In 2012, an uprising by the March 23 Movement in North Kivu led to significant internal displacement in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The humanitarian community’s strategy was to distribute assistance according to the principle of impartiality. A closer analysis, however, shows that assistance was not so much determined by need as by status and location – in other words, how people were displaced and their proximity to Goma had a large influence on the level of assistance they received. This article argues that such imbalances can be partly explained by policies adopted within the humanitarian community: first, by privileging the political considerations of the Congolese Government when deciding which groups of internally displaced persons would receive better levels of assistance and protection; secondly, through a growing unwillingness by many agencies to negotiate their own access to populations with all parties of the conflict; and thirdly, in an inflexibility towards programme financing and management, which added considerable bureaucratic delays and difficulties to the delivery of assistance. By reflecting on the choices made by aid agencies in the context of mass displacement, this article shows how humanitarianism can restrict rather than enhance the options of forcibly displaced populations.

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