolese will be suspicious of any dialogue proposed by the government.