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What is Obama doing for the Congo?

There has rarely been as much attention to the Congo in the U.S. as now.

During his campaign and at his Nobel acceptance speech, Obama mentioned Congo several times. As a senator, he co-sponsored the sweeping Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act. In 2006, when he visited Africa, he was even supposed to make a brief stop in the Congo, but was prevented to do so because of violence. Since Obama’s inauguration, Hillary Clinton has visited the Congo, the first secretary of state to do so since Madeleine Albright went in 1997 (the highest level official under Bush to go was the Labor Secretary, I believe). Many pundits hailed the nomination of « Special Envoy » Howard Wolpe to the Great Lakes Region last year. On the legislative side, two bills that tackle transparency in the natural resource sector have been submitted to the House and Senate, respectively.

The result of all of this? Not a whole lot. Yes, USAID’s budget has increased from $131 to $171 million from 2009 to 2010 (out of a total of around $640 million in humanitarian aid). But, as donors in Kinshasa wring their hands about how little leverage they have on the Congo to improve human rights, reform the army and empower institutions, the Obama administration has failed to use its considerable clout. After all, the US has a huge say in the World Bank and IMF, who provide almost $1 billion in aid each year to the Congo and who bailed the country out last year to the tune of $600 million during the financial crisis. The US also has an important vote in the Paris Club, which recently forgave up to $7 billion (total amount is not clear) in Congo’s debt.

Hillary Clinton’s visit to Goma and Kinshasa was welcome, but the only concrete outcome was a pledge of $17 million to help rape survivors. Good, and money is always welcome, but let’s face it – a drop in the bucket and nothing to tackle the real problem of preventing new rapes. Also (as Wronging Rights points out) part of Clinton’s plan is to give camcorder to women so they can film their rapists. Yes, c’est vrai.

The US has opened a diplomatic office in Goma, where the State Department has posted a knowledgeable diplomat – the guy there now used to be the head of State’s Congo & Rwanda Desks and has worked on the region for two decades – and has hired several private consultants. But it isn’t clear how much impact this is having on US policy. Howard Wolpe, the « Special Envoy » I mentioned before is actually just a special adviser on the Great Lakes who has apparently become marginalized in the inter-agency process.

The fact of the matter is that there has not been a coherent strategy for the Congo since the 2006 elections. That goes for all the donors, not just the US. Back during the transition, everybody had their eyes on the lodestar, the elections, and worked moderately well getting there, Now, we talk about state building, but don’t know how to go about doing it, we wring out hands at not having leverage and then disburse billions in aid to the government. The US does not have a strategy document on the Congo as they do for other countries – there are some papers floating around State and other agencies, but nothing comprehensive with the appropriate carrots and sticks attached.

Some important decisions are coming up.

  • The US will soon nominate a new ambassador to the Congo;
  • MONUC’s mandate will be up for renewal in June this year and the Security Council will have to decide whether the mission will downsize to become a « stabilization » mission;
  • At some point in the coming year, donors will have to decide how they want to oversee and finance the 2011 elections and whether they want to support real decentralization as conceived by the 2005 constitution;
  • Donors will also have to choose whether they want to move forwards on other important initiatives they have been kicking around: Security sector reform (including judicial reform) and transparency in the natural resource sector being two of the most important.

Nothing I have seen from the US (or most other donors) so far leads me to believe that we have a good plan for any of this. I hope I can be proved wrong.

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