U.S. group helps women in Congo by getting out of the way

Women participate in Hold-DRC's vocational training program in culinary arts. (Credit: Hold-DRC)

By April Simpson special to Humanosphere

International nongovernmental organization are often accused of failing to empower a local partner agency, choosing instead to retain power in the home base abroad. On top of that, they’re criticized for filling their ranks with foreigners when they could be far more effective by hiring local talent.

“That just sucks life out of a country, and it encourages a mentality that we can’t do anything without help or without a handout,” said Judy Anderson, executive director of Act for Congo.

Act for Congo, founded by Judy Anderson and her husband, Dick, takes a reverse approach to the typical development model. Their nonprofit is based in the U.S., composed entirely of volunteers, and sends its resources to a partner organization in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. Both longtime humanitarian aid workers, the Andersons serve as consultants – they call themselves “cheerleaders” – and invest in local expertise and ownership.

“They’re turning the process of how the West might normally help somebody in Congo kind of upside down,” said Robin Barnes, communications director of Act for Congo. “Dick and Judy are acting completely as helpers. They’re bridge builders.”

Act for Congo, founded in 2013, is the culmination of Judy Anderson’s upbringing and life’s work. She grew up in Congo, where her parents were educators. The Andersons married there, and worked across Europe, North America and Africa, including Rwanda, where Dick Anderson led relief efforts during the 1994 genocide.

The Andersons both worked at Heal Africa in Goma, a teaching hospital and Christian organization whose program areas include maternal and child health and education. Over time, its good work captured the attention of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

After a beloved founder passed away in 2012, numerous Heal Africa staff members moved on to start HOLD-DRC (Humanitarian Organization for Lasting Development-DRC). Among them was Modestine Etoy, who reached out to the Andersons for support.

“We’ll be your mouthpiece,” Dick Anderson told Etoy.

The Andersons started Act for Congo with HOLD-DRC as its founding partner. The organization is led and staffed by Congolese. With first-hand knowledge of the country’s problems, HOLD can have a bigger impact than international organizations, Etoy said.

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“Act for Congo helps us to have connections with other organizations who can support (us),” said Etoy, HOLD’s program manager. “They help us to connect, to help people to know about the work that Congolese can do.”

Among their efforts is a movement to change Congo’s policy of expelling girls from school when they become pregnant. These young women are typically shunned by their families, as well as the families of the fathers. Without a proper education, it’s difficult for them to earn a decent income.

Martha Desanges, a peer educator with HOLD-DRC, advises high school students in Goma on safe sex. (Credit: HOLD-DRC)

Martha Desanges, a peer educator with HOLD-DRC, advises high school students in Goma on safe sex. (Credit: HOLD-DRC)

“Isolated socially, emotionally, physically and spiritually, they’ve just been told they are ruined,” Judy Anderson said.

After a yearlong campaign, HOLD says its received support from 20 schools and educational institutions in Goma. Together, they approached the Ministry of Education, who’s asked HOLD to continue lobbying the schools that are still leery of policy change, Judy Anderson said.

The DRC is among seven countries that contribute to half of all adolescent births, according to the World Health Organization.

Other African countries are similarly wrestling with the issue. Sierra Leone, where one-third of pregnancies are among teenagers, is considering reversing a 2010 school ban on pregnant girls. Schools in Tanzania are known to routinely conduct mandatory pregnancy tests and expel pregnant girls.

In addition, HOLD helps vulnerable women navigate society’s challenges. More than 500 single mothers have completed its 7-month vocational training program in hospitality, tailoring or cosmetology, plus a state-administered exam to assist with job-hunting. The program educates women in human rights, basic health, early childhood education and how to run a business.

Women practice doing each others hair in a cosmetology training course provided by Hold-DRC in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Credit: Hold-DRC)

Women practice doing each others hair in a cosmetology training course provided by HOLD-DRC in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Credit: HOLD-DRC)

“That’s one of the appealing parts of HOLD and Act for Congo: Modestine’s programs,” said Sharon Howe, a former development director-western region with Friends of UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), who helps Act for Congo with fundraising. “If I give her $1,000, I know she is going to absolutely stretch it to the maximum. She gets so much more out of that $1,000 than anything I could do for her in the U.S. by sending her things.”

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However, the Andersons are quick to point out that they are not fundraisers.

“We’re not a fundraising organization,” Dick Anderson said. “Both Judy and I feel strongly we’re educators and advocates to share how change can take place in a difficult place by local people.”

“Whatever funding we receive is to support them,” he added.

Building HOLD into an internationally credible organization is among Act for Congo’s top priorities. In addition to supporting HOLD with capacity building, research, monitoring and evaluation, the Andersons say they’re committed to telling HOLD’s story.

In development, an organization’s marketing arm is typically dedicated to fundraising, and sends a photographer, journalist or film crew to gather content. Aric Mayer, a photographer and business professor at Western Washington University, is helping Act for Congo and HOLD share ownership. Although a story told in context in Congo may have meanings a western audience is unable to access.

“That’s where the facilitation or collaboration comes in,” said Mayer, a former creative director and digital strategist for Heal Africa. “Our job is to facilitate, to tell that story and edit it into a format that makes sense in a western context, and to the U.S. donor audience.”

Of course, there are tradeoffs. A strongly emotional appeal would likely bring in more money, but also have a “shallow penetration in donors’ lives,” Mayer said. Act for Congo’s strategy involves targeting a narrow segment in hopes of drawing long-time, engaged supporters.

From top to bottom, the Andersons want to change the development narrative.

“It’s not foreigners coming in to save the country,” Judy Anderson said. “It’s got to be the people of the country whose capacity is built. That’s the key difference.”

April Simpson

April Simpson

April Simpson is a South Florida-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times and International Business Times. As a 2010-11 U.S. Fulbright Scholar, April freelanced for U.S. media outlets and taught Media Studies at the University of Botswana, where she researched the development of online news media. 

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