"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


the attention it needs

The Kristof is writing about his brief trip to the DRC again. From his Sunday column:
Sometimes I wish eastern Congo could suffer an earthquake or a tsunami, so that it might finally get the attention it needs.* The barbaric civil war being waged here is the most lethal conflict since World War II and has claimed at least 30 times as many lives as the Haiti earthquake.

Yet no humanitarian crisis generates so little attention per million corpses, or such a pathetic international response.
The story continues as a discussion of a nine-year-old rape victim's experiences. It's a horrific story about a little girl whose name means "luck." I pray she will find some. No one should have to endure what she has survived.

But Kristof is wrong in a key assertion that he's made in column after column. The claim that the DRC is an ignored or under-reported crisis is belied by the evidence. And the idea that the international response has been pathetic isn't supported by the numbers.

The Congo story is extremely well-covered. A quick, non-scientific Google News search yielded 1,857 stories that at least mention "Democratic Republic of Congo." These stories come from news sources as varied as Allafrica.com and the Washington Post. When I narrow the search to include "conflict," there are 444 hits from the last two weeks alone. When I narrow it further to search for both terms from January 2002 to December 2010, there are 17,800 stories. Even Oprah covers the DRC, with specific attention to the rape crisis.

This, friends, is not evidence of an under-reported story, and I'm certain that a more scientific data analysis would yield similar results.

Reporting the story is one thing, but is it true that, as Kristof argues, the tragedy is mostly ignored? After all, reasonably intelligent people read about awful things in their newspapers every day without doing anything about those crises. Again, I don't have time to do a full-on study of this question, but let's look at one reliable indicator that could answer such a question: international financial and humanitarian assistance.

Lucky for me, Jason Stearns already figured all of this out over on Congo Siasa. Congo's government budgeted to receive about $2.1 billion in donor assistance this year. That's money that goes to support governing institutions, pay soldiers' salaries, and other official government functions. It includes some, but not all humanitarian assistance; the rest of that added up to $646 million in 2008. MONUC's budget is about $1.35 billion for 2009-10. All told, the Democratic Republic of Congo gets about $4 billion per year in foreign aid.

How exactly does $4 billion per annum constitute "ignored?"

The simple fact is that the Congo crisis is neither ignored nor under-reported. Insisting otherwise directs focus away from the real problem: that donor policy solutions, regional politics, and an overarching focus on the wrong issues are prolonging rather than mitigating the conflict and its effects.

What are some of these mistakes?
  • An obsession with the 2006 presidential elections. Donors (mostly the U.S.) spent $500 million to hold an election that would legitimate the new regime in Kinshasa. They did so despite clear signals that the fighting in the east wasn't over and that the country wasn't even close to "democratic." It also prematurely raised the populations's hopes for real change in their lives. Those hopes have been almost completely unrealized, and many Congolese are disillusioned with the idea of democracy.
  • A failure to address local land conflicts & citizenship issues in the peace settlements. Severine Autesserre's observations on this issue are key to understanding why the fighting drags on.
  • A failure to acknowledge and address Rwanda's role in the conflicts until very recently.**
  • Misguided military strategies that assume the FARDC is a credible partner.
  • Financing a government that is rife with corruption.
All the news accounts and money in the world won't protect the Congolese if the basis on which the international community's response to the crisis is flawed. The problem is not - and has never been - under-reporting or a lack of compassion on the part of donors. The problem is the approach. The DRC receives a huge amount of attention. But that attention is too often misdirected.

Until that changes, we will continue to read one horror story after another. And I fear that in the meantime, there's little that most of us can do to prevent brutality and despair.

*Um, the eastern Congo has suffered its fair share of natural disasters in the last eight years, including two volcanic eruptions and a significant earthquake.

**To be fair, Kristof finally called out the Rwandans for their involvement in the Congo conflict in this column.



Blogger Hervé de Baillenx said...

Kristof’s story about the 9-year old girl made me quite uncomfortable. He goes "raped girls like Chance have difficulty marrying". Very true, sadly. But when you give her name, show her face in the video that accompanies the article and mention that she got a sexually transmitted disease (which could be read as code for AIDS), the likelihood of her finding a husband just got even lower.

Then: "Thus it takes astonishing courage for Jeanne and Chance to tell their stories (including in a video posted with the on-line version of this column)". Jeanne has indeed made a brave choice. When it comes to a 9-year old, I can’t help feeling that this choice is being made for her and that, in this case, it was not made in her best interest.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010 8:03:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

I agree; I have a real issue with using the faces & names of children who are victims of war in public forums. That said, I hope that Chance will benefit from the fact that almost no one in her area will ever have access to the New York Times online. It's a sad day when lack of technology is what might protect a child.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010 9:25:00 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

Using a sophisticated econometric analysis of past Kristof articles, I have come to the conclusion that every story he reports is, in his opinion, under-reported. We can safely reject the null hypothesis that his reporting prowess is not exceptional.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010 10:54:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

William, I'd love to see the data on that. :)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010 11:28:00 AM


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