Jim Hocking: How best to deliver aid in the Central African Republic

Recent fighting in the Central African Republic has got the United Nations worried. The crisis, according to officials, threatens not just the country’s stability but also the region’s.

That situation, if you ask Jim Hocking, is not exactly new.

“What I can tell you from the perspective of someone who has spent their entire life in this country,” he told Devex, “is that the situation in CAR is basically the same as it has ever been.”

Hocking first came to the Central African Republic in 1957, when he was only 3. His American missionary parents brought him along to take up an assignment working with youth in the southwestern region of the country, which at that time was still a French colony.

As the adage goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. After serving 20 years in a mission agency, Hocking founded the Integrated Community Development international, an organization mainly staffed by locals that drills and maintains wells to give Central African villages access to clean water.

While Hocking no longer lives inside CAR, he and his family have made numerous trips there since the end of the 2002-2003 civil conflict. We asked the ICDI founder and CEO to share his insights about the challenges and best practices of working there. Click on the above video for more on his story.

The United Nations says the Central African Republic is at risk of becoming a “failed state.” How has the situation progressed over the past few months in terms of aid delivery?

I understand that aid organizations want and need to capitalize on this latest row in CAR to try to bring attention to the dire situation in which people live in this country … What is closer to the truth is that this country has been progressively deteriorating for as long as I can remember.

There have been large parts of this country, east and north, where the humanitarian situation has been in crisis for many years — long before this latest crisis. What is different now is that those troubles have now expanded across the entire country.

So to aid workers who arrived in the country a couple of years ago, this feels like a new and escalating crisis — and to some degree, that is true. But for someone like me who has lived out his life in this country and for my African colleagues who live around CAR, this feels very familiar.

CAR is largely ignored by the world. CAR is a recipient of aid. Aid comes and goes. But nothing seems to change.

I must say that ICDI has enjoyed a very harmonious relationship with the government. We’ve always figured out a way to keep doing what we exist to do: provide water that lasts.

What are the main challenges of working inside the country?

The main challenges we’re facing today have been there for many years — it’s just getting more difficult.

It’s difficult to move funds into and around the country. Since the start of this war in January, banks in the western part of the country where our main drilling base camp is located have been closed.

Transportation is difficult, especially during the rainy season, when the dirt roads turn to mud. Moving supplies by land from Douala Cameroon — the only shipping port really available to the CAR — to Berberati requires traveling over 1,000 miles of unimproved roads. Crossing a border during war times is not easy but is possible with skilled negotiators, which has been demonstrated by the ICDI staff. We’ve brought in two shipping containers of supplies since the rebellion.

But you know I couldn’t be in this business if I saw the challenges of a place like CAR as nothing but problems. So I like to think of the flip side of that coin, and talk about opportunities. I work with over 100 absolutely amazing and dedicated Central Africans, who, despite the complications they face, have brought clean or safe water to well over half a million people over the years. ICDI has chosen to train national staff and use not only drillers, geologists, welders, mechanics, managers, transit agents, finance officers and trainers, but also even our drivers and security guards who are Central Africans.

[Amid] poor infrastructure, logistical and supply chain complexities, sustainability problems, etc., these guys wake up every morning, and spend their days — and sometimes nights — working to bring lifesaving water to their own people. So for example, while it is a challenge to do the fairly complicated process of drilling a borehole well when you’re deep into the Central African countryside hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles from the nearest source of supplies, making sure we have the parts we need, making sure the drill rig, compressor, fuel, water testing equipment, cement slab supplies, pump install supplies, and trained technicians all converge at the right time and point to do the drill. It has been very satisfying to watch Central Africans seize this opportunity to build water infrastructure that lasts for their country.

I would urge the international community to focus on empowering the Central African staff that we and others have on the ground, allowing them to care for more of the everyday running of the programs which could provide the often missing consistency in the programming. Too often there are complete changeovers in the leadership of NGOs in the Central African Republic. Few expats want to live there for long — and I do understand that. But each changeover requires a huge learning curve for the new leader as he of she is forced to re-evaluate whom to work with and who really knows what is happening in the “development” or “aid” world.

What steps are you taking to address security concerns?

The limitation to our activities is more in the hands of our national staff. There have been times when the security situation is so difficult that our staff have had to dismantle and hide vehicles as well as seek refuge in forest areas or in their fields. However, as long as the national staff is ready and willing to work, we will do our best to secure contracts to keep them on the road, drilling and repairing wells.

We discuss with our national staff how they feel about security and if there are things that we can do as an organization to help with those issues. For the most part, most of our staff feel that the less attention they draw to themselves, the better. Traveling with convoys or having some type of formal security company does not seem to be helping except with very large organizations where they are able to handle the financial burden of that type of convoy or security protection.

Logistics is complicated. We source from the USA, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Dubai, India, France, etc. The nice thing about our work is that we are a development organization focused largely on water provision and water sustainability, so we run a drilling or rehab implementation organization plus a circuit rider preventative maintenance and repair program. The nice thing is that it is African-led and African-run on the ground. We have about a dozen staff (like myself) who don’t live in CAR, but we largely occupy our time with things related to funding, representation, quality control, etc. We speak with Central African teams, being managed by Central African managers, who are at work drilling and maintaining water infrastructure around the country.

Despite serious setbacks and looting during the March rebellion, our teams were back on the road drilling and repairing wells by May. Since then, they’ve already provided water to over 30,000 people. Our staff on the ground decides when it is safe to move and when it is not. They tell me. And so far, they have been very good at knowing how to address the obvious security complications facing the country right now.

Again, logistics is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity, in the sense that Marcellin, our lead driller, is an amazingly accomplished shopper when he goes to Dubai to source equipment, vehicles, parts or when ICDI staff travel to Cameroon to source the supplies, bring shipping containers in through customs, figure out transportation solutions, etc.

We’re not just about aid — we’re focused on development, finding solutions that last for the long haul. And we believe this means giving Central Africans the tools and training to develop solutions that work for them.

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About the author

  • Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.