Former Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa Rosa Whitaker: Stop the blame game and stabilize the Democratic Republic of the Congo

There are no easy solutions for what is happening now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The country’s challenges are almost indescribable: A quarter the size of the U.S., it has the same amount of paved roads as Houston. Arguably the richest nation in the world in terms of mineral wealth, its 73 million citizens stand on one of the lowest rungs of the development ladder. Host to the world’s largest peacekeeping mission, it has dozens of militias that continue to commit abuses with impunity. Perhaps the only sure conclusion to be drawn from recent unrest is that the international community’s DRC policies as a whole — its human rights and peacekeeping efforts — have failed. If the international community is to redeem itself, it must do three things: Dedicate resources commensurate to the task, leverage — not blame — key regional stakeholders and promote sustainable solutions to development.

The international community needs to become serious about resources — financial and political — necessary to effect change in the DRC. Despite a large budget, we have been trying to purchase stability on the cheap. Comparing the scope, scale and per-capita funding of the international missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, MONUSCO [the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo] appears a terribly inadequate effort. If the failures (and successes) of past international interventions are any lesson, U.N. troops also need a more robust mandate and rules of engagement to guarantee civilian security. Observers have heaped blame on MONUSCO’s soldiers and police for standing aside as Goma fell to M23 rebels, despite the fact that the blue helmets enjoyed superiority in numbers, armor and logistics and possessed close air support. Yet it was no lack of courage on the part of professional soldiers that allowed Goma to be taken — it was a failure of political leadership.

In its current incarnation, MONUSCO failed and will continue to fail, because it is primarily a peacekeeping mission. That’s not what’s needed in the DRC. Early and absurdly ineffective interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo only became effective once they evolved into governance missions.

As the United Nations falters again and again in the DRC, it’s desperately seeking a scapegoat — Rwanda, despite that country’s well-known contributions to stability after 2004. For international donors to risk sending Rwanda — one of Africa's greatest growth and governance success stories — into an economic tailspin through budget support cuts is at best counterproductive. Countries that over-reach in using foreign aid to direct the policies of other sovereign nations have severely misjudged the 21st-century international political economy.

In short, the U.S. and a few other Western donors cut Rwanda’s aid based on a leaked U.N. report from anonymous sources alleging Rwandan government support for M23. The implicit message from the international community is that in order for the financial tap to be turned back on in Rwanda, the DRC must be stable. The consequences of this position are irreparable harm to the Rwandan economy and the spread of conflict.

No one actor can deliver peace in the DRC, but regional efforts are bearing fruit. The Rwandan and Ugandan governments, working together with President Kabila, have used their influence to achieve a rapid withdrawal of M23 from Goma. During the hostilities, Rwanda exercised restraint in the face of bombardments by the FDLR (the Rwandan Hutu rebel group operating in the DRC). These attacks inside Rwandan territory over the past few weeks killed some Rwandans.

The United States can play an important role, but we must remain a balanced, even-handed mediator. It would be dangerous if U.S. policy is pushed too far in the direction that some activist groups are trying to push it. It would not resolve Congo's problems and would jeopardize Rwanda's own economic recovery.

Rwanda is one of the few countries in Africa where aid effectiveness is demonstrable. Aid dependence in Rwanda has gone from 85 percent in the late 1990s to 41 percent today. It was 50 percent only two years ago, in 2010. Over the eight-year history of the World Bank’s Doing Business reports, Rwanda emerged as the second most improved country in the entire world. In fact, Rwanda ranks higher than the United States in terms of ease of starting a business! This commitment to an entrepreneurial economy has helped it achieve broad-based economic growth of 8 percent per year over the past five years. Health indicators have improved dramatically, malaria has been virtually eliminated; the majority of the population is covered by a fiscally sustainable health insurance scheme. Further, Rwanda has consistently ranked the least corrupt country in Africa by Transparency International and World Bank indexes, and receives some of the highest scores in the world in Gallup's annual surveys of trust in government, optimism and safety.

I know that understanding the complexities in the eastern Congo requires more effort and imagination than most policymakers are willing to devote. But ignoring or oversimplifying the growing tension in this chronic trouble spot in central Africa will only sanction greater lawlessness and violence.

In 1994, American, U.N. and European Union forces failed to stop a genocide that was largely avoidable. Western lawmakers, policy wonks, and civil society leaders have had nearly two decades to process their collective guilt and remorse. Let’s not get this wrong again!

Rosa Whitaker, president of the Whitaker Group, previously served as the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa and as a career diplomat with the U.S. Department of State