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


Hillary Clinton and the limits of US influence in Congo

Kate Morris of Falling Whistles published a very critical opinion piece in the New York Post over the weekend. In it, she argues that US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has broken her promises to Congolese women:

In 2009, on her first trip to Africa as the boss at State, Clinton was deeply affected by the severity of gender-based violence. Rape is often employed to humiliate and control populations in eastern Congo, the site of a deadly 16-year war involving armies of up to nine nations and another 30 rebel factions.

She left Congo in 2009 vowing to prioritize the plight of Congolese women -- but has since delivered next to nothing.

Morris goes on to argue that Clinton should show stronger support for the appointment of a special envoy for the DRC, a position she supported as a Senator and co-sponsor (with President Obama) of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act in 2005. She concludes:
Clinton has one of the few positions that allows her to act on that 2005 bill and put someone on the ground capable of doing something for Congo's women. Instead, she has chosen the road of false promises. Now, you'll know whom to thank when violence flares in Congo anew.
Falling Whistles, along with many other Congo advocacy groups, is particularly focused on this question of a special envoy right now. While most acknowledge that it will not solve all the country's problems overnight, there is widespread belief that having a point person to coordinate all US government activities relating to the DRC would be very helpful.

This seems pretty non-controversial to me, but it's also pretty clear from the signals the White House and State Department have sent that there will not be a special envoy appointed to the DRC this year.

What is unclear, however, is whether a special envoy would actually make much of a difference. One of the key points in Rebecca Hamilton's Fighting for Darfur is that activists in that situation spent a great deal of time working to get a special envoy appointed, but that their success in doing so did not translate into the solutions they had hoped to achieve. Ultimately, US influence over Sudan is limited, and the presence of a special envoy was not as influential as most activists had hoped. The earliest special envoys found it particularly difficult to coordinate the various agency initiatives and programs, not to mention the wide variety of opinions about what to prioritize regarding Sudan found within the US government.

I suspect the same is true in the DRC case. While the US has more leverage in Congo than it does in Sudan, and while better coordination among departments and agencies would be wonderful, ultimately, the Congo's problems have to be addressed by the Congolese. We can use pressure - especially as regards the portion of the DRC budget that we fund - but it is unclear whether such a message would be taken any more seriously if delivered by a special envoy than it would if delivered by the ambassador we already have in place. We have learned this lesson since 2005 when the original legislation was passed - and it's possible that both the President and the Secretary have modified their thinking since that time.

As for Morris' other arguments, I am not convinced that attacking Clinton's record on assistance to Congolese women - which is far stronger than that of any of her predecessors - is the most productive way to move this conversation forward. Contrary to Morris's claim, Clinton actually has delivered on almost all of the promises she made on her 2009 (although some of the dumber ideas seem to have been mercifully modified with that money was directed to more productive pursuits). As of April, the US now has a comprehensive strategy for addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV). The State Department and USAID fund a huge range of programs aimed at addressing almost every aspect of the SGBV problem in Congo, from health care to education about women's rights to strengthening the legal system. These monies include the $17 million Secretary Clinton promised on her Goma visit. In a time when foreign aid budgets are being drastically cut across the board, Clinton and Congress did a good job in ensuring that this money stayed allocated to help the Congolese.

Is US policy toward the Congo as good as it could be, and are we giving enough to combat the country's problems? No. But it is unfair to blame Secretary Clinton "when violence flares in Congo anew," or to criticize her for not keeping her promises, particularly when she did what she said she would do. Moreover, the US only has so much influence in a country whose problems are largely driven by local conflict, corruption, and weak governance. Rather than being consumed by the desire for a special envoy to be appointed, advocates might be more productive in pushing for better use of US leverage over the DRC budget, more training and professionalization of the FARDC by AFRICOM, and strengthening the capacity of the Congolese legal system in all sectors, not just legal services for SGBV victims. In doing so, we will have a much better chance of reaching the goal that policy makers, activists, and scholars all share: stabilizing the Congo so that its people can live healthy and prosperous lives.

Kate Morris will be responding to my critique with a guest post here in the upcoming days. Watch this space!


Blogger JM said...

Actually, it'd be better to pull out Africom altogether:


Wednesday, June 22, 2011 1:08:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

I don't really care who does it, but someone has to train and professionalize Congolese troops. The FARDC is a disaster, with even the most basic principles of discipline absent. But I also think that the fears of AFRICOM expressed around the continent are exaggerated. AFRICOM is not capable of doing much, and teaching Congolese soldiers to march in straight lines is a way they could have a positive impact.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011 7:10:00 PM

Blogger JM said...

Yes, but what's the point of having troops if they're just protecting Capitalist interests? I know Mugabe, Kagame and Kablia are squabbling for control as well, but really, it doesn't sound like they're doing much peace keeping and only trying to colonize which in turn provoking reactions from the Mai Mai and the like.There needs to be actual non violent peace meetings and compensation for the U.S. throwing out Lumumba

Thursday, June 23, 2011 4:57:00 PM

Blogger JM said...



Sorry, but Clinton's not that good at keeping Congolese women safe if she isn't addressing the mining exploitation

Thursday, June 23, 2011 5:26:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

How demeaning: "teaching Congolese soldiers to march in straight lines is a way they could have a positive impact." I problems of the FARDC are very complex. I'm sure they don't need Americans to teach them to walk in a straight line. Very patronizing...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011 12:08:00 PM


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