The credibility problem of United Nations official statistics on Internally Displaced Persons by Gloria Nguya and Dirk-Jan Koch

Our research, notably Gloria Nguya’s PhD research, which she recently defended at the ISS, focused on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in urban settings in eastern DRC, particularly Bukavu and Goma. Bukavu and Goma are provincial capitals of the Kivus with about 25 years of instability. According to the latest United Nations figures there are exactly 25.619 IDPs in Bukavu[1]. These very precise figures have surprised us, because when we started our field research we noted that there was a large confusion about who should be counted as an IDP. During our research we found people who considered themselves IDPs, even though they were just regular migrants according to official definitions. Others who thought they weren’t IDPs were actually IDPs according to these official definitions. In this blog we single out one key crucial question to which there are so many contradicting responses: ‘When is somebody no longer an IDP?’.

During the field research, we encountered confusions on when somebody is no longer an IDP. Whereas some actors, such as local NGOs, argued that somebody couldn’t be labelled an IDP anymore if he or she could rent a house, others argued that one remains an IDP as long as one has specific unmet needs related to their displacement. Partly because of this problem of identifying IDPs in urban areas, we noticed that virtually all international organizations stopped targeting IDPs in their urban programming altogether. They would focus only on general vulnerability criteria, such as a housing situation. They omitted specific IDP needs related to their displacement status, such as trauma, access to documents or to remedy. This is worrying, as the plight of IDPs is an important element used by agencies to attract attention and funding.

Overall, the main inconsistency relates to methodologies: whereas in reality there are substantial differences in when an IDP is counted as such by humanitarian actors in the field (especially in urban areas), the UN data gloss over these differences. To arrive at the number of 25.619 IDPs the UN only included people that were displaced in 2016, 2017 and 2018. So, if you are a displaced person from 2015 or before, you are no longer counted in the statistics. This is too bad for you; however, the interesting thing is that as such this cut-off point goes against the definition that the UN itself supports. The Guiding Principles on internal displacement do not mention anything about a duration, quite to the contrary: an IDP remains an IDP as long as no durable solution has been achieved (global report on internal displacement 2019, p. 68). Well, for the IDPs in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) these principles do not appear to hold: IDPs prior to 2016 in the DRC fall hence between stools.

We do not argue that the numbers provided by the UN are too high, or too low: we also do not know. In our research we noticed that to determine if somebody is an IDP according to the UN definition one needs to engage in conversations with the potential IDP in terms of the origin of the move, their needs or issues. The methodology that the UN has used, notably asking key informants, such as neighborhood leaders, instead of potential IDPs themselves, isn’t accurate enough according to us.

Luckily there is an interesting initiative from the United Nations Statistical Commission. They have launched an Expert Group on Refugee and IDP statistics in 2016, who finished their first report. Their sobering finding is that, while agreement on the IDP definition exists, ‘less agreement exists on when an IDP should stop being counted as displaced. Most states do not follow the definition and framework […] variations in state practice are widespread, making international comparability difficult.’ In 2020 they should have finished their guidelines (amongst other on how to measure ‘durable solutions’) and have started capacity building to roll them out (IMDC, 2019, p.56).  So, there is a hope that better IDP statistics will become available in the future if the United Nations and their backers follow through on their intentions.

To conclude, we feel that instead of creating some kind of fake sense of certainty, the United Nations may better admit that they only have rough guesses on the number of IDPs. We argue this because the confusion about IDP numbers does not only affect programming, but it also affects the relationship between the host government and the humanitarian actors, which has repercussions on the sustainability of humanitarian efforts on the ground. The DRC government even boycotted the DRC pledging conference in 2018 because the numbers weren’t correct, ‘the high numbers of displaced people are frightening investors, and the country is much more dependent on investment for development than development aid’ said the DR Congo’s Minister of Communications. By being more transparent about the challenges of IDP statistics, the UN has a clear argument about why more investments are needed in creating better displacement monitoring guidelines and mechanisms. Until these are in place, it is only better to have a moratorium on coming up with specific IDP numbers.

[1], p.2

About the authors:


Gloria Nguya has just completed her PhD in livelihoods strategies of Internally Displaced Persons in Urban Eastern DRC at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

pasfoto DJ Koch.jpg


Dirk-Jan Koch is professor by special appointment for International Trade and Development Cooperation at the Radboud Univeristy in Nijmegen and Chief Science Officer at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Elections in the DRC: Compromises, surprises and the ‘game of gambling’ by Delphin Ntanyoma

The results of the general elections recently held in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after being delayed for two years show interesting developments. The opposition remained weak despite rallying together, and the Catholic Church came to play a pivotal role. This post explores the ‘gambling game’ through which these elections have been compromised by surprises. The far-fetched results of the presidential elections will unlikely contribute to the DRC’s long-term stability.

The recent elections held in the DRC were characterised by the high number of candidates running for vacant positions: 23 presidential candidates (of whom 21 finally contended for this position), and about 15,000 candidates vying for 500 seats in the national assembly. At the provincial level, more than 19,000 candidates competed for 780 seats.

But the debates and the media’s coverage of the elections that took place at the national and provincial levels  focused mostly on the presidential elections, as this is the center of Congolese politics and power struggles. Whoever controls this position will certainly have an upper hand. Based on the provisional results announced at the beginning of this year, Felix Tshisekedi Tshilombo, one of three contenders, has been declared the winner, beating Martin Fayulu Madidi and Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, a candidate of the ruling coalition (Front Commun pour le Congo). The latter is widely described as the ‘dauphin’ of departing president Joseph Kabila.

Kabila’s departure

Many observers were surprised by Joseph Kabila’s decision not to run for a third term, even though the DRC’s Constitution does not allow for the extension of presidential rule beyond a second term. Many thought and predicted that Kabila would maneuver to extend his period of rule. Though he had not publicly announced this intent, he made many moves that hinted at attempts to contend again.

But in early November last year, nearly two years after Kabila’s second term ended in December 2016, he expressed willingness to cede power by nominating his ‘heir’, Ramazani Shadary. Few had predicted this scenario. Understanding this choice of Kabila of not running for the third term, one however cannot rule out the pressure and leverage of the international community but also that of regional organisations such as SADC and the African Union.

The persisting weakness of the opposition

While uncertainties were surfacing around elections, the Congolese opposition parties had been struggling to establish a strong scheme through which they could work together, with all of them rallying behind Fayulu as a united candidate. However, Felix Tshisekedi and Vital Kamerhe decided to break away from the agreement, opening a breach to a rift within these opposition political parties. As this withdrawal expressed once again weaknesses within the Congolese opposition, observers could predict a breach through which the ruling coalition could easily influence the electoral process, hence declaring their candidate as the winner.

Since the Peace agreement in DRC in 2002, there seems to be a bunch of surprises and compromises in Congolese politics. Nonetheless, the announcement of Felix Tshisekedi as the new president is seemingly the compromising ‘gambling game’ for the short-term future.

The Catholic Church as saving grace

The delayed electoral process was saved through the intense involvement of the Catholic Church in December 2016, when the elections were originally intended to take place. Via the Congo National Episcopal Conference (Conférence Episcopale Nationale du Congo: CENCO), the failure to organise elections had been ameliorated by reaching an agreement led by Catholic Bishops in Kinshasa. The Catholic Church managed to bring on board opposition parties that had dismissed previous consultations. Moreover, the agreement helped to set up an agreed electoral calendar and eased tensions. Though widely interpreted, the agreement advocated finding a compromise over ‘political prisoners’ and those under prosecution for likely politically oriented motives.

The Catholic Church is among the few institutions and organisations whose actions in the DRC are influential, with the Church wielding power countrywide. The Church is among the few providers of public services in a fragile state setting. It deployed approximately 40,000 observers during the recent elections. And being largely embedded in local communities, it has much leverage and influence to gather information from the polling vote.

Problems with the voting procedure

The voting procedure also reveals the struggle for true representation of the Congolese people. Since 2011, the general election would be won by achieving a simple majority instead of an absolute majority. Among the top three, the announced elected president won 7,051,013 votes (38.57%), while the second on the list, Martin Fayulu, obtained 6,366,732 votes (34.83%)—a difference of 1.7%. Moreover, the participation rate in this election has been estimated to be around 47.56%, meaning that 52.44% of the population did not vote. Winning this presidential election by such a small margin facilitates a discussion on how excluded territories could have been a ‘game changer’.

A ‘gambling game’

Remarkable about the Congolese elections is the role of the church. While the government blocked all international involvement and did not allow observers, the churches have been the binding factor that enabled the election and organised the observers. It shows the relative strength of civil society in the country that is characterised by a severely fragile state. Even though this has probably helped to avert large-scale violent conflict (at least until now), it has not resulted in an uncontested outcome. Instead, one could suspect that the announced results are a ‘gambling game’ that characterises the elite class in the DRC. In most cases, these types of ‘gambling games’ end up with elites making deals to access large shares of the pie to the detriment of its citizens. Notwithstanding all the challenges presented above, these developments could lead to more violence in the future.

Image Credit: MONUSCO Photos/R56A9909


About the author:

Delphin Ntanyoma is a PhD Researcher in Conflict Economics at the ISS. On his blog, he writes about developments in the Eastern DRC.