Burundians at a refugee camp in Tanzania, along the border with Burundi. Photo by: EU / ECHO / Anouk Delafortrie /  CC BY-NC-ND

BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Working in Burundi is unpredictable. “You can go to sleep with a job and wake up without one,” according to a local aid worker employed by an international organization in the nation’s capital.

The 36-year-old, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said she was shocked when she woke up the morning of Oct. 1, 2018, to discover she’d become unemployed overnight.

At the end of September 2018, the Burundi government announced that all international organizations would be shut down until they could prove compliance with new guidelines. Among the stipulations issued that month was a request for an ethnic breakdown of local staff, according to aid groups and government documents seen by Devex. It was a troubling ask in a country ravaged by more than a decade-long civil war largely fought along ethnic lines between Hutus and Tutsis.

The aid worker based in Bujumbura regained employment when her organization was reinstated, although it didn’t comply with the guidelines, she said. She doesn’t know the specifics of the agreement the organization made with the government.

Turmoil for international aid groups in Burundi over ethnic quotas

A new requirement to share staff ethnicity data with authorities has left international NGOs in Burundi with a difficult decision. While some are complying, others have closed their doors.

But the Burundi government’s request is indicative of an emerging trend impacting many humanitarian responses, where “assertive authorities” are seeking, through regulation, to influence how humanitarian operations function, said Jeremy Taylor, regional advocacy advisor for East Africa and Yemen for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Aid agencies often have little leverage against authorities, and as a result, are faced with a difficult ethical challenge. If their operations are suspended, aid won’t be delivered to vulnerable people. But in order to deliver assistance, organizations might have to compromise their principles.

A tightening space

Burundi has faced political turmoil since 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a controversial third term. Widespread protests and violence erupted, and 350,000 people are taking shelter in neighboring countries, while the ruling party’s youth militia threatens anyone perceived of being associated with the opposition. Few civil society organizations operate in Burundi, and in June the government shut down one of the last remaining independent rights groups.

Recently, the ruling party has been making it harder for the international community to operate. Diplomats have to request permission nearly two weeks in advance if they want to travel outside of Bujumbura to visit other parts of the country. Even though more than 5.5 million confirmed malaria cases have been recorded since the start of the year — according to internal emails exchanged between the government and U.N. and seen by Devex — the government has refused to declare a malaria epidemic, which would provide additional resources. It also won’t endorse the latest food security report by the United Nations and aid groups released in April showing that 1.6 million people, 15% of the population, are facing hunger.

After the shutdown of international aid groups in October, organizations were closed for weeks and some for months. A handful managed to obtain reinstatement without agreeing to submit an ethnic breakdown of staff. Others complied with the regulations, and some organizations, such as Humanity & Inclusion, left the country. By December, 48 international NGOs were reinstated. Of those, approximately half had submitted statistics on the ethnic make-up and half did not, according to internal foreign embassy cables seen by Devex.

Humanitarians grappled with whether it was more important to stop working and stand by their principles or if ceasing to provide services would have a more detrimental impact. The cables show organizations taking varying approaches, with one that refused to comply, saying “If the [Burundi government] wants to know [ethnic breakdowns], it should carry out the survey itself.”

Politicians said the request for the ethnic breakdown was in order to adhere to the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, which ended the country’s civil war and put percentages on ethnic representations in government positions in order to maintain stability.

“Burundi’s political leaders have to ensure the climate for NGOs is good to work in, but NGOs also have to make the necessary efforts to integrate on the same page as the Burundians in the country, otherwise it’ll be difficult,” former Burundi President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya told Devex in an interview in Bujumbura in July.

Donors in Burundi were divided in their response. The U.S. Embassy told aid groups to comply with the rules, while the Dutch Embassy threatened to withdraw future funding from anyone that did, according to several aid workers familiar with the situation.

The internal cables detail some European embassies’ concern with reputational and political risk posed by operating in Burundi, while the U.S. said it came to a consensus with partners and other U.S. NGOs that compliance “was the only reasonable way forward.”

One foreign diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity said the U.S. Embassy sent an email to all USAID-funded partners asking them to share ethnic percentages. In a meeting, the U.S. ambassador at the time allegedly told international NGOs to find different ways of recruiting, including “maybe only advertising to Hutus,” said the diplomat. The ambassador equated it to affirmative action in the United States, the diplomat said.

The U.S. Embassy in Bujumbura didn’t comment on whether the previous ambassador told aid groups to comply with the guidelines, but a spokesperson told Devex that given the country’s history of ethnic tension, the U.S. has “concerns about the possible unintended consequences of this law” and “believes the ethnic provisions of Burundi’s NGO law do not support the spirit of non-discrimination.” The U.S. Embassy is encouraging partners, both overseas and in the U.S., to develop and enforce comprehensive nondiscrimination policies.

The European Union is closely monitoring the issue of imposed ethnic quotas on NGOs, and an EU spokesperson told Devex it has expressed its “rejection of nominal lists.”

“They don’t flat out say people need to be hired from a specific tribe, but the way they try and define local is how they manipulate recruitment.”

— Anonymous aid worker

Upholding humanitarian principles

The silver lining as a result of the 2018 suspension was that it created better coordination and communication in Burundi among NGOs and donors, according to several expatriates.

It was a reminder that NGOs should be prepared to use their own codes of conduct as a basis for how to position themselves when these situations arise. By contrast, donors often choose more discreet diplomacy to get the message across, which can be more effective yet less visible to external actors.

But the reality is that aid agencies have little leverage against authorities, said NRC’s Taylor. The lack of consistency from agencies when responding to pressure from authorities can be challenging, especially considering the difference between organizations in terms of budget size, international profile, or their ability to leverage international advocacy and push back on regulations that threaten their principles, he said.

Aid workers in similar contexts, such as South Sudan, have also experienced pushback by the government when it comes to hiring.

South Sudan’s 2016 NGO Act stipulates that 80% of staff need to be local and 20% can be international. Some aid groups say there have been times when these relationships at the local level have been tested, “including instances when they wanted to be involved in our recruitment process,” Nicolo Di Marzo, Oxfam deputy country director, told Devex. In March, the South Sudan Ministry of Labor, Public Service and Human Resource Development developed new guidelines for recruitment to address some of these challenges faced in the field, he said.

Yet even though the new guidelines state that NGOs employing people should not “discriminate against any applicant or employee directly or indirectly on the ground of region, race, religion, gender and political affiliation,” some aid workers say local governments indirectly push for people from the same tribe to gain employment and then give aid groups a hard time if they don’t adhere to the pressure.

“They don’t flat out say people need to be hired from a specific tribe, but the way they try and define local is how they manipulate recruitment and ensure that those from their immediate community are favored for any kind of job,” said an aid worker who wished to remain anonymous.

Last month, the aid worker’s South Sudanese staff weren’t allowed to work in part of the country because they weren’t recruited from the community. Ultimately, when aid workers are dictated to about who they can and can’t hire, the aid worked continued, it impedes impartiality and makes it difficult to uphold humanitarian principles.

Update, Sept. 18, 2019: This story has been updated to reflect that Handicap International now goes by Humanity & Inclusion.

About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.