It’s OK to go to Congo (and New York)

By John Nelson, May 29, 2010

Despite its reputation, Congo is a friendly place  -  Photo by John Nelson ©

Despite its reputation, Congo is a friendly place - Photo by John Nelson ©

When I say I am going to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), eyebrows generally raise, and “Is that a good idea?” is murmured under furrowed brow.

Everyone who reads news knows that the area in and around the densely populated mountains along the borders of Rwanda and Uganda pulses with armed groups variously engaged in murder, rape and unbelievable extortion as they compete for natural resources. The rhythmic regional violence resulting in millions of deaths and the sexual slavery of women is extreme, promoted by greed over the region’s natural wealth, and continues to linger despite the best efforts of the national government and the United Nations MONUC forces to drive it away.

Meanwhile the DRC government continues to recover from decades of national neglect encouraged by successive kleptocratic regimes, and low government investment including dismal civil service salaries that encouraged rent-seeking behaviour down to the lowest level. With such persistent chaos it is no wonder that the DRC is still rated 160 out of 182 by Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, landing just behind its much smaller neighbour, the Republic of Congo.

However, not flying to the capital Kinshasa for the above reasons is akin to not flying from London to Dallas, because it is so close to LA, or in the 1970s, to New York City, which also had a very bad reputation, although no civil war, so fewer deaths. Like Chicago and El Paso, or Amsterdam and Ankara, Kinshasa and the horror of eastern DRC are worlds apart.

DRC is the 2nd largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), covering 2.34 million square kilometres, of which more than 40% – or 1 million square kilometres – is covered by forest. Most people live in urban areas, so the forests and savannas of the central region are home to only about 20 million people, including around 600,000 aboriginal forest people relying upon one of the richest and largest remaining tracts of rainforest in the world.

Most of the rest of the population is crowded within arm’s reach of the urban agglomerations in the east – from the dry southern mining districts of Katanga northwards to Bunia near the Uganda border – or are spread around the western provinces between the coast and Mbandaka – or, for you folks from Kansas, a figurative Pennsylvania, Colorado or North Carolina.

The lack of government investment in DRC over many decades means that long-distance road travel is still a bit complicated. Checkpoints, rough roads, clumsy and frankly dubious bridges and giant mudholes slow your trip. However there is consequently a well developed private air network joining most of the major towns, which might be less risky when you finally decide to go.

River transport is still key to community travel in DRC<br /> investments in DRC infrastructure needed<br /> Photo by John Nelson ©

River transport is still key to community travel in DRC
investments in DRC infrastructure needed
Photo by John Nelson ©


Travelling to these towns you will find a sophisticated and welcoming civil society made up of local peoples struggling to build their provincial economies. Most are doing this with limited national level support, and a chronic shortage of investment capital. Churches, private schools and universities, and bulging markets are the norm, and most import supply shortages are due to the lack of effective transport, not a lack of cash. In 2010 DRC has the 3rd largest population in SSA, and a rapidly growing population pushing a growing economy hampered by 1960s infrastructure.

We know from official statistics that around 70% of DRC’s recorded GDP come from trade – mostly of minerals or oil – but its double digit growth does not take into account many internal markets that are beyond the reach of the state control – like agriculture or private construction – which continue to generate the large amounts of cash required to pay extortionate local prices for basic goods and services, like building supplies, fuel, water and electricity. Private buildings are going up everywhere in Central Africa, poured in concrete and steel, so a lot of money is being made.

With support from international donors like the World Bank, large infrastructure projects including power, roads, rail, and ports are planned to help overcome key bottlenecks. Many international investors aim to take advantage of these developments and are preparing to initiate or increase (yes, many have been around a long time) their own investments in oil exploration, mining and agro-industries in DRC. The promise on everyone’s lips is that this revenue will enable the government and private sector to develop the nation, and they will all become rich in the process.

After generations of virtual serfdom, economic decline and political chaos, criticisms about threats to the environment or human rights from a high development and growth path – primarily by Northern activists promoting what sounds to many Africans as low growth – fall on deaf ears in DRC. You can taste the anticipation of future wealth everywhere in the exuberance of peoples’ aspirations and, naturally, the brilliant fashions of the millions of urbain yet very poor Congolese, who all use mobile phones.

Kinshasa skyline - a little bit like New York?<br />  Photo by John Nelson ©

Kinshasa skyline – a little bit like New York?
Photo by John Nelson ©


Going out of the provincial towns and into the rural villages where many of these urban dwellers were born, you will fully understand why these big investments in DRC are so popular. National infant mortality currently stands at 10%, with 16% of children dying before the age of 5. This compares with an infant mortality rate in the UK of less than half of one percent. A Congolese women on average will probably start to bear children between the ages of 15 and 19, and will give birth to at least 6 children, who on current projections will beat the odds if they live beyond 50. The Human Development Index rates DRC 176 out of 182.

The rural population mostly live in naturally well-endowed areas, but their wattle and mud daub houses and tumble-down schools belie their rich volcanic soils perfect for crops like potatoes, or their primary rainforests filled with invaluable biodiversity, and hardwoods, all overlapping mineral deposits and oil. These would normally be investment hotspots for local people – look at western Uganda, for example, where a boom in land prices is currently underway. However in most places in DRC local peoples’ access to the market is severely limited, so securing basic family subsistence needs remains paramount, and there is little financial capital to invest in anything.

Most rural residents have feeble access to education and health services, and a moribund agricultural economy of basic food staples means that few people anticipate other than gloomy long-term economic prospects for their local area, as “the system” continues to ignore their plight. To the horror of international environmentalists, many local and indigenous forest peoples are desperate for loggers and miners to come to their areas because they will bring roads, jobs and cash. Many other rural people are moving closer to towns where basic services are better – African urbanisation is rooted in the universal desire for a better life.

A recent study by the World Bank estimates that the DRC needs more than $30 billion of annual investment in its infrastructure. Past history and the current economic crisis suggests that most of this investment will have to come from the private sector, who do not traditionally send money they cannot follow. Far too many private investors are prevented from travelling to Congo by histrionic accounts of the dangers, thus closing off a key source of global economic growth.

New York is safer now than a few decades ago and so is Kinshasa. Corruption, once the sine qua non of local politics, and the easiest route to securing access to natural resources, is reducing, and local people are now investing like mad. With the support of the international community the government is constructing a national infrastructure and especially its transport network and modern regulation, and if more funds are enabled to leave Kinshasa and the provincial capitols they will increase peoples’ access to better education and health services, and longer and more productive lives. These are the basis for the Millennium Development Goals that underpin almost all bilateral investment programmes to Africa.

However progress is complicated, technical capacities need support, and there is clearly a long way to go. In most of Congo – where there are no armed conflicts – rural people remain poor, uneducated and politically disenfranchised, and just “hope that a road comes through here soon.” In the 1890s it took two weeks to cross the Atlantic and in the 1920s, up to two months to cross the United States by road. People from around the world continued to come to New York City anyway and this has been a key to its success. Come to Congo soon.

*John Nelson*
Director, Africa Delivers
12th April 2010

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