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Don’t turn away from Congo

22 February 2013

The situation in the DRC is complicated, but there is scope for action, says Justin Byworth


Plenty: the Jemma Jenga project for former displaced people in the DRC

Plenty: the Jemma Jenga project for former displaced people in the DRC

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the biggest countries in Africa, with trillions of pounds' worth of mineral wealth beneath its fertile soil. If this land and its minerals were properly managed, the country could easily feed its population. Yet the DRC sits at the bottom of world league tables - 187th out of 187 in the UN Human Development Index - and half of its 30 million children are chronically malnourished.

Part of the reason for this gross inequality is that the DRC is experiencing the world's deadliest conflict since the Second World War, in which disease, malnutrition, and murder have killed 5.4 million people since 1998. One of the most disturbing aspects of the long-running conflicts is the use of rape as a weapon of war, which has led Eastern Congo to be dubbed "the rape capital of the world". More than half the women and girls in the region are thought to have suffered sexual violence.

It is impossible to identify one single culprit or factor for fuelling the war. Neighbouring countries have been accused of participating in the conflict. The wider international community has neglected the world's worst humanitarian situation, and repeatedly failed to intervene in any decisive way. The political leadership of the DRC is frequently inept and corrupt. Further back in history, Belgium, the former colonial power, set in motion many of the causes of the conflict.

More recently, private individuals and governments have plundered the DRC's mineral resources for their own profit, stealing what should be the biggest endowment for Congo's children.

But each culprit can also be seen differently. Neighbouring countries have also been traumatised by bloody conflicts. Creating a robust national government is extremely difficult after generations of neglect have left the most basic physical and social infrastructure dysfunctional or absent.

It is also important to recognise that the international community has ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance into the DRC, but has struggled to bring change when the causes of conflict are so complex and deep-rooted.

The misuse of power and the absence of leadership are at the heart of the problems of the DRC. The words attributed to the 18th- century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke resonate powerfully here: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

What is needed is for good men and women to lead and take action, locally and internationally. Ivan Lewis MP, the Shadow International Development Secretary, who has visited charity projects in the east of the country, said: "In the DRC, the scale of the ambition has yet to meet the scale of the challenge. It's time to do more to break the cycle of conflict and extreme poverty."

He concluded that three things are needed: security, politics, and development - a proper force in place to protect civilians; a political solution to the underlying and historical factors; and real investment in development and governance, not just short-term humanitarian assistance.

Opportunities for this exist, as African Union leaders and the UN discuss a stronger UN presence in eastern DRC, and peace talks continue between the Congolese government and rebels.

The response of charities and development agencies needs to combine advocacy for change, long-term development to empower communities, and continued humanitarian relief, so that children and women in the DRC are protected.

One approach is "citizen voice and action" (CVA), which empowers communities and holds local government more accountable. It has been successful in Afghanistan, where a maternity unit in the Ghor province did not have a single trained midwife, in an area the size of Leeds. After training in CVA, people in the province lobbied local-government officials, and there are now 200 midwives being trained across western Afghanistan. Midwives are crucial to preventing death in childbirth and protecting children, so the change is significant.

The temptation in the DRC is to let the horror repel us, and the complexity cause us to despair. As the American author Philip Gourevitch wrote in the magazine The New Yorker (27 November 2012): "Oh, Congo, what a wreck. It hurts to look and listen, and hurts to turn away."

We must not turn away. We can each do something, whoever and wherever we are. As individuals, we can help with the immediate humanitarian crisis by supporting charities such as World Vision and others working in the DRC. We can also promote political change by writing to MPs asking them to press the Government, and to sign up to plans such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).

This movement is chaired by the former Development Secretary Clare Short, and is aimed at overcoming the "resource curse" - the phenomenon whereby countries rich in natural resources such as oil and gas have tended to under-perform economically, and have a higher incidence of conflict and poor governance.

The DRC is a prime example of this. So the EITI standard is designed to ensure that companies disclose what taxes and royalties they pay, and governments make this information public. In a country such as the DRC, this information is crucial to ensuring that the population receives a fair share of its wealth.

Two Congolese women shared their thoughts with me when I visited them recently: "If we can't prepare these women for new lives, our hearts will be broken like theirs." Another told me: "We've lost a generation."

Please, God, let us not turn aside. Please, God, act in and through us all.

Justin Byworth is the chief executive of World Vision UK (www.world-vision.org.uk).

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