Having just flown out of Congo this morning I read Nicholas Kristof’s column Congo Ignored in the NY Times while sitting in an airport lounge in Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes that the raping and death in eastern Congo is one of the most ignored humanitarian crises in the world today. He says it’s a horrific war zone where barbarism has been inflicted on people for several months. He hopes the world will give Congo the same compassion it is currently bringing to Haiti.
He’s correct, Congo’s suffering is ignored by the world community and the bodies just keep piling up. However, I’d go him one further. It’s not only the war zone that needs immediate, urgent attention. The whole of the Congo needs it. Certainly eastern Congo needs it most of all, and most urgently. But this country is in a frustrating long-term fix. Someone with influence and power should address it. The E.E.C., U.S. and China are the most likely outside powers who could bring influence to bear.
Mining extraction and economic trade have not worked to the advantage of the people, but they are enriching elites. This is a the long-term reality, dating as far back as Belgian colonialism two hundred years ago.
Only yesterday I walked with a group of aid specialists through a suburb of Lumbumbashi with twenty thousand residents. The infection rate from malaria is high. Standing water, open sewers, a contaminated water table and scarcely any economic infrastructure for jobs or businesses makes this place one of the poorest suburbs in the world.
The only way out is for the people to be empowered through community organization to create better conditions for themselves. This will take support from outside because their resources are limited–their own hands and hopes. Powerful as these are, they still need training in marketable skills. They need cash resources, education, materials for better housing and shops, clean water, improved roads and sanitation.
This won’t just happen, it will come with community organization. And that won’t happen unless the community leaders are empowered and trained. So long as people live in poverty conditions they assume they have no voice and they live as if they have no power. No one listens to them and no one pays them any attention. Congo ignored, as Kristof correctly writes.
Eastern Congo, central Congo and western Congo. Urgent as the deaths are in the east, and disgusting as the raping that is part of the strategy of intimidation and terror, death by malaria, malnutrition and infectious diseases such as malaria are no less significant.
With the smells of that suburb still in my nostrils and the dust still on my shoes, I agree with Kristof that the world must pay attention, and more. It must stop the dying in the east and the west through enlightened policies, peacekeeping and community-based development. And it can be done.
I’ll write more about that next.