Viewed from the inside, the twin projects of peacebuilding and development—and the efforts of those who devote their lives to them— appear as ways in which citizens of privileged nations can live morally in an increasingly globalized world. Global media, multinational commerce, a plethora of NGOs and aid organizations and easy travel mean that citizens of North America or Europe can quite easily have an impact on the lives of those living in the Global South. It follows logically, then, that the world’s privileged class (and especially, the Western, educated and comparatively wealthy individuals who make up the bulk of foreign aid workers) should do its best to make sure that that relationship is a healthy one. Given the enormous wealth disparity that exists between the haves and have-nots of the world, a “healthy relationship” can be simplistically and problematically construed to mean a relationship based on giving, in which the role of wealthy nations is to donate and the role of poor ones is to receive (and, presumably, to be grateful for the help). That is, at least, the attitude held by many citizens of the U.S., Canada and Europe. It is an attitude, moreover, that aid organizations—many of which are themselves dependent on donations for their continued existence—often do their best to foster and encourage.
The murky waters of development and security
In his 2001 book, Global Governance and the New Wars, veteran researcher Mark Duffield lays out a framework to challenge the “we give, you receive” narrative that has dominated perceptions of the humanitarian industry for so long. Duffield argues that since the end of the Cold War, Western governments have increasingly grown to conceptualize and portray “undeveloped” countries as sources of potential conflict and war. Development, then, has been increasingly reimagined—sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally—as governance-by-proxy, a means of encouraging or requiring aid recipients to adopt certain values or practices (often oriented towards “stability”) as a quid-pro-quo for any aid received (Duffield 8). Although these values or practices appear, at face value, constructive (taking the form of anti-corruption measures or governance reforms), the net effect, Duffield argues, is to nudge developing countries towards creating only those societies that are acceptable to donor governments. Non-governmental aid organizations often fall into the same trap.
Viewed from this angle, the humanitarian project becomes less about “healthy global relationships” than about a twenty-first-century continuation of the colonial project: the practice of wealthy countries reshaping poor ones according to their own wishes. The picture grows increasingly grim with the concerns voiced by a recent African Union study which estimated that, largely because of exploitation and tax evasion by foreign actors, African economies actually subsidize the rest of the world. The study’s authors estimated that the amount of money lost by Africa in this way was between three to ten times as high as the amount of development aid received in the same period (African Union 64). In this light, the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world is starkly exploitative: with one hand, the world economy extracts money from the African continent; with the other hand, it returns a portion of that money, while demanding societal reforms in return. Granted, donor governments may impose reforms and conditions on African governments receiving assistance with beneficial intentions. Yet these good intentions do not remove the objectionable nature of donor governments feeling entitled to impose internal change on African countries. Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete recently stated that “It is unacceptable for our development partners to use their aid stick to pressure us to do certain things… We will reach a point where we will say this is too degrading… Keep your aid” (cited in Ng’wanakilala).
The Congo example
In the eastern provinces of the DRC, the dynamics described above are clearly visible. International actors—the United Nations, the European Union and dozens upon dozens of NGOs—are everywhere, involved in security and governance reform, infrastructure improvement, provision of social services and more. Many, if not most, of the functions of the public and nonprofit sectors have been assumed by international actors. The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) assumes some of the duties normally filled by the police and army (including a “peace enforcement” division of peacekeepers called the Force Intervention Brigade, the first ever UN peacekeeping unit legally allowed to carry out offensive combat missions in support of UN goals). The European Union finances road and water pipeline construction. Schools and hospitals receive support from a raft of international NGOs.
Given the trend of humanitarian organizations towards working with local partners, the majority of Congolese civil society and nonprofit organizations receive at least some foreign assistance, meaning that local organizations are encouraged to align themselves with Western values in the hopes of receiving funding. Although some funding organizations take it as a priority to support the values and perspectives of local partners, such is not always the case. Many donors adopt a top-down perspective, with local “implementing partners” expected to follow the lead of the donors with which they work.
More troubling still, from an anti-imperialist perspective, were certain aspects of the United Nations’ actions following Congo’s civil war from 1998 to 2002. In the transitional period that followed the negotiated end of the war, UN delegates wrote portions of the constitution and threatened to withhold aid if the final document was not deemed “acceptable” (Autesserre 2010). Meanwhile, the DRC’s rich mineral deposits, combined with continued instability and the relative ease of smuggling goods and resources in and out of the country, make the country a prime target for private-sector exploitation. The majority of the profits from the sale of the DRC’s minerals wind up outside of the country. The African Union’s report named the DRC as one of the nations most vulnerable to revenue loss from illegal financial flows (African Union 16).
Moving forward Though many of the reforms and changes encouraged by international agencies and foreign governments are intended to be constructive, the system as a whole has the effect of removing agency and control from Congolese actors and placing them in the hands of decision-makers in Europe or North America. Are other forms of international engagement in the DRC possible that do not diminish Congolese agency? The humanitarian goal of living in a healthy relationship with the rest of the world is still a noble one, I would argue, so long as that goal is pursued in a constructive way. The systemic privilege of Western nations is an established, though unfortunate, reality—but the simplified relationship of “we give, you receive” espoused by many aid organizations does more to reinforce that privilege than to deconstruct it. What is needed, then, is the forging of truly mutual relationships between international actors and Congolese (and other African) governments and civil society organizations that increase the capacity for self-determination and local agency and decrease the pernicious presence of neo-colonial interventionism that still shapes much of the West’s engagement with Africa. Heeding the advice of the African Union and taking steps to limit illicit financial flows out of Africa would be a good start.
Patrick Maxwell is MCC’s Eastern Congo Peacebuilding Coordinator.
For more, check out the Summer issue of Intersections on Conflict, Reconciliation and Partnership in Africa’s Great Lakes Region.