Student Focus: Promoting Democracy in the Congo

Over half a century after the assassination of Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba —  the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is still waiting for its first peaceful transition of political power. 

Though Congo’s constitution required the country’s current president Joseph Kabila to step down from office last December as his second five-year term as president ended, elections have again been postponed — and few observers have faith that voting will take place anytime soon. Among this group is Tom O’Bryan MPP ’17, former Advocacy and Communications Manager for the Eastern Congo Initiative, an advocacy organization founded by actor Ben Affleck focused on promoting economic and social development in the country’s wartorn eastern provinces. After spending two years in the country, O’Bryan was all too familiar with the behind the scenes political machinations keeping President Kabila in power in Kinshasa.

Kabila’s strategy for holding power has come to be known as ‘glissement’ in French, translated as ‘slippage’ in English. As O’Bryan describes it, Kabila is, “basically creating so many administrative challenges that it’s logistically impossible to hold elections on time.” Though Kabila’s government is negotiating with political stakeholders to potentially hold presidential elections before the end of 2017, the postponement exemplifies the challenges facing democracy in the Congo today.

When O’Bryan came to Cambridge in the fall of 2015 to start his MPP after working in the Congo, he was determined to continue his efforts to help promote democratic governance in the DRC. He turned to contacts in the government, Congolese civil society, and the diplomatic and development communities, and asked, “What’s holding the country back from achieving democracy? And what role can the international community play?” He heard one clear answer, that while there is donor money flowing into the DRC to support democracy, there is limited information on what is going on and where it is happening, and, as a result, donors are uncoordinated in their efforts — and often end up duplicating each other’s work.

“So I said to myself, okay, how can we respond to that challenge? How can we make it easier for donors to make smart investments in Congolese democracy,” said O’Bryan. In trying to answer these questions, O’Bryan, with an independent research grant from the Ash Center, created the Congo Democracy Project (CDP), a digital platform providing independent analysis and original data and research on elections and democratic governance in the DRC.

O’Bryan embarked on a systematic data collection trip in the Congo, engaging organizations across the country working towards democratic governance. Returning to Harvard, O’Bryan had a trove of data that allowed him to start piecing together a better picture of democracy promotion efforts in the DRC. Looking at the data, O’Bryan arrived at three major conclusions:

First, O’Bryan quickly determined that international support earmarked to strengthen Congo’s democratic institutions simply was not sufficient. Millions might be pledged by donors, but in comparison it has taken billions of dollars for other wartorn countries, like Afghanistan, to establish democratic institutions and processes. Even then, progress has been tenuous at best.

Second, according to O’Bryan, funding is not being driven by a cohesive, overarching strategy. For example, O’Bryan estimated that more than 50 percent of international funding pledged for democracy promotion projects is earmarked for monitoring and observation, civic education, and electoral education campaigns in the media. This leaves key components like democratic institution-building and women’s political participation underfunded and neglected.

Finally, O’Bryan identified a significant disparity in how funding was geographically distributed. Sixy-one percent of donor funding went to three of the DRC’s 26 provinces, equivalent to about 20 percent of the population. Why? O’Bryan hypothesizes that donors are more comfortable supporting projects in the DRC’s three major regions as they assume that is where the more capable Congolese civil society partners operate. However, says O’Bryan, “Congolese civil society is actually remarkably strong; even in some of these more remote provinces, where admittedly access is slightly harder, you still have some exceptional civil society groups advocating for democracy.”

This is why O’Bryan recommends that donors better coordinate where and how they make investments in the DRC’s democracy. In coordinating efforts, donors should specifically look to first support volatile regions prone to electoral violence, like Ituri in the country’s northeast. In doing so, he suggests allocating funding to critical projects that support democratic institutions, like political parties and potential candidates, not just to the thematic areas already being funded like civic education.

While most of O’Bryan’s recommendations are targeted at the international donor community, he is quick to remind observers that the challenges in the DRC are as much political as they are an issue of resources and international support. Investments in the country’s democratic institutions should be paired with diplomatic engagement and pressure on the Congolese government to live up to its constitutional commitments to hold elections and for President Kabila to stand aside.

Finally, O’Bryan knows that investments might not deliver returns overnight. That is why it is important that not all funds be contingent upon simply holding elections. Even if elections do not happen this year, they might in the future — and elections are just one component of a thriving democracy. As O’Bryan puts it, “A peaceful, democratic transition of power has never happened [in the DRC]… We know that elections can have all kind of beneficial impacts on economic development, on levels of foreign direct investment, on general stability and on the security situation in the country too.”

O’Bryan has testified before the UK parliament and the UN on issues of elections and democratic governance in the DRC. If there is one person or group he could appeal to though, he says, “it’s President Kabila. Kabila should publicly agree to stand aside. And the Congolese government must respect the rights of those now calling for change, and immediately cease intimidation of and violence against peaceful protestors.”

The Congo Democracy Project has developed a series of digital maps to visualize the various projects focused on democratic governance and elections in the DRC. To view the maps and for more information, visit www.congodemocracyproject.com