Jason Beaubien, NPR, January 23, 2019
For 26 years, Handicap International has not only been providing crutches, prosthetics and wheelchairs to people with disabilities in Burundi, it has also been a leading advocate for people with disabilities in the country. Much of its work has focused on helping people get physical therapy, accessible housing and jobs.
HI has been ordered by the government to stop its work in Burundi in a dispute over ethnic quotas. The government is requiring all foreign aid groups to commit to having 60 percent of their local employees be Hutus and 40 percent Tutsis – the quota for government agencies. The government is also demanding that foreign charities provide staff lists specifically identifying employees by their ethnicity. Rather than comply, Handicap International (which just recently changed its name to Humanity & Inclusion) is laying off all 105 of its local employees, shutting down its operations and pulling out of the central African nation.
The operation of dozens of other international aid groups remains suspended in a country where three-quarters of the population lives in poverty.
The government initiative began on Sept. 27, when the head of Burundi’s National Security Council, Gen. Silas Ntigurirwa, went on national television and said that foreign aid agencies were operating illegally in Burundi. “The National Security Council has decided to suspend all activities of these NGOs for a period of three months dating from October 1 to allow the institutions in charge of them to verify their compliance with the laws and rules in place,” the general declared.
Other charities that refused to go along with the new rules regarding ethnic quotas were told they were not allowed to work in the country in any way. “We were clearly told that if we do not share the ethnic origin of all our employees then we are not allowed to start again our operations,” says Dominique Delvigne, who oversees HI’s operations in Burundi as the group’s geographic director for the African Great Lakes region.
This clash between the government and foreign aid workers comes as tensions in the country have been escalating. Amnesty International says security forces routinely kill, abduct, torture and detain people. The economy is in a tailspin. Burundi posted negative economic growth for the last three years, according to the African Development Bank. In 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza defied term limits and won a controversial third term. Last year, the Central African nation quit the International Criminal Court and ejected the BBC and VOA. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled since Nkurunziza’s latest re-election.
“It’s very important to remember that the government in Burundi has been using ethnicity any time it’s cornered,” says a Burundian named Terry who now lives in the United States. He asked that his last name not be used because he still has family in Burundi and is concerned they could be harassed if he criticizes the government. Terry says there’s still a lot of ethnic tension in Burundi, and he worries how the information that NGOs are being asked to collect might eventually be used.
The new rules also require foreign aid groups to deposit a certain percentage of their annual budget in Burundi’s central bank — seen as a rather blatant attempt to give the government access to much-needed foreign currency.
In announcing the ethnic quotas for NGO staff, government officials said they are attempting to make sure that aid groups hire more Hutus, who traditionally have been underrepresented in some sectors.
At the time of the initial announcement of the new rules, a spokesman for the president also accused foreign NGOs of spreading homosexuality and attempting to destabilize Burundi. Some of the NGOs do “nothing,” he said, accusing one unnamed group of passing out only three chickens over the course of three years.