Nation & World

Local partners critical to HHI’s work

4 min read

In Congo and around the world, partners provide essential support, access

Denis Mukwege has his hands full. So do Justin Kabanga and Maria Bard.

The three each have leadership roles in nonprofits engaged in meeting the needs of people caught up in the fighting along the Rwandan border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, is the founder of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a general hospital that specializes in the treatment of women caught up in an epidemic of rape and violence that goes hand in hand with the region’s ongoing fighting.

Kabanga is the national coordinator for the Centre d’Assistance Médico Psychosocial (CAMPS), a Congolese nonprofit that provides social services and counseling for victims of the sexual violence. Bard is project manager for PMU Interlife, the humanitarian and development arm of the Swedish Pentecostal Church, which is aiding Panzi Hospital and which manages the hospital’s programs for survivors of sexual violence.

These organizations are struggling to meet the almost overwhelming needs of thousands of women who suffer sexual attacks in the DRC. They are so occupied with the humanitarian efforts, the groups have no time to collect and analyze the information that comes to them through their activities.

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), an interfaculty program based at the Harvard School of Public Health dedicated to bringing the strengths of Harvard’s various faculties to bear on the problems faced by humanitarian relief organizations, fills that gap. HHI brings researchers to the Congo to collect and analyze data in hopes of better understanding the problems there and designing programs and interventions by nonprofits and governments that could improve the lives of the region’s residents.

“[HHI] really helps us understand the problem of sexual violence and also the best ways to meet women’s needs as they go through treatment,” Mukwege said. “HHI is helping us handle some of the data at the hospital which has been a problem in the past. We’re searching for ways to collect and analyze all the data that comes in to the hospital.”

Kabanga, whose organization has worked with survivors of sexual violence for five years, said CAMPS would like to be able to analyze the data its work brings in, but staffers are too busy meeting the immediate needs of their clients. HHI’s involvement, he said, not only provides analysis but also — because of Harvard’s prominence — allows CAMPS’s work to have an impact at high levels of government.

Though HHI provides a missing research role, the partnerships are two-way streets. HHI Co-Director Michael VanRooyen, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and at Harvard Medical School and director of Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Division of International Health and Humanitarian Programs, said HHI would not be able to work without the help of its partners, both in the Congo and beyond.

HHI today is working in trouble spots around the world, including the Congo, Sudan’s Darfur region, and Chad. In each case, VanRooyen said, HHI’s researchers, fellows, and students are dependent on local partners — which in many cases are well-established relief organizations such as the Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, and Doctors Without Borders.

HHI relies on its partners for logistics and their knowledge of the local scene. In the DRC, Panzi Hospital provides an important base for HHI’s work on sexual violence and holds the records of thousands of assaults in recent years. The hospital’s ongoing programs for women who’ve been attacked — managed by PMU Interlife — give the researchers access to the women themselves, whose stories are told in focus groups.

A recent research initiative that entails interviewing members of the military groups responsible for the violence is heavily dependent on CAMPS’s contacts in the community and in the military command structure. Both VanRooyen and HHI Research Coordinator Jocelyn Kelly, a Harvard School of Public Health graduate, said their partnership with CAMPS provides them critical access they would be hard-pressed to replace.

“It’s a local organization with limited capacity for analysis, but they’re deeply integrated in the community. They’re so good, they give us tremendous access,” VanRooyen said. “Local partnerships to us are essential. Harvard and HHI are not NGOs. We don’t have a logistical structure. We don’t have a security structure. We don’t have offices and vehicles, so local partners are absolutely critical to our work.”