CREDIT: <a href="">Julien Harneis</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
CREDIT: Julien Harneis (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: Saving the Congo

Oct 14, 2008

After years of being ignored because of crises in Darfur and Somalia, the spiraling violence in eastern Congo has once again catapulted the country toward the top of the international community's Africa agenda. This vast Central African state, where an estimated 5.4 million people have been killed over the past decade, continues to be devastated by intractable conflicts.

The latest peace agreement is an attempt to end fighting in the country's eastern regions, where nearly half a million people have been displaced in recent months. Yet this plan, announced in January, is unlikely to work unless the international community also addresses the systemic causes of the Congo's weak governance.

The troubles in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have not only affected its unfortunate citizens but also spawned Africa's first "world war," dragging at least a half dozen nearby states into the country's civil war. The impact of this anarchy extends beyond the DRC's borders, as its enormous mineral wealth attracts terrorists, arms traffickers, and criminal networks hostile to international security.

Indeed, the DRC is now the world's greatest humanitarian challenge.

The (Post)colonial Roots of Conflict

The country's current deplorable condition is a product of its history. It endured enormous suffering during colonial misrule, when millions of Congolese died, and was woefully unprepared for independence in 1960. Anarchy, war, and Cold War intrigue devastated what institutions were bequeathed to the DRC (called Zaire for much of its postcolonial life). Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, the president from 1965 to 1997, plundered billions of dollars from the country and emasculated the state's ability to govern its vast territory.

Any semblance of a state disintegrated. By 1978, Mobutu used French and Belgian troops to quell a rebellion because his own security forces were so inadequate. By 1993, income levels had shrunk to 35 percent of their pre-independence level, and by 1995, inflation had skyrocketed to 23,000 percent. Only 15 percent of the roads inherited in 1960 remained passable.

The DRC's condition, it seemed, could get no worse. Amazingly, it did. In the years following Mobutu's departure, the DRC experienced almost nonstop violence, including multiple foreign interventions, numerous rebellions, and a presidential assassination. By 2003, GDP per capita had fallen to only 28 percent of its level at independence. One-third of the country's more than 60 million people faced disease, malnutrition, and homelessness because of the fighting. An astounding 75 percent of children under five years of age were malnourished.

Although the international community has mustered the cash and political will to deploy the largest peacekeeping force in the world to Congo, "large parts of the national territory remain lawless," the International Crisis Group concluded last year. Bands of soldiers, rebels, and gangsters still roam the eastern hinterlands, killing, raping, stealing, and smuggling.

The DRC remains highly unstable and seriously misgoverned. Indeed, government forces remain incapable of defeating rebel groups. A UN-supported offensive against a dissident ethnic Tutsi general last December turned into a humiliating rout. Even worse, the army and police have become the country's most egregious human rights abusers, committing 88 percent of the politically motivated murders, rapes, and beatings during the second half of 2006.

Rich Land, Poor Governance

The DRC's turmoil can be traced to the country's toxic combination of tempting mineral wealth, feeble government, vast size, and weak cohesion. This mixture turns the DRC's rich natural resource heritage into a poison that affects every aspect of its body politic.

Instead of acting as the country's economic engine, the plentiful deposits—including uranium, diamonds, and copper—have repeatedly fueled violent conflict and corruption. Local militia and foreign armies smuggle vast amounts out of the country—an estimated $400 million in diamonds and gold alone have been lost this way annually in recent years—while doing everything within their power to prevent a weak state from establishing its authority.

Efforts to build a robust regime are complicated by the country's challenging political geography. The population is divided into a number of high-density pockets hundreds of miles apart. (The country is as large as Western Europe.) Barely connected to each other by meager transportation, communication, and institutional links, local groups have little reason to profess loyalty to an ineffective and distant state—and every incentive to seek enrichment at that state's expense. As a result, the country's history has been plagued by a zero-sum competition among mutually antagonistic cities, regions, and ethnic groups.

Unless the DRC can create a strong government to protect its major mineral sites, it will remain hostage to the armed groups that continue to plunder its resources.

Institutional Innovations

The scale of the DRC's systemic weaknesses calls for policy changes beyond anything typically contemplated by the international community. The standard remedy to fix conflict-prone countries—elections, economic reform, and administrative restructuring—does not have a good track record elsewhere, and cannot by itself solve the staggering challenges in the vast Congo.

At least three substantial institutional innovations could improve the DRC's condition.

First, multinational natural resource companies could play a greater role in protecting major mineral sites and providing services to citizens. Although many people might recoil at this idea, major international corporations have the strongest management capacity in the country and—under the right contractual arrangement—could have the greatest incentive to ensure that the state's mineral wealth be used to improve the lives of the DRC's people. Agreements could, for example, include detailed provisions for policing deposits, while obligating companies to pave roads, build schools and hospitals, and fund teachers and doctors. Restricting the bidding process to large, internationally reputable firms and then monitoring their performance with a newly created watchdog committee would alleviate many concerns.

Second, instead of attempting to build the DRC along the lines of the Western model of top-down governance, the international community should be advocating a far more horizontal model. The main governing structures would be shaped around cities and their surrounding rural areas, with programs built from the ground up. A looser, more horizontal governing structure, in which power and responsibility flowed from large municipalities upward and outward would make individual units far more effective, especially if outside assistance focused on improving their management, transparency, and accountability. Current attempts to improve governance in distant Kinshasa won't affect the lives of anyone living outside the capital's immediate vicinity. Instead, foreign organizations could focus their efforts on improving government and service delivery around the country's 21 major cities, substantially increasing their reach into the country's heartland.

Third, international donors could improve government performance if they focused more on designing systems that would keep local officials responsible to their constituents. Elections alone will not dramatically improve how government operates—especially elections for leaders in distant cities who have little influence on local programs (the international community spent more than $500 million on national elections). Indeed, only by helping the local population construct effective "accountability loops" is service delivery likely to improve—that is, a system of ballots, increased transparency, and watchdog committees to monitor local officials. Donors and NGOs could then concentrate on training local administrators while improving the mechanisms that hold them answerable to those they serve.

Rationale and Responsibility in the West

Western governments and international diplomats have recognized for years the importance of the DRC to Africa and to international security. As William Swing, the outgoing head of the country's United Nations peacekeeping force, has said: "Of all the crises in Africa, the one that if solved offers potentially the greatest benefits to the whole continent, is the Congo." It is time that the United States and other donor governments sought more creative solutions to the country's systemic dysfunction.

Seth Kaplan is a foreign policy analyst and a business consultant to companies in developing countries. His book Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development (2008) critiques Western policies in places such as Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Congo (Kinshasa), and West Africa, and lays out a new approach to overcoming the problems they face. For more information, see

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