hillary goes to the congo: day one
American Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is in Kinshasa today, the first stop on a two-day tour of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She spoke at a town hall meeting this afternoon, of which @congogirl has provided excellent coverage on Twitter.
In her discussions about the DRC, Clinton's focus is on democracy promotion, violence against women, and the role of minerals as a "root cause" of the conflict in the east. She's expounding on these themes in Kinshasa today, despite the fact that most Kinois lack the slightest idea as to how bad things really are in their country's east. A few thoughts on each:
- Democracy is good and of course we all want to see the DR Congo live up to that part of its name. But Secretary Clinton needs to be reminded that democracy doesn't develop overnight. It takes decades - and sometimes wars - to fully consolidate democratic governance. One of the biggest mistakes in American policy towards the DRC was an overemphasis on democracy and holding national elections in the post-peace settlement period from 2002-06. The U.S. directed most of its energy and attention towards formalizing one democratic institution (elections) while ignoring the massive governance problems and institutional collapse that make the idea of representative democracy all but a joke in the DRC. The result? Congolese "democracy" is but a shadow of the real thing. The people of the Congo are not really represented by their leaders. There aren't any institutions through which the will of the people can be expressed, and their leaders are barely accountable to the populations they serve (most of whom, it should be noted, have very little access to information about what those representatives are up to. Instead of worrying so much about whether the DRC is a democracy yet, let's focus on getting those institutions rebuilt so that the people will truly be able to express their will in the future.
- We all agree that violence against women is bad. What would help to end this violence? I'd argue that it is NOT an overarching focus on the mineral trade, but rather taking the same steps that will lead to democratic development. If the Congo had a functioning, well-equipped, taxpayer-funded, professional police force that was engaged in protecting the population, the culture in which a soldier assumes he can get away with rape would end. If the FARDC were disciplined under the direct control of civilian leaders and its soldiers were regularly paid fair salaries, it could become a unit capable of eliminating threats to stability and of promoting peace. If the court system were functional, women and girls who were so viciously attacked would have legal recourse, and the culture of impunity surrounding the rape issue would end.
- It is a huge mistake for Secretary Clinton to view the mineral trade as a root cause of the conflict. The fight for minerals is a symptom of the larger breakdown in governance, not a cause. Rape in the Congo happens because there's nothing to stop it from happening, and shutting down the mines won't stem the tide of violence against women. I have yet to see any empirical evidence that rapes happen more frequently or systematically in areas around mines. Rape in the eastern Congo happens everywhere, near mines, in forests, in the Goma slums. Rapes are committed by soldiers, but also by normal citizens. Rape in the Congo occurs because the region's rural areas are a free-for-all. Stopping the trade in minerals in the eastern Congo will unfortunately not end the violence against women and girls, nor will it help the 1 million+ people whose livelihoods depend on mining. Yes, the mineral trade needs to be brought under control. (If you're looking for more on this issue, Harrison Mitchell and Nicholas Garrett present some far better ideas for addressing the mineral question than the current advocacy calls to shut it down.) But doing so will not create the institutions necessary to secure the eastern Congo. And until regional security exists, gender-based violence will continue.