07 August, 2009

I'm in Congo!

Since I am here, an Open Letter to Mrs. Clinton from Texas in Africa:

an open letter

Dear Secretary Clinton,

So you're in Africa. From what I've seen, you did your best to prepare for what was clearly a trip undertaken on short notice. Meeting with several academics for dinner beforehand was a good move (although it would be nice if next time more than one were actually African), and I have no doubt that you're doing your best to handle the mind-boggling array of issues in places as diverse as Nigeria and Cape Verde.

I've been fairly disappointed with the current administration's Africa policy thus far; most of the pronouncements and speeches are more of the same old thing, and giving more weapons to a Somali government that cannot govern is a terrible idea. Making public promises to Sheikh Sharif is essentially the kiss of death for his administration; his association with the United States makes him a target and I fear that he will almost certainly be assassinated in Mogadishu one of these days. Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing anything at all. Did you know, for example, that Somalia wasn't really a hotbed for groups associated with al Qaeda until the Bush administration suggested it might be?

What should change in the policy? Harsh words used at an appropriate time can be helpful, but you've got to take it a step farther if we are to see real change in the region. Kenya's leaders need more than a slap on the wrist. They need to see their aid budget cut. They need to have to explain to the people why the government can't fund programs because of their theft from the public coffers. Taking action won't necessarily hurt the Kenyan people; aid can be redirected to programs that are administered by NGO's (and the more local NGO's involved, the better), religious groups, and civic associations.

What I really want to talk about, however, about is your upcoming visit to Goma. I think it's great that you're headed there. You have to get out of Kinshasa to understand the country and its governance problems, and you will not understand the conflict in full - or how pitiful and inadequate the international response to it is - without going to the east and meeting some of the victims. On your visit to Heal Africa's incredible hospital, you will see things that will shock your system and make it difficult for you to give that speech. You will meet little girls who've been gang raped by soldiers and who can no longer talk or feed themselves. You'll see mothers and their children who live in a kind of poverty that does not compare with what you see in Kenya or South Africa or Ghana or any of the places you've previously visited on the continent. Remind yourself that this is the norm in eastern Congo. What has happened to the few few people you'll meet on a quick tour are not exceptions, indeed, the only difference between them and the 5 million Congolese who've died since 1998 is that someone is helping them. These are people who have seen the worst things that human beings can do to one another. You will not be the same after hearing their stories.

But the people of the Congo don't need you to see and be shocked by their situation. They need you to do something. They need you to go beyond the rhetoric. So I am begging you: please make this trip different. The world doesn't need another predictable Jeffrey Gettleman story about rape in the Congo and how yet another politician or celebrity is shocked by what she saw in Goma on a MONUC-accompanied trip through the hospital. Jendayi Fraser, Ben Affleck, Anderson Cooper, Nick Kristof, Lucy Liu - they've all been there and done that. And almost nothing has resulted from their efforts to publicize the situation.

What could you do instead? You can use this trip as an opportunity to commit the United States to providing serious help for the eastern Congo. Yes, you can. Really. It would not be that expensive beyond what we're already donating to the country. (For one thing, redirecting some of the resources that we waste by sending them through Kinshasa, where they're plundered by national officials, could make the use of aid dollars far more effective.) Here are some changes you could push for - or even announce - while in the Congo:
  • A U.S.-backed effort to send adequate numbers of peacekeeping forces into the territory. MONUC force strength is beyond pitiful right now; that territory cannot be secured with 18,000 men, no matter how well-trained they are. If the world is serious about ending the conflict and the suffering in the DRC, there need to be 100,000 peacekeepers deployed throughout the country. Those peacekeepers should have the authority to work independently of the FARDC against rebel forces. Otherwise, you'll end up with operations like Kimia II, which only hurt the population.
  • Taking a harder-line stance against Rwanda's extracurricular adventures in the DRC and authoritarian tendencies at home. That you are not visiting Kigali on this trip is huge, and don't think the Rwandans haven't noticed that they've been snubbed by the wife of a former president who visits their country every summer for his foundation's work. They are trying to figure this out. The best thing you could do is to force the Uganda-raised Tutsis running Kigali to get the message that they cannot continue to govern by cabal and that stealing minerals from their neighbors is not acceptable behavior for a country that wants to be taken seriously on the world stage. Kigali also needs to be reminded of the importance of a free press and the development of a political opposition, and that countries that don't allow such things generally don't get to be called "democracies."
  • Commit more American resources to fighting HIV/AIDS in the Congo. If you have HIV in Rwanda or Uganda, it's fairly easy to get access to ARV's and other forms of treatment. If, however, you're a resident of North Kivu, there are hardly any ARV's there. The people of the Congo are painfully aware of these facts. We know that the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate for the DRC is vastly underreported; incomplete population data and the inability to conduct comprehensive epidemiological surveys mean that there are probably far more HIV+ individuals in the region than those currently counted as infected. Did you know that as of 2007, only 65 HIV+ children in Goma could be treated with ARV's - using Clinton Foundation funds? That's shameful, and given that the U.S. government has found a way to work with Congolese health officials in the PNMLS program in other provinces (including neighboring South Kivu) there's really no excuse not to do more. Commit serious PEPFAR funds to North Kivu.
  • Focus on what already works. The basic problem in the eastern Congo is one of governance, not mineral access or even the violence. Because Kinshasa does not control what happens in the Kivus, the door is opened for the whole host of other problems, the effects of which you'll see in your time in Goma. That said, life for most Congolese is not entirely chaos. There are hospitals and schools and community development programs run by and for locals that are far more effective and sustainable than the multimillion dollar international aid projects to which so many U.S. resources are directed. While you're in Goma, you should visit the Catholic procurate. They will tell you about the tens of thousands of Congolese children their Church educates on behalf of the state, typically with extremely limited resources. Or go off the beaten path and visit the CBCA Virunga Hospital, which - despite having almost no international support beyond that provided by the American Baptist Churches - serves as the general hospital for more than half of Goma's population. These institutions are already doing the work we want to see being done in the eastern Congo. It's far better to support their efforts than to fund yet another misguided, "expert"-driven project that won't help anybody in the long run.
I know you have a lot to accomplish and very little time to spend in the DRC. But this is an opportunity to go beyond the usual rhetoric, to surprise us, and to give the Congolese people some much-needed hope. By and large, our current policies towards Africa do not work. What have we got to lose?