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Three Days in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Wednesday, 22 Jun 2016

The following are the candid reflections from VisionFund’s Resource Development Director, Don Haszczyn, after a recent trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC):

Just days after VisionFund International (VFI) and Opportunity International (OI) jointly announced a new partnership in the DRC, I was on a plane with a key supporter to visit our newly acquired microfinance institution (MFI), as well as witness some of World Vision’s child development programmes in the Kinshasa region.

As we travelled, I was struck by the thought that it is one thing to say as a Christian mission that we are called to walk with the poor in the most challenging environments in the world, but it is another to actually do it. Personally and for many of our staff this has meant the need to go through rigorous security training, and it is not without a sense of slight trepidation that I set off for the DRC.

The DRC is Africa’s largest country by size and one of its richest in terms of natural resources. Despite its obvious beauty, the DRC remains both a poor and fragile state. The country ranks 165th out of 166 on the United Nations’ Human Development Index and 154thout of 175 on the global corruption index. Whilst statistics don’t do justice to the individual tragedies represented, 77% of the people live on less than $1.90/ day, and there are 2.7m internally displaced people and 220,000 refugees in the country. One third of all girls have received no education, and the same percentage of all children are literate only to grade six. Other major problems particularly affecting children include recruitment of child soldiers into gangs and as child labour. It is hard to fathom this is happening in our world today, when children should be at school, at play and at peace.

After arriving at my hotel in the early hours, we were soon off to visit World Vision’s National Office Team, followed by OI DRC’s Headquarters Team in the capital of Kinshasa. At each visit we were struck by the ambitious vision and plans laid out by our leadership team. An incredibly committed and talented group of staff was working diligently to get the MFI up and running in Kinshasa, while working to expand operations to provide services across this vast country.

Scott Lout, the World Vision National Director, explained that the organisation had been working in the DRC since 1984, impacting 4.5 million children each year, and now operates in six of the 11 provinces across the DRC, including running a humanitarian response programme in the east of the country where militia, gangs and child soldiers are still an unfortunate reality. My initial impressions of the capital of Kinshasa over the three days were quite positive, the people were very friendly, hard-working, entrepreneurial, and the city looked well developed especially around the main boulevard that ran all the way to the airport. It was later explained, that due to a lack of infrastructure, many common commodities normal in the West had to be flown in causing an incredibly expensive mark-up. I decided, after this, that foods I was familiar with would need to take a back seat to more local fayre like plantain, vegetables, goat and even crocodile.

On our second day, we visited World Vision’s Area Development Programme in Maluku, some 60 kms from Kinshasa along the Congo River. Here we learned about World Vision’s Capacity Building Programme of local community groups and NGOs, and the launch of the World Vision Village Savings Group Model through developing and training 20 initial groups. We were impressed by the entrepreneurial talent fostered through social enterprise business models and the expansion of the village savings numbers in the community to more than 50 groups. Each potential borrower then went on to present a request for a loan to expand their enterprises. Our new director, Jacques Loms, was there with us to explain how the process would work and our plans to open a branch with properly qualified loan officers within the vicinity. I was left thinking that World Vision had laid a solid foundation to build our group lending approach, as well as deepen the impact of our work through the ongoing support and training services that the organisation continues to provide.

As we left the DRC and I flew into the darkness over this massive country, I began to better understand the size of the task we are taking on. I am convinced though that we have the beginnings of a future flagship MFI in Africa, one that will be focused on our mission of transforming the lives of poor families and children in one of the most challenging environments on earth. As VisionFund’s chief fundraiser, I am also thinking about how we raise the remaining $5.6m we need to fund our first three-year plan. I wouldn’t be a very good fundraiser if I didn’t end with that now would I?