congo is not a country

Recent research and commentary on atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have fueled reference to a “Congo” that seems to include only one country, but “the Congo” is a large, resource rich region made up of many countries.

Traditionally “the Congo” refers to the region of Middle Africa (referred to as “Central Africa” by the UN) comprised of parts of ten (10) different countries, including: Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe, Burundi and Rwanda.

The Congo is best understood as a geographic region, with lush tropical rainforests and a wealth of mineral deposits, that benefits from the drainage of the Congo River. As a result, interest in the Congo region has caused violence and atrocities arguably since its “discovery” by Henry Morton Stanley in the name of King Leopold II of Belgium. The King wanted to spread Western civilization and religion to the region, which has led to continually destabilization and conflict.

The geographic region known to us as “the Congo” was home to one of the advanced African civilizations as well as the Baka people (often referred to as pygmies). The Kingdom of the Kongo included parts of the DRC, Republic of Congo and Angola. As recorded by Europeans the Kingdom of Kongo was highly developed with a extensive trading network. As “explorers” and colonizers penetrated further into the interior of the African continent, the Kingdom of Kongo became a major source of slaves. As a result of political in-fighting, resource grabbing, and European invasion, the Congo region’s factions remained in civil war for almost forty years (1700).

Since European arrival, the Congo region has been in a regular flux of conflict either between political factions, against colonizers, or now among local militias fighting for control of areas of resource wealth.

Much like our misunderstandings of various aspects of the African continent, its history, and people fuel monolithic interpretations of Africa, so too do our misunderstandings of the Congo region’s governments, resources, and cultures.

Maybe our misunderstandings and myths of “the Congo” are driven by the Heart of Darkness (supposedly inspired by Henry Morton Stanley) narrative set on the Congo River that details atrocities committed against native peoples? Maybe history shows Western violence has created a culture of violence in the quest for control and resources? Either way Congo is not a country, but a vast region with deep history and amazing possibilities.

burundi: the agricultural dilemma

Topping out at an HDI value of 169, the country of Burundi is far from attaining the coveted term of “developed.” Life expectancy sits at a young 44 years, adult literacy is about 60% of the country with school enrollment at just 36% of the population in either primary, secondary, or tertiary education, and Burundi’s GDP per capita wallows at $677. Burundi’s GDP is roughly $39,000 less that that of the US. ‘Why?’ you ask. Burundi has a history of ethnic conflict much like is neighbor Rwanda, it has faced overpopulation problems, and large numbers of Internally Displaced People (IDPs). Germany gained the Burundi region in the partitioning of Africa, however after the First World War the region was given to Belgium. As part of the Belgian Colonial Empire, Burundi remained apart from the clutches of colonialism. In this regard Burundi is unique because it is not a product of colonialism. The country was ruled by a monarchy with a dynasty of kings. Colonial Belgium made a pact with this dynasty in order to control the people, however this dynasty faced numerous coups and a fragile rule as the polarization of ethnic groups continued. Burundi gained independence in 1962, but did not democratically elect a President until 1993. The President was assassinated before his first 100 days in office were finished.

The unique conflicts that Burundi has faced created an interesting economic situation for the country as well. Agriculture is the main source of profit with over 90% of the country being subsistence farmers. Therefore Burundi’s import purchasing power relies heavily on the weather conditions for growing coffee and tea and the international prices for their top commodities. The Tutsi minority controls the government and benefits from the coffee trade at the expense of the Hutu minority (85% of population). Since ethnic tensions have subsided, civil war has ended, and political stability has returned aid flows have increased along with economic activity. However as the CIA World Fact Book states, “[…] underlying weaknesses – a high poverty rate, poor education rates, a weak legal system, and low administrative capacity – risk undermining planned economic reforms.”

Burundi could have benefited from the ‘development’ agreements of the various UN bodies, some failed and some still existing. UNCTAD seeks to promote “the development-friendly integration of developing countries into the world economy.” Yet UNCTAD’s main activity is to gather information and data to promote policies that could possibly benefit ‘developing’ countries. As far as the NIEO, I have to agree, just this once, with the words of former President Reagan that the NIEO is dead. The NIEO began with great plans to bring multilateral policies to the ‘developing’ world. It would stabilize and raise the prices for ‘developing’ world commodities of the G-77, which are the countries relying on foreign exchange. This would have improved the purchasing power of ‘developing’ countries with the creation of a commodity trade market. Burundi would have especially benefited since it relies completely on the trade of coffee and tea. However the NIEO died when the G-77 made concessions in order to gain the support of the ‘developed’ world.

ISI and EOI are in direct competition, however EOI gains the upper hand in the way of success stories. ISI, although it relies on trade in the economy, is considered a development policy as it promotes a mercantilist idea of keeping trade local or within the country instead of importing goods. EOI is attributed to the success of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore with the dropping of tariffs, floating exchange rate, and government support of exports. Both policies, in the case of Burundi, are not feasible. Since Burundi relies on the coffee and tea trade and the majority of the population is farmers, the country cannot use ISI. Oddly enough the main import of Burundi is food due to the previous ethnic conflicts and flood of refugees. Switching to an economy of import substitution makes no sense. In the way of export-oriented policies Burundi is already there, but it does not hold the power to be able to influence the international prices.

Burundi remains extremely dependent on bilateral and multilateral aid from donors to deal with its economy and development issues. The country’s economy is not strong enough or diverse enough to support the country and the nearly seven million people it holds. Agriculture may still be the maim industry, but it has not been able to withstand the increasing population and civil war. There are a number of development trajectories in Burundi most facilitated by the World Bank. Projects currently active in the country deal with infrastructure, economic management and reform, agriculture rehabilitation, reintegration from conflict, and community and social development. These projects and goals are all positive in nature, but their effectiveness is yet to be seen as the country builds on its relatively new political stability.

Human Development Indicators Country Fact Sheets: Burundi. UNDP. 2006. HDI (date accessed 28 March 2007).

Burundi: Governments of the World. BookRags. 2006. . (date accessed 28 March 2007).

CIA World Fact Book: Burundi. CIA World Fact Book. 2007. . (date accessed 28 March 2007).

UNCTAD. 2007. . (date accessed 28 March 2007).

Sneyd, Adam. New International Economic Order (NIEO). McMaster University. 2004. . (date accessed 28 March 2007).

World Bank Projects and Operations. World Bank. 2007. . (date accessed 28 March 2007).