Life in Mole Refugee Camp in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been dramatically changing in the last few months for 13,000 refugees from Central African Republic. When the World Food Program (WFP) decided to end food distributions, and introduce cash grants instead, somebody should have guessed all hell could break loose.
The WFP can spin it in any direction they like, but people can’t eat money. This is a cautionary tale of micro-capitalism with a bad ending still brewing.
Speaking to Céline Schmitt, a reporter with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), Patrick N’Gocko, a 25-year-old refugee representative discusses the new change. “Food distribution was always chaotic; some food was missing. Now [with the grants], everyone receives their cash without any problem.”
Just two months earlier, the market in Mole refugee camp was half-empty, even on Saturdays. Now, however, Saturday mornings are bustling at the market. Vendors sell everything imaginable, from vegetables and other produce, to meat and fish, clothes and cosmetics, and even household items, including electronic equipment.
Selling a Dream of Self-Sufficiency
The newly-generated capitalist economy is selling the refugees a dream of self-sufficiency. And it seems to many that they are really living the dream. N’Gocko said that the new cash grants were responsible for funding 50 to 60 percent of the shops in the refugee camp. Even the nearby villagers were coming to the camp to sell their goods, because of the increased trade traffic generated. He told Schmitt, “Goods are sold very quickly because the refugees have money.”
A mother of two, 52-year-old Antoinette Vougbou, makes fish with chickwangue, a starchy sweet cassava dish, which she sells at the market. Smiling at Schmitt, she said, “I’ve been running my business for a month.” Many of the refugees use the cash grant to pay for their own needs and use what’s left to run a small business.
Cue the fan, this is where things start heating up in the kitchen.
Food Prices and Malnutrition are Steadily Rising
When refugees receive cash grants, some buy items they could not previously afford, like clothes, household goods, or leisure items. Smaller proportions of money is going towards the purchase of food. And smaller proportions of food are being purchased, because prices for everything are steadily rising every day.
Malnutrition is steadily rising, too, especially among nursing mothers, and children under five. Less food is available now, with the growing consumerism and rising rate of inflation. N’Gocko admits there is a link between rising malnutrition and the cash grants program. “Before when food was distributed,” he said, “there was automatically something to eat.”
Money, Alcohol, Violence, and Crime
Nowadays there may be not as much to eat in the camp, but there is plenty more to drink.
Alcohol has become a concern in the camp, because, as it turns out, people with money – especially men – are more likely to buy it. This is a concern already on UNHCR’s radar, because it is well documented that alcoholism negatively affects families, and impacts the safety of those living in the camps.
Money woes, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, neighborhood crime… Seems more like a nightmare than a dream. Could it get any worse?
Jumping Out of the Frying Pan, and Into the Fire
Well, yes, in fact, it could. Jumping from the frying pan into the fire, the kitchen is about to go up in smoke. Funding for the World Food Program is running out, and the WFP says it will have to suspend cash grants with immediate effect, if it does not receive fresh funding. Refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo could be left without food, or cash.
Can anyone imagine what will happen when the alcohol runs out?
Stefano Severe, UNHCR’s Kinshasa-based regional representative is trying to put a positive spin on the situation, even in the face of obvious calamity. “While we have seen significant improvements in the life of the Central African Republic refugees since the introduction of cash grants to replace food distribution,” he said, “their suspension could have a very negative impact.”
Severe added, “Therefore, we renew our call to donors to continue to support the provision of cash grants and assistance to Central African Republic refugees despite increased humanitarian needs worldwide.”
A shipment of arms could probably be diverted from Syria… maybe that would bring even more “significant improvements” to refugees of the Central African Republic.
(Image note and source: March, 2014: CAR refugees in Mole refugee camp DRC, by Celine Schmitt, UNHCR)
Study? That was back in the good old days before cash. The World Food Program says what the CAR refugees really want is more beer. That ought to help.
(All images original source: UNHCR)