Story by Isaac D. Pacheco
Rising up along the eastern bank of the Congo River, Kinshasa is a bustling metropolis with an estimated population of 11 to 13 million. As the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the third-largest city in Africa, Kinshasa is a sprawling labyrinth that covers more than 600 sq. km. Notorious traffic jams snarl the city’s overburdened infrastructure, and security issues, bureaucratic red tape, and language barriers in the largely Francophone region further complicate travel to Kinshasa. All these factors combine to make a visit to the city an intimidating experience.
Beneath its rough exterior, however, lies a vibrant and engaged Congolese community that is clamoring for change in the DRC. As the seat of government, cultural heart, and economic hub of one of Africa’s largest countries, Kinshasa is the epicenter of a seismic power shift taking place on the continent.
“We want to have a positive impact and you can do that here,” said Mike Hammer, U.S. Ambassador to the DRC. “You can palpably affect people’s lives. You can effectively advance America’s interests and see the results, and that, I think, is what makes this place special.”
Flush with natural resources and human capital, the DRC has the potential to become one of the economic engines driving Africa’s growth throughout the next century. With an estimated $25 trillion in untapped mineral wealth, exploitable access to one of the world’s most powerful waterways, a bounty of arable land, and a youthful population of nearly 90 million residents, a thriving DRC could easily power, feed, and supply goods to much of sub-Saharan Africa. Standing in the path of the nation’s ascendancy as a continental leader, though, are a number of cultural and logistical obstacles.
“Just surviving here day-to-day takes a lot of resilience. People in Congo have been through unimaginable trials, and yet they keep going. They get up and they try again. So, there’s enormous resilience and creativity here,” said Paul Sabatine, USAID mission director in the DRC. “There is enormous wealth here, but it is not used for the benefit of the people of Congo, and it’s often not even accessible to the people of Congo.
Throughout the DRC’s turbulent history, systemic corruption and political turmoil have stymied economic growth and infrastructure development while exacerbating the detrimental effects of disease and transnational conflict. The country’s new government, led by recently elected President Félix Tshisekedi, has laid out an ambitious roadmap for surmounting these hurdles to progress. Tshisekedi has reached out to American officials to help him implement his vision for a stable and prosperous DRC, and the U.S. Embassy in the DRC is taking the lead on implementation.
“There is an incredible opportunity where we are in the history of the DRC to change the direction of a country that has such tremendous potential but hasn’t been able to realize it,” said Hammer. “While it can be daunting to think of coming to a place like Congo with all of its difficult challenges, we see the opportunities to push forward, with a government that is very ready, willing, and able to cooperate with the United States.”
The DRC’s recent national elections led to the nation’s first-ever coalition government. While this historic reallocation of power is creating new inroads for bilateral engagement, it has also resulted in a fragile political landscape that American diplomats and interagency partners must navigate in a delicate, but decisive, manner. Only one year separated from an election-related security threat that resulted in an ordered departure from post, American officials from the various agencies that comprise the Mission are fully reengaged in their respective portfolios and cautiously optimistic that the relatively peaceful transition of power portends a more secure future for the nation’s citizens and a more stable platform for diplomatic outreach moving forward.
“Following the elections, there seems to be optimism toward the positive change President Tshisekedi represents and a commitment to letting this administration have some time to establish, and do some of the things that will allow the process to continue moving forward,” said Megan Larson-Koné, public affairs officer at Embassy Kinshasa. “For our Public Diplomacy activities, this has meant increased opportunities to focus on policy priorities, such as promoting press freedom, strengthening English-language programming at the Congo American Language Institute, and deepening the bonds between the American and Congolese people.”
Embassy officials are seizing upon this pivotal moment in the DRC’s history by working with government leaders, to bolster the rule of law, enhance security and generate economic growth. These capacity building measures will allow the DRC to better mitigate the threats posed by violent extremism and pandemic disease and help create a more hospitable environment for economic development.
By choosing the United States as his first official visit outside Africa, Tshisekedi sent a clear message to the international community that the DRC’s new government intends to revitalize and prioritize its once-flagging bilateral relationship with the U.S. During his meetings with American officials, Tshisekedi spoke candidly about tackling issues that have historically plagued Congolese bureaucracy and forestalled development, particularly corruption. While American officials warmly welcomed the overture, they stressed that continued transparency and real progress will be essential to maintaining a healthy and constructive partnership.
“The goal is to move forward with the Privileged Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (PP4PP) that we launched between the United States and the DRC after President Tshisekedi’s visit to Washington in April,” said Hammer. “President Tshisekedi is talking about fighting corruption, promoting human rights, ending impunity, bringing peace and security to the eastern part of the country, which has been in conflict for decades now, and also wanting to attract U.S. investment and increase trade. These are all the core Mission goals that we have, and so we are very much in sync.”
The Embassy Kinshasa team tasked with implementing this multifaceted mission faces a litany of obstacles. Outside the main city centers, the DRC’s transportation infrastructure is rudimentary and in some areas nonexistent, necessitating costly flights for personnel who need to reach far-flung regions of the geographically massive country. The deteriorating chancery dates back to 1960 and is ill-equipped to support the modern interagency team. Mission offices are located in three different buildings scattered throughout the city, which further complicates the coordination required to tackle such a complex suite of issues. Undeterred, embassy leaders are moving ahead with health, security, and other development initiatives through sheer resolve and by leveraging the capabilities of interagency partners like USAID and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“It is, without a doubt, a tough work environment in a country that is the size of Europe, but has fewer road networks than Ireland,” said Hammer. “That gives you a real sense of how difficult it is to get around the country and to cover our political, economic, and other reporting, as well as implementing our aid programs. The logistical challenges are considerable.”
Eastern DRC is the nation’s mineral heartland and agricultural breadbasket. It holds immense potential for resource development and increased economic integration with neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. Unfortunately, systemic issues related to security, education, and healthcare have thus far stifled development. Some areas of Eastern DRC are also experiencing the largest Ebola outbreak in the country’s history, a harrowing epidemic made all the more difficult to contain by ongoing conflict between transnational militias in the region.
“Understanding the community’s perspective is really the key to any public health response. Insecurity affects the community, first and foremost,” said Dr. Pratima L. Raghunathan, CDC country director in the DRC. “Ebola to them is not their main problem, because it’s just one of the many ways that they might die. They have been massacred and harmed for decades. They have had people die of many other infectious diseases, and violence and insecurity more frequently. They see Ebola as a problem that outsiders are concerned about, and believe that outsiders are not concerned about the problems that matter to them.”
When the CDC began operations in the DRC in 2002, the organization primarily focused on HIV/AIDS. That program was eventually incorporated into the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which together with other USG agencies, currently provides antiretroviral treatment to more than 107,000 Congolese living with HIV. Today, the 28-person CDC team in DRC supports HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, measles, polio, influenza, monkeypox, and global health security programs, and this year has hosted a surge of 30-40 temporary CDC staff to address major outbreaks of Ebola, measles, and polio. This systemic approach to public health enhances the international community’s capacity to detect, prevent, and respond to infectious diseases that cross borders. CDC contributes to this multi-agency effort by working to strengthen host country systems in the areas of surveillance, laboratory, workforce development, and emergency response.
“We’re the front lines of people power diplomacy,” said Raghunathan. “We work side-by-side with the Congolese people. We embed closely with our Ministry of Health colleagues and work with them on a technical level, every day, to help them develop plans, standardize procedures, and improve the quality of their systems.”
Combatting and containing potential pandemics at their source is not only an important public health and development initiative but also a vital part of the United States’ national security strategy. The Embassy Kinshasa team is supporting efforts by the Congolese government and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to secure eastern DRC so that interagency partners and other development organizations can operate safely in the region.
Embassy Kinshasa’s Eastern Congo Unit (ECU), a unique two-person reporting section that focuses specifically on issues in the eastern part of the country, enables outreach in hot zones by providing logistical support and security coordination to Mission partners. The ECU covers a swath of land that stretches more than a thousand miles along the border that the DRC shares with South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania. As one of its many support and stabilization projects in the war-torn region, the ECU is working to reshape institutional culture among local and regional host-nation security forces, which will help rebuild their credibility among local communities and enhance their effectiveness.
“The area I cover is essentially [the size of the U.S.] from Maine to South Carolina with more than 100 armed groups, some of which are foreign-focused actors. You’re talking about an area with significant and important, resources for U.S. industry as well, so we have security, developmental, financial, and U.S. business and investment reasons to focus on the east, in addition to Ebola and other diseases,” said Scott Fagan, ECU chief at Embassy Kinshasa. “It’s a huge challenge set. Honestly, that’s part of the reason why the ECU is so much fun—it’s one of the few truly expeditionary diplomacy jobs out there.”
Today, 13 million people in the DRC face food insecurity, and millions more remain displaced, refugees within their own country due to ongoing conflict among multiple armed groups. With weak state capacity, crumbling infrastructure, limitations across all development sectors, and endemic disease, progress in the DRC is measured in millimeters, not kilometers. Despite this seemingly bleak outlook, the Embassy Kinshasa team is committed to helping the Congolese people realize a future where a self-sustaining DRC is an anchor for peace and prosperity on the continent.
“This is a place people chose to come because they know they’re needed, and they know that they can make a difference. This is a place where you can do real development, and it’s not easy. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be here,” said Sabatine. “We have to build this bit by bit from the ground up, and it will take time. But, at least, now I’m very optimistic that with the new administration we just might have an opportunity to lay some groundwork that will endure. We just might have a chance to turn the corner.”
Isaac D. Pacheco is the editor-in-chief of State Magazine