A Better Future for the Congo
by Kevin Watkins-Mareeg.com-LONDON – The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has become synonymous with state failure. No country has endured more brutal conflicts, hosted more kleptocratic and corrupt governments, or squandered more resource wealth. Trapped in a cycle of political uncertainty, economic recession, and escalating violence, humanitarian disaster has become a way of life. Yet a better future is possible.
At the ramshackle Rubaya primary school, in a small town in the lush green hills of North Kivu province, bordering Rwanda, one gets a glimpse of that possibility. Children sit attentively in overcrowded classrooms, with enthusiasm, ambition, and hope lighting up their faces. Dorothy Gakoti, aged 13, wants to become a nurse. “If I succeed in school, I can have a better life with more opportunity – and I can help my family and community,” she declares.
Yet the DRC – including North Kivu – remains beset with challenges. Dozens of ethnically based armed groups called Mai-Mai prey on local populations. Sexual violence, often targeting young girls, is as endemic as it is under-reported. Some 4.5 million children are malnourished, almost half of them severely. Less than half of the children who contract potentially deadly diseases like pneumonia and malaria receive treatment.
Making matters worse, about one-quarter of the DRC’s school-age children are not receiving any education at all. And those who do go to school face abysmal learning outcomes: Dorothy doesn’t have a book or pencil to her name, and she struggles to understand French, the language of instruction.
Yet writing off the DRC as a development failure would be a mistake. Since the end of a devastating five-year war in 2003, the country has made marked gains. While two-thirds of its people still survive on less than $1.25 per day, poverty and child mortality have fallen, while rates of immunization and school enrollment are rising.
Moreover, the DRC has vast untapped economic potential. It possesses over half of the world’s known reserves of cobalt (a key component in computer chips and lithium-ion batteries) and around 80% of the world’s supply of coltan (a heat-resistant metal used in mobile phones and other devices). The country is also a major producer of copper, gold, tin, tungsten, and diamonds. Add to that fertile soils and some of the world’s greatest hydro-power potential, and the DRC should be a regional, if not continental, economic powerhouse.
What explains the disconnect between the DRC’s vast economic potential and the condition of its children? For starters, the government has failed to create a tax system to mobilize resources for public investment in health and education. In fact, the DRC has one of the world’s lowest revenue-to-GDP ratios, with foreign actors and local vested interests effectively pillaging the country.
In his novel Heart of Darkness, set in the DRC, Joseph Conrad wrote about what he laterdescribed as “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.” Yet even Conrad would have been aghast at the windfall gains and rock-bottom tax rates that foreign mining investors have secured over the last decade.