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What is US policy on the Congo?

The Great Lakes Policy Forum – a group of scholars, government officials and students of the region – will be hosting Howard Wolpe, the US Special Advisor on the Great Lakes, next week. A good time to reflect on US policy in the region, as it’s been a little over a year since Obama’s inauguration and over six months since Dr. Wolpe was named special adviser.

First, a word on the special adviser position, as it is indicative of the lack of urgency displayed by Washington on the Great Lakes. According to sources within the State Department, almost immediately after Clinton was named Secretary of State, she told Wolpe she wanted him to be her Special Envoy to the Great Lakes, a position he had previously occupied under Bill Clinton’s presidency. It took almost half a year, however, to officially name him and when he came out the other side of the bureaucratic mess, he was only a Special Advisor on the Great Lakes, a lower ranking position. Why? Not entirely clear, although some sources close to State seem to think it was because Obama was coming under fire for the proliferation of Special Envoys and Wolpe’s title got axed.

In any case, by August 2009 Wolpe was ready to go. His ideas sounded solid: His first priority was to try to create a new donor coordination group, something akin to the CIAT grouping of major donors during the 2003-2006 transition. This made a lot of sense too many advocates, who were baffled by how scattered donors’ effort had been since the 2006 elections and how little leverage the international community seemed to have despite having 20,000 troops in the Congo and providing over a half of the government’s budget. Wolpe said he would work with the Europeans and even try to bring in the Chinese into a coordination group.

His second idea also made a lot of sense: Prioritize security sector reform (SSR). For long term stability in the East, the government will have to stop negotiating with every neighborhood militia as it currently does. It will also have to stop preying on its own population – hence the importance of SSR. Previous efforts have trained isolated battalions but not systematically addressed the institutional problems at the heart of the problem. Again, we all applauded.

Then, in early August, Hillary Clinton visited the Congo and the policy priorities seemed to slip. Sources in State said: “She’s been briefed at sexual violence is at the top of her list.” Great, because the brutalization of women is a huge problem and could be an avenue towards getting at real reform of the justice system, the army and the police. Right? Nope. Clinton visited hospitals and pledged $17 million to combat sexual violence. That’s right, $17 million, which is about 2% of annual humanitarian aid to the Congo. To make matters worse, there were suggestions that she wanted to construct a new hospital instead of giving to the existing, well-functioning fistula hospitals Heal Africa (Goma) and Panzi (Bukavu). The cherry on the cake was the suggestion that she wanted to fund video cameras so that rape victims could film their attackers. Maybe not such a good idea, given that there attackers usually have AK-47s and come in groups of 2-8. (Texas in Africa blogged on this here and here.)

In any case, Wolpe and Clinton came back without any discernible achievements. Finally, to make matters worse, the government has only been able to confirm one position in USAID – where most of the money is – since it came in: the Administrator, Rajiv Shah. All the other positions have been stymied in bureaucracy, apparently due to wrangling between State Dept (read: Clinton) and the White House, in part due to bad blood that emerged during the campaign, in part just to regular turf war.

So what gives? No comprehensive approach to Congo policy emerged over the coming six months. Elsewhere, as for Somalia, there has been an inter-agency process of developing a united approach to conflicts (not that it has had much success there). Why not for the Congo? I hope we find out this coming week.

I should qualify my negativity with two good things that have happened:

  • According to diplomats, the US military is apparently doing a decent/good job in training a battalion of Congolese soldiers in Kisangani – not comprehensive SSR, but not bad.
  • We now have an impressive coterie of diplomats in Goma following the situation very closely – there are US, UK, French and Belgian representatives based there now. Not that it has made a huge difference – they mostly report back to capital and don’t get too involved in the peace process. But at least we have a finger on the pulse

Ok, so that wasn’t exactly a ray of sunshine in the darkness. Maybe a glow stick.

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