I’ve been reading a lot more about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) recently (more on this to come, I hope). To that end, there has been a fascinating debate in Foreign Affairs about the plight of the DRC. It has been a while since the last time I summarized a development debate, but I think it will be helpful to summarize what is going on here.
First, a (overly) brief history of the DRC:
I have a map of Africa at my desk at home from 1897. On it, the area now called the DRC is called Kongo Free State. At that time the area was under control of King Leopold II of Belgium – not as a colony, but as a private business venture. During this time vast infrastructure projects were undertaken (like for example a railroad that ran from the coast to the capital Leopoldville – now Kinshasa) which had the express purpose of extracting the region’s vast natural resources. During this time it is estimated that the local population was cut in half (by the millions) due to brutal exploitation for the production of rubber and the introduction of smallpox and sleeping sickness.
In 1908, under pressure from the United Kingdom, the Belgian parliament took control of the Kongo Free State and renamed the area Belgian Congo. While colonial rule brought with it basic healthcare and education, economic exploitation remained the primary motive of the Belgian parliament.
On June 30 1960, a nationalist movement within the colony sparked independence from Belgium and Patrice Lumumba was named Prime Minister. On September 5 of the same year, Lumumba was dismissed from office and on January 17, 1961 he was executed by Belgian-led forces loyal to Joseph Mobutu (the chief of staff of the new Congo military). In the chaos that followed, Mobutu took control of the country with a coup financed in part by the United States (who was in the midst of the Cold War and the global war on Communism). The country was renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo, but in 1971 Mobutu changed the name again to the Republic of Zaire.
Until 1997, Mobutu was the sole dictator of the country. Several elections were held, but Mobutu was the only candidate. Mobutu and his associates enriched themselves with vast wealth, building off of the political institutions instilled by King Leopold and the Belgian parliament. Following the Rwandan genocide, Hutu malitia fled into eastern Zaire and formed alliances with the Zairian army to flight ethnic Tutsis living in eastern Zaire. This alliance, led by Laurent-Desire Kabila, eventually overthrow the government, forcing Mobutu to flee the country. Kabila became President by default and changed the name of the country back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and his son Joseph Kabila became President.
In 2006 the DRC held its first multi-party elections, which ended in a bloody dispute between supporters for Kibila and his opponent Jean-Pierre Bemba. Later that year a new election took place and Kabila won. In 2015 widespread protest broke out demanding Kabila to step down. Kabila didn’t step down, but instead scheduled elections for 2016. These elections never took place, allegedly because voter registration was not finished. The current plan is to complete voter registration by the middle of 2017 and hold an election in early 2018.
Now, on to the debate:
On March 1, 2017 Séverine Autesserre, published an article entitled What the Uproar Over Congo’s Elections Misses: The Local Roots of the Countries Problems with the general thesis that “top-down” solutions have been ineffective…
Even if political change in Kinshasa were to arrive, however, it would be unlikely to bring peace and prosperity to Congo. The capital is too disconnected from the rest of the country to effectively address its problems. Besides, holding general elections would be unlikely to resolve the many issues that cause misery for most of the country’s citizens.
Activists, diplomats, and development workers usually try to address tensions in war and postwar contexts by supporting national elites and relying on foreign actors and external expertise. This approach has repeatedly failed in Congo, and at times it has even worsened the situation. As international interveners have emphasized sexual violence as one of the main consequences of the conflict in Congo, for example, some combatants have committed rapes in order to attract international attention and push the government to the negotiating table.
…and “bottom-up” solutions need to be prioritized…
There is a better way forward. In some parts of Congo, citizens have managed to address violence and poverty on their own—for example, by turning to local religious authorities or community organizations to mediate disputes, instead of to militias or the security forces. If international and nongovernmental organizations want to help fix Congo’s problems, they should focus on backing these kinds of successful peacebuilding initiatives rather than concentrating almost exclusively on challenges such as troubled elections. Foreign interveners should fund, protect, and otherwise support exceptional individuals and organizations much more extensively. Local people have far more relevant knowledge, contacts, and means to resolve their own predicaments than outsiders usually believe they do—and more than provincial, national, and international actors will ever have. Moreover, ordinary Congolese trust traditional authorities much more than they trust national leaders, even when those local elites were not chosen democratically.
On March 16, 2017 Jason Stearns, Koen Vlassenroot, Kasper Hoffmann, and Tatiana Carayannis wrote a response entitled Congo’s Inescapable State: The Trouble with the Local. In which they argue that local “bottom-up” solutions will ultimately be ineffective…
Global, regional, and national processes—from international laws on conflict minerals and civil wars in neighboring states to peacekeeping interventions and political changes in Kinshasa—all shape local events in Congo. Indeed, there is little evidence that local conflicts are the primary causes of the ongoing violence in the country’s east. Nor is it apparent that grassroots actors have the clout to stand up to brutal militias or the powerful networks that support them. Eliding these realities risks attributing powers to local actors that they often lack.
In the face of predatory elites, Autesserre argues that grassroots efforts led by customary authorities and civil-society organizations represent Congo’s best hope for peace and security. But many such local actors are already doing a great deal to address violent conflicts: Congo has a decades-long tradition of self-defense groups and civic organizations compensating for a withering state apparatus. If violence persists, it is not for a lack of local effort, but for a lack of local capacity to address the deeper roots of the violence.
…and they certainly are not a substitute for “top-down” political reform…
The road toward stability in Congo must pass through the reform of state institutions. The only way that can happen is by increasing official accountability, which will require national elections, the opening of democratic space, and a shift from predatory to responsible everyday governance.
This debate is just as fascinating as it is important, because there probably isn’t a “right” answer but a solution is so badly needed. Reading this debate takes me back to college where my classmates and I would seemingly endlessly debate the merits and demerits of “top-down” vs. “bottom-up” development policies. I’ve spent a lot of time studying and learning since then, and I still don’t know the answer.
HT: Justin Sandefur