By CINDY MCCAIN *
I’ve just returned from a sobering and illuminating trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), site of the deadliest conflict since World War II, joining a delegation that included Sens. Lindsey Graham, John Barrasso, Roy Blunt, Saxby Chambliss, Mike Johanns, and John Thune.
It was a trip that almost didn’t happen. In the days leading up to our arrival, rebels from the M23 militia fired mortar shells into eastern Congo’s provincial capital of Goma, our planned destination, clashing with government forces and U.N. peacekeepers, and killing several civilians. This is just the latest instance of violence that has displaced more than 100,000 Congolese from their homes in the last few weeks, adding to the 2.2 million displaced since the beginning of 2012.
Since last November’s invasion of Goma by the M23 militia, Africa’s Great Lakes region has received a great deal of attention from the international community. In February, 11 countries — including DRC, Rwanda and Uganda — signed the U.N.-sponsored Framework for Peace, outlining a process which, if followed, could help create lasting stability across the region’s porous and militia-infected borders.
Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson and former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold have been dispatched by the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, respectively, to bring high-level engagement and ensure this opportunity for peace does not pass. Kerry went to the United Nations last month to chair a Security Council meeting focused solely on this conflict.
Yet, for all this positive political and diplomatic activity, life for the people in eastern Congo remains the same, mired in a crisis rooted not only in conflict, but in extreme poverty.
Unemployment remains high, with youth unemployment eclipsing 70 percent in some areas, providing few alternatives to the allure of taking up arms in one of the dozens of active militias. Despite the ongoing violence, a recent opinion poll conducted by Eastern Congo Initiative found that 65 percent of Congolese believe jobs, the economy, and poverty are their country’s most pressing concerns.
Every time I visit Goma, I meet some of the people behind these numbers. I know the long odds they face. But as we saw Sunday, even with armed U.N. peacekeepers patrolling the streets and a militia surrounding their town, they work together, every day, to build a more prosperous future for their families and communities. Amid the chaos in eastern Congo, there is tremendous opportunity.
By all accounts, Congo should be the breadbasket of Africa. Agriculture comprises nearly half of GDP, while the sector employs 84 percent of Congolese working women. And while Congo’s borders contain enough arable land to feed a third of the world’s population, only 2 percent is farmed because of lack of investment and infrastructure.
The U.S. private sector has already recognized the remarkable potential of Congolese agriculture by investing millions in the region to improve Congolese crops and provide farmers with access to global markets. Companies like Seattle-based Theo Chocolate and Equal Exchange have turned the fruits of these labors into high-end, profitable products such as gourmet chocolate and specialty coffee that can be found in American supermarkets.
The Congolese have lived with insecurity since 1994. Despite all the odds, they have continued to develop an economy with enormous potential for growth. This is the time to encourage more public and private investment, not less, because economic stability is vital to establishing peace. USAID’s development investments in eastern Congo are a spark for economic growth and stability. I encourage the agency to continue this critical work and resist the urge to pull development funding out of the region.
The United States and the U.N. must accept that Congo is not a “guns versus butter” proposition — the armed conflict and economic instability are not isolated events, but intrinsically linked. We’ve seen first-hand that the situation on the ground is complex, and so the path to peace must be similarly comprehensive. Agricultural investment and economic assistance are fundamental components of this plan, and the United States should lead these efforts.
In the face of persistent conflict, it may be a natural reaction to turn away from the complexity and risk, but the smart bet is to lean into the opportunity. The U.S. private sector has already started down this path, and the U.S. government and USAID must maintain the courage to support their constituents as they invest in the opportunities of the Congolese economy, and in the potential of the Congolese people. There is no better investment we can make.