Where does power lie in a fragile state like Eastern Congo? What does it mean for aid organizations?
Here’s the last (at least for now) reflection on my recent trip to the DRC.
The roads in DRC are extraordinary; a skeleton-rearranging, dental filling-loosening, vehicle disintegrating nightmare. From now on, when I talk about
infrastructure and effective states, roads will be top of my list. In the rainy season, trucks charge $1200 to bump and crawl a load of sand the 5 hours from Goma to an Oxfam-run IDP camp near Rubaya (65km). On its return, the truck has to go straight into the garage for repairs that can cost half of that money. That’s no way to run an economy.
A half-way decent state would invest in roads to unleash markets, connect its communities, (and incidentally reduce the damage to my skull from being bashed repeatedly against the car walls and roof), but in the DRC, such enlightened provision of public goods is currently a distant dream. Roads are both a literal and metaphorical point of entry for understanding the role of the state.
But the state is not entirely absent, nor completely predatory (although it extracts an awful lot from people who have very little) and there is certainly no vacuum of power. Here are some of the more obvious ‘poles of power’ (but I’m sure there are many more) whose interaction underlies the current chaos, and which could possibly provide the elements of a better system in the future.
The state: according to one local Oxfam staffer: ‘Yes, the state is predatory but that doesn’t mean we give up, at some levels, at least. It’s like a hamburger, with clean layers on top and bottom, and a dirty layer in the middle. At the top level, ministries will work with NGOs in a non predatory way – they have other, better means of raising cash (minerals, or from the government budget). But at the provincial level, predation is a real issue. At the local level, officials live with communities, so it’s different again. Some local officials really support projects, but everything they do needs sign off at provincial level, so it gets very tense.’
We met one village official (chef de poste) in his ‘office’: tin roof and floor of volcanic rubble; no glass in windows; bare plank walls covered with heavily logoed NGO/UN posters on sexual violence, torture, HIV, land rights, and a hand-drawn map of the area. On his desk, the classic tools of the functionary: a rubber stamp, a mobile phone, and a pile of files and notebooks.
‘The big thing here is peace and security. We get everyone round the table – the Community Protection Committee, traditional authorities, the military, the police. That way the army/police don’t have much wiggle room. Then next meeting we do an evaluation and hold them to account.’
He’s been in post since 2008. He laughs when asked if the state gives him training. ‘we rely on the NGOs for that. They help us with what the law says – don’t torture, don’t lock people up for unpaid debts (mediate instead). There are lots of rights and laws I didn’t know.’
In his world, the state and the customary authorities run by traditional chiefs are totally intertwined. His previous post was as an accountant for the local customary authority, but for him ‘it’s all public administration. The chefferie (traditional authority) collects the taxes. I report to the mwami (traditional leader) as well as the ministry.’
So we head off to meet a traditional leader (next pole of power), on the veranda of his rather smart house at the top of a steep mud path. The quietly spoken traditional chief (chef de groupement) radiates authority, cradling his two mobiles.
‘I’ve been chief for 20 years, my father was chief before me. The state authorities are in charge of roads and bridges, tax is collected from shops, restaurants, markets etc by the chef de cheferie, (next rank above him in the traditional hierarchy). I encourage the population to pay.
I find women lie less when they bring me a problem, so I listen to them more. I meet the army/police on a regular basis. The Oxfam project [on community protection committees] has helped to change them, given them a better understanding of rights and the law and a point of reference.’
There are several other poles of power besides civil and traditional authorities: armed groups, the army, the police, the humanitarian system, faith organizations, civil society organizations, sports clubs etc etc
Sometimes they conflict. Customary law says land belongs to the chief, but official law claims it for the state. The traditional leader wonders if Oxfam would consider campaigning on his behalf? Erm, probably not.
More painfully (if you believe aid agencies should be strengthening the state), listen to Clovis Mwambutsa, Oxfam’s Provincial Coordinator in North Kivu, on the reasons why he left the Ministry of Health to work for the UN and NGOs: ‘I said yes, because in the government the pay is very bad, or doesn’t come at all. You live off the per diems from UN or NGO meetings. If the salaries had been the same, I would have stayed: NGOs can’t solve a country’s problems. A strong government is the only way.’
But despite the contradictions between them, there is something to work with here – numerous centres of power and trust, from which can emerge coalitions for short term change and longer term construction of institutions. Outsiders, be they governments, the UN system or NGOs, can help bring them together (PDIA style) in search of solutions and support efforts to include the voices of the biggest missing element – the Congolese people.
But as currently constituted, the humanitarian system really struggles to do this. Back to Clovis: ‘In other countries we work more with government, but here we have been in a very humanitarian operation, and if you are very operational, and the government is very weak and can’t deliver, you can’t work with it. With more long term programming you can start to engage with government bodies at provincial or national level.’
This is where the siloes need to be broken down. Supporting Congolese, whether in or out of power, to build a new country from the current wreckage involves long term commitments, acceptance of reverses and failures, all built on a foundation of the deepest possible understanding of a complex political and social system. It is neither ‘humanitarian’ nor ‘long term development’, but both, with a big dash of advocacy thrown in.
If that gets sorted out who knows, the roads may even get fixed.
And allow me to change the mood by signing off with the inevitable Pharrell Williams cover, from Goma youth, who are organizing a ‘Happy From Goma’ concert on Monday [h/t Emma Fanning for that]