USAID and aid groups can't ignore politics in Congo

By Michael Igoe 18 August 2016

Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by: European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND

In a month, the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be in a state of constitutional crisis — though representatives of President Joseph Kabila’s government don’t see it that way.

The central African country is supposed to open its election season on Sept. 19 and hold a vote two months later. But citing budgetary and logistical constraints, Kabila’s administration is pushing for a longer timetable that would extend the president’s second term. The U.S. government — through U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Tom Perriello — is pressing for the democratic transition to proceed as scheduled. In the meantime, the U.S. Agency for International Development cannot afford to ignore politics and carry on with business as usual, according to USAID’s former mission director for the country.

Devex spoke with Tony Gambino, who served USAID in the Congo from 2001 to 2004, at the Brookings Institution, where he joined Perriello and François Nkuna Balumuene, the Congo’s ambassador to the United States, to share their respective views on the way forward to a peaceful political transition — and the U.S. development community’s role in supporting one.

Here are the highlights of our conversation with Gambino, edited for length and clarity.

A lot of the U.S. assistance to the Congo has been focused on humanitarian concerns, particularly in the eastern part of the country. Where does development fit within the context of what’s happening now with the country’s national election crisis?

This is a great point to make for a standard Devex reader. There is a body of research that is fully established that says, if you want the space to do what we all want to do in development, what’s the one factor that matters the most? It is the quality and commitment of the leadership of that country. That can’t be questioned. To a degree that there’s a debate, there’s been a debate over [the question,] can one even do anything? There are some people at the extreme who argue incorrectly that in those cases when your leadership is weak and commitment is weak that you should do nothing. I think that’s way too pessimistic. But you don’t want to go to the other extreme and say it doesn’t matter, because that’s just completely counterfactual.

Too many people in the aid world just want to play “turtle,” and put their head in their shell and say, “That’s not my business, I have my little three-year or five-year program to run, I’m just going to put my head down and run it.” I understand that if you’re a contractor — that’s what you’re paid to do. But if you’re in the government, if you’re directing these kinds of things, supervising, I really am critical. The big moment now is that there is a chance in the Congo to get a change. Will the new leadership be better? Who knows. But we have to get the change. Anybody who’s in a position to take their head out of their turtle shell and say, “What do we do to help this change occur?”

I would argue that one should do that absolutely to the maximum extent. If I were there right now, I’d be looking at every single thing that we did and say, what is it that we could do that makes it clear how important it is to the United States — I’m speaking right now as [though I were the] USAID mission director — that the constitution be respected and that there be a transition of power at the presidential level and that that be done in a peaceful way?

Certainly as you move in the direction of security sector reforms, where you’re working directly with the army or the police there are obvious things you can do. But really if you’re looking across the board — say you’re working with teachers: Let’s build civic education into some of the programs. If you’re thinking about it that way, almost anything, other than the strictly humanitarian [programs] … you can put it almost everywhere. And that’s where too often the development professional still wants to say, “Oh no, I don’t do that highly political stuff. Oh no, that’s over there.” I don’t like that. I think that’s a mistake.

How does that pivot happen in reality? Who can reasonably be expected to affect that kind of mindset change?

It has to be the ambassador and the mission director and others deciding that across the embassy — one would think in an embassy such as the Congo’s right now, there would be a unified message where their discussions would be: whatever it is that we’re doing across the board … what are we doing to promote U.S. goals regarding transfer of power and peaceful elections? With that decision, then that gives the power to the mission director to ask, what does he do to promote that? That gets you immediately to what we just talked about, a specific look at every activity.

Does this risk reorienting USAID toward shorter-term priorities that the State Department might hold, at the expense of a longer term development outlook?

That is the pushback that you get. I think that pushback is shortsighted. It’s for the development professionals to make the point that unless you can get a higher quality leadership with greater  commitments, you’re climbing a very steep hill to make the changes you want to make. From a purely developmental standpoint, when you have that opening to make the change, development professionals should be crying out to see that change made, because that creates the ability for us to do … what we want to do. Unless you’re a real masochist, you don’t want to run these tough programs where you’re like Sisyphus. And to call what’s going on in the Congo right now a short-term priority misses the historic opportunity.

The important programs that [USAID] is running ... in health — of course the humanitarian programs have to continue — in democracy, in agriculture. It would be dumb to say we’re going to dump all that money into some kind of pro-democracy thing. I wouldn’t support that. That said … USAID has not given enough money to elections support and elections programs in the Congo and plays this poor mouth game of, “Oh we just don’t get enough money.” I worked in USAID. That’s just not true. If you want to find money for something, you can find the money. There should be, and I hope there is, a serious effort underway to see what USAID can do working with State and others to find the resources to first promote this period to get to a plausible process and then to support that process once it’s agreed to. In the past the United States has played a heavy diplomatic [role] to get to that point and then when it was time to support it has come up with no money, and we look stupid, frankly.

But, I’m totally opposed to robbing Peter to pay Paul. If you’re running a good health program, if you’re running a good [agriculture] program, you don’t say, “Oh no for these purposes we’re going to shut down.”

We have a real crisis with some nascent opportunities in it in the Congo. One would hope that Administrator [Gayle] Smith and other people at USAID were looking at that and thinking hard about, is USAID playing its part in promoting this kind of transition? As hard as the U.S. is working at it with special envoy Perriello and others, one hopes that every part of the U.S. government is going at it with that much energy and commitment.

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About the author

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Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.

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