International donors spent $70 million to shore up democracy in the DRC. Here’s why it made little difference.
- By Tom O'BryanTom O’Bryan is a U.K. Kennedy Scholar at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a Researcher at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, analyzing conflict zone transformation. He is also the co-author of Narrating the Arab Spring.
Countless studies have shown that democracies are less likely to go to war, torture their own citizens, and censor the media. That’s one reason why Western governments and philanthropic foundations funnel more than $10 billion every year into promoting democracy overseas. For example, donors fund efforts to help train election observers, educate voters about their rights, and train local media outlets to cover political issues.
In the last year, more than $70 million have been spent on such projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a poor and fragile country emerging from over two decades of armed conflict. That may sound like a lot of money, but in relative terms it’s not. The American, British and Canadian governments alone spent more than eight times that amount on democracy promotion in Afghanstan during the country’s most recent elections.
In this instance — as in so many others — the international community has failed. The DRC’s president, Joseph Kabila, is decidedly unpopular. After enduring 15 years of his rule, which have been marked by corruption, conflict, and rising inequality, fewer than 10 percent of Congolese want him to remain in power. Almost all of the country’s diverse ethnic and social groups are united in opposition, and violent protests are growing increasingly common.
But last month, in a naked grab for power, Kabila’s administration managed to manipulate supposedly independent institutions — in particular the Elections Commission (CENI) and the Constitutional Court — to execute a “constitutional coup d’état,” delaying elections until 2018 or beyond. A number of opposition parties have agreed to support Kabila’s scheming in exchange for plum positions in his cabinet.
In this light, it’s hard not to wonder if all the Western democracy assistance was a waste of time and money. But it’s important to understand that democracy promotion is not destined to fail. When executed correctly and informed by rigorous analysis and a common strategy, such programs have made a crucial difference in building democracy around the world.
The DRC offers lessons for the international community on how not to promote democracy overseas, and of the negative consequences of under-investment in these critical projects. I spent months researching democracy promotion in the DRC and found little evidence of a common strategy guiding the efforts of international donors and NGOs. Hesitant to upset the Congolese government, funders avoided supporting politically-sensitive projects that might have made a difference. They also funneled their resources towards a small geographic area within the DRC, marginalizing millions of Congolese as a result.
The international community has neglected several important obstacles to democratization in the DRC. More than 46 percent of democracy promotion projects in the country focus on monitoring and observation or civic education. But, despite the fragmented and disorganized nature of the DRC’s 400-plus opposition parties, just 2 percent of donor efforts have focused on building political parties’ capacity and only 1.4 percent on training candidates for public office. Harvard’s Pippa Norris finds that opposition parties with strong internal coordination and an enabling legal context can help improve democratic outcomes, mobilizing citizens to participate and hold the government to account. Congo’s opposition parties were unable to prevent Kabila from violating the constitution and extending his stay in power, despite a groundswell of grassroots engagement and protests.
Even as Kabila seeks to coopt independent institutions like the CENI, only 6 percent of donor-funded democracy promotion initiatives have sought to reinforce these public electoral bodies. These also include the Constitutional Court, judicial structures designed to mediate contested election results, and parliamentary institutions responsible for approving the electoral calendar. Effective electoral institutions can improve the quality and legitimacy of popular votes. But the Kabila regime has had little difficulty in sweeping these bodies aside.
Despite the clear evidence of their importance, the international community clearly decided not to fund democracy promotion projects that focused on these issues. One explanation may be the perceived sensitivity of such projects, particularly in the eyes of the Congolese government, which regards efforts to work with the opposition or conduct polls as a threat to its authority. “It’s tough for us to be seen as working against the government these days,” one international donor told me on condition of anonymity. “It’s getting harder and harder, and more and more dangerous, to work on these issues in Congo.” In recent months, the Kabila regime has expelled numerous experts working on these issues, such as leading Congo analyst Jason Stearns. Kevin Sturr, a senior USAID official, was arrested along with a score of Congolese activists at a training workshop in March 2015.
If the international community concedes to authoritarian governments’ threats and ignores salient issues, it’s not surprising that democracy promotion efforts will founder. Governments fear such projects for the very reason that they represent a threat to its ability to subvert democracy and strengthen legitimate albeit unwelcomed checks and balances on its power. That’s exactly why such efforts are so important.
There’s also the problem of which regions to focus on. I found that Kinshasa, the country’s capital, and a few of the volatile eastern provinces, received the lion’s share of democracy promotion funding. Donors invested $3.34 per person in democracy promotion efforts in South Kivu; $3.28 per person in Maniema; and $1.94 per person in Kinshasa. These funds financed large-scale media campaigns to educate voters about where and how they can vote and frequent town hall meetings to explore the most important issues facing the community.
But funders neglected many other provinces, including those at highest risk of future electoral violence. The international community invested just five cents per person in Ituri — less than 60 times the amount spent in South Kivu. Ituri is one of the least stable and most tense areas in the country: Armed groups continue to stoke inter-ethnic tension and commit serious human rights abuses. And without significant investment in efforts to defuse these tensions and reinforce electoral institutions, elections may themselves spark an intensification of violence in this tinderbox province. Donors have failed to confront this reality.
Preventing authoritarian leaders from subverting democracy ultimately requires more than just donor dollars. It also requires diplomatic pressure. In the DRC, it’s been a case of too little, too late. World leaders’ statements of “deep concern,” calling for Kabila to usher in Congo’s first peaceful and democratic transition of power, have had minimal impact.
President Obama has led the way in imposing sanctions on Congolese leaders responsible for engineering Kabila’s continued rule, subverting the constitution and crushing peaceful protests. But the U.S. government has imposed asset freezes on just three officials so far. And even those limited sanctions came in June and September of this year, even though moves to prolong Kabila’s presidency began as early as late 2014. Despite its stated deep concern, the European Council continues to wait and see before following suit and imposing its own sanctions.
It’s time for the international community’s actions in the DRC to match its rhetoric. The $70 million allocated for democracy promotion in the DRC is insufficient for a country almost as large as Western Europe. Donors should invest greater resources in this effort, prioritizing sensitive but critical efforts to reinforce political parties and strengthen supposedly independent institutions.
Multilateral sanctions on Kabila’s closest allies and advisors — including Vice Prime Minister Évariste Boshab, spy chief Kalev Mutond, and Communications Minister Lambert Mende — would ratchet up the pressure on the Congolese government to stage elections as soon as possible. These individuals have great sway over the President’s decisionmaking and could push Kabila to stand aside.
In decades and centuries past, the international community has often found itself on the wrong side of history in the DRC. And as Joseph Kabila clings to power against the wishes of the people and against the tenets of the constitution, history looks set to repeat itself. Future generations of Congolese may look back at this troubled and violent era of their country’s history and wonder why the world didn’t do more.
In the photo, protesters face anti-riot police in Goma on October 19 during a demonstration against plans by President Joseph Kabila to stay in power beyond the end of his term in December.
Photo credit: MUSTAFA MULOPWE/AFP/Getty Images