Congo Masquerade: The Political Culture of Aid Inefficiency and Reform Failure

Congo Masquerade: The Political Culture of Aid Inefficiency and Reform Failure

by Theodore Trefon


View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 6 days


Congo Masquerade is about mismanagement, hypocrisy,and powerlessness in what has proved to be one of Africa's most troublesome and volatile states. In this scathing study of catastrophic aid inefficiency, Trefon argues that while others have examined war and plunder in the Great Lakes region, none have yet evaluated the imported "template format" reform package pieced together to introduce democracy and improve the well-being of ordinary Congolese. It has, the book demonstrates, been for years an almost unmitigated failure due to the ingrained political culture of corruption among the Congolese elite, abetted by the complicity and incompetence of international partners.
Startling and provocative, Congo Masquerade offers a critical examination of why aid is not helping the Congo.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848138377
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 11/08/2011
Series: African Arguments Series
Pages: 153
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Theodore Trefon is a senior researcher at the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa and a  lecturer in environmental governance at ERAIFT/University of Kinshasa. He has published a number of articles and books in French and English, including Congo Masquerade and Reinventing Order in the Congo.

Read an Excerpt

Congo Masquerade

The Political Culture of Aid Inefficiency and Reform Failure

By Theodore Trefon

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Theodore Trefon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-837-7


Why state-building is not working in the Congo

The alchemy of state-building

Post-conflict Congo is a vast laboratory where a host of international partners are engaged in experimenting with different state-building alchemies. Security, poverty reduction, improved governance and rule of law, macroeconomic management and the physical rehabilitation of infrastructure are the principal objectives of state-building and reform. Yet, despite the significant amounts of international funding, the talent and strategic thinking of international experts and consultants, and even with the stated commitment of political leaders to embrace change, there is little tangible evidence of success. On the contrary, the evaluation of reform and reconstruction is resoundingly negative. International partners and Congolese authorities are handicapped by the constraints of their respective political systems. They share responsibility in failing to implement meaningful change. The overall picture of reform failure is the sum of a series of disconnected, uncoordinated and fragmented initiatives. Congo's bilateral and multilateral international partners have no master plan for reform. They do not share a common vision and often implement contradictory programmes. The aborted decentralization process, reform of the public service sector and absence of progress in security sector reform are examples. Congolese authorities obstruct reform efforts to maintain their positions of relative power. Many quite simply do not want change.

Ordinary Congolese also have somewhat dubious attitudes towards change. 'The devil we know is less terrifying than the one we don't know' is a commonly expressed sentiment. Reform policies superficially respond to symptoms without addressing the root causes of problems, such as the violence that emerges from deeply entrenched historical factors, social imbalances, institutional weakness, corruption and diverging perceptions of the need for change. Reform failure in the Congo reflects both the complicated power relations underpinning Congolese politics and society and the ambiguity that characterizes international idealism.

Poverty indicators (such as education, health, food security, condition of women and children) and vulnerability indicators (mainly physical security) are catastrophic. In some cases, they have even declined in reverse proportion to the initiatives designed, funded and implemented by Congo's international partners. Life expectancy at birth, in comparison to international standards, is extremely low (forty-five years). An official government report on the status of the Millennium Development Goals does not present a positive forecast. Of the thirteen goals and sub-goals, the country has 'no chance' of reaching targets for six goals and only a 'limited chance' of reaching the others (République démocratique du Congo 2010: 22). On the contrary, numerous development and humanitarian efforts have generated undesirable side effects. In the eastern provinces, most notably but not exclusively, significant amounts of euros and dollars spent on humanitarian assistance have been wasted. United Nations reports testify to this reality, as do humanitarian actors (Vircoulon 2010; Marriage 2006).

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is systematically condemned by well-respected international monitoring sources. Notable examples are the Fund for Peace's Failed States Index, the World Bank's Doing Business in Africa annual assessment, the OECD's Human Development Indicators, and Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. A telling statistic comes from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO): 50 per cent of the Congolese population is undernourished. A best-case scenario simulation suggested that 1960 development levels could be attainable by 2030, but only if growth rates remain strong until then (République démocratique du Congo 2006: 11, 27).

Political scientists have a fairly clear understanding of why states collapse and what constitutes state failure. The now classic criteria emphasize poor economic performance, political and institutional dysfunction, inability to guarantee security and law and order and unmet social expectations (Zartman 1995: 5–11). National governments in failed states, in other words, are unable to exercise legitimate control over their territory. Sophisticated concepts of state failure, however, do not diminish the trauma of hunger, disease, displacement and violence. This is the lived reality of millions of ordinary Africans. But political scientists and development experts do not know how to go about rebuilding failed states. The social challenge of reinventing and improving state–society relations is enormous because there are between forty and sixty failed or collapsed states; nearly one billion people live in them (Ghani and Lockhart 2008: 3).

Activists, academics and policy-makers agree that we are just starting to grasp the complexities and motivations – and paradoxically the disincentives – for state reconstruction. For some, the international community's interest in state-building is based on humanitarian, development and security concerns, as well as colonial guilt. This is reflected in the Western liberal discourse advocated in Europe and America. For others, China, for example, state-building is important for trade and commerce. There is also an emerging neoconservative agenda advocating that state-building is a fundamental security priority in the wake of 9/11 because failed states breed chaos, terrorism and conflict. This position is advocated by influential American policy-makers: 'Weak and failed states and the chaos they nurture will inevitably harm USA security and the global economy that provides the basis for American prosperity' (Eizenstat et al. 2005: 134). Another interpretation, a cynical one, focuses on the logic of deliberately reproducing state dysfunctionality and continued dependence on external aid. The aim is to sustain 'a series of failed states in which the international donor community will be able to dictate policy and exercise control long into the foreseeable future' (Hilary 2008). Congo/Zaire's long history of external intervention, pillaging and resource wars gives some credence to this interpretation (Renton et al. 2007). Nonetheless, while some external actors may benefit from disarray in the Congo, most others pay a very high dysfunctionality price in terms of transactions costs and lost opportunities.

Aid inefficiency

Attempts to fit economic progress and development into a linear system, as proposed by liberal economists fifty years ago, proved unsuccessful. Their deterministic approach underestimated the hybrid and historically entrenched process of state formation in Africa, which, according to Bayart's much more nuanced analysis, 'has been an utterly haphazard and even confused process' (Bayart 2000: 246). Recent failures in international state-building efforts, be they in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia or Congo, prove that imported templates – one size fits all – do not always work. Standardized peace kits put together by United Nations agencies, the Bretton Woods institutions and the world's big donors are not automatic panaceas. A strong contingent of international experts will not necessarily guarantee success despite their sophisticated work plans and project-cycle management strategies. Templates tend to be strategically irrelevant, exported by donors and applied thoughtlessly to nations that differ in political, economic and cultural terms. The basic elements of these standardized peace kits include peacekeeping forces and logistical support, a new constitution, institution-building, governance programmes, transitional justice and media and civil society capacity-building (Vircoulon 2009a: 5). This approach has proved to be largely unsuccessful because state-building strategies tend to mask the importance of political culture and deeply entrenched sources of tension, hatred, distrust, ethnicity, violence and conflict. Conversely, external counsel has helped some African countries recover from destruction: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Ghana, for example.

Aid inefficiency has been under scrutiny for many years. Two important books have stimulated fresh debate about how aid, in addition to not helping countries develop, in fact contributes to underdevelopment and despotism. David Easterly's The White Man's Burden: Why the West's efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good (2006) is a harsh critique of development strategies. Much of his analysis applies perfectly to Congo's present situation: there are sound policies but inadequate implementation strategies (ibid.: 6), aid experts desperately want 'to disbelieve the bad government explanation for poverty' (ibid.: 42), there is an insistence on the part of international financial institutions on 'transform[ing] bad government' instead of boycotting it (ibid.: 151), and the West engages in 'coddling awful gangsters who just call themselves a government' (ibid.: 153). Easterly also refers to the 'aspiration to a utopian blueprint' (ibid.: 367), which in Congo can be translated as the ambitious (but ambiguous) reform package designed by foreign partners who paradoxically never agreed upon a master plan.

In her immediately influential book, Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo (2009) argued that development aid has sabotaged social capital, disrupted African financial initiatives and exacerbated corruption. Some of her observations based on the whole of the African continent have resonance in Congo: politics, not development priorities, dictate aid agendas; organizing elections is confused with fostering democracy; aid supports corrupt leaders instead of helping poor people; and civil society is undermined by making corrupt leaders accountable to donors and not to citizens. Although evidence from the Congo is compelling, Moyo's thesis is excessive because there are counter-examples where external assistance has correlated with some improved state function.

Development practitioners and aid experts themselves are now conceding defeat. A former World Bank spokesperson describes how 'some of the best economists in the world worked hard on Africa's problems, to little avail' (Calderisi 2006: 164). He condemns donors with the assertion: 'aid is both ineffective and demeaning, large amounts of it have simply been wasted. Even aid agencies have acknowledged repeatedly that there is greater pressure to commit money grandly than to spend it wisely' (ibid.: 167). A critique of recent European strategies emphasizes the gap between donor priorities and those of beneficiaries and the perverse effects that aid has by institutionalizing corruption and buttressing incumbents (Delcourt 2008: 8–9). The capacity of outside actors to bring about positive change is also questioned by OECD experts who claim that 'the processes of state-building are largely domestically driven and international state-building assistance has only a limited role to play' (OECD 2008: 13). An important strategic document for poverty reduction in the Congo is unequivocal in this view: Congo's dependency on foreign aid is a major obstacle to development (République démocratique du Congo 2006: 102). This is an argument that has been made for all of Africa. According to another 'anti-aid' expert, 'dependency on aid from foreign donors has undermined the development of the basic institutions needed to govern and the vital link of accountability between state and citizen' (Glennie 2008: 5–6). Like Moyo, he also argues that as a consequence of aid, some people have gained but many more have suffered (ibid.: 5) and 'the consensus that some would like us to think exists on aid and growth is an illusion' (ibid.: 83). Others have argued that state reconstruction efforts suffer because solutions tend to be perceived as being technical and not political (Anderson 2005). Humanitarian assistance is not immune to this kind of lucid evaluation. In her Not Breaking the Rules, Not Playing the Game, Zoë Marriage gives resonance to an example of understated hypocrisy: 'the optimism conveyed by the objectives of assistance is combined with an expectation of failure ...' (Marriage 2006: 7).

A recent trend in trying to reverse years of state-building failure and aid inefficiency entails focusing on governance issues and making aid recipient countries accountable to donors and their citizens (Joseph and Gillies 2009). While this trend makes sense in theory, there is little evidence to suggest that it could work in a context as complicated as that of DRC. The assessment is shared by former USAID deputy administrator Carol Lancaster: 'We are pretty sure the $1.6 billion in aid the United States has provided Democratic Republic of Congo since 1960 has failed to produce lasting positive development results, mainly because of the political context of corruption, incapacity, and conflict' (Lancaster 2009: 33). The rate of return on public development aid is clearly not commensurate with the amounts of money invested. It is more likely to be commensurate with its embeddedness in the political and cultural environment. As Englebert and Tull point out, trying to inculcate a culture of good governance and accountability does not sufficiently integrate an unforgiving state-building flaw. 'Whereas donors tend to see reconstruction as a new beginning after the crisis of failure, African elites more often see it as an ongoing competition for power and resources, facilitated by power-sharing agreements, increases in foreign aid, and lax international oversight' (2008: 121).

'Bringing the state back in' is part of the Congo reform roadmap, a discrete trend that emerged in the early years of Kabila rule when the West worked towards legitimizing him. The disdain for the Congo state felt by many international experts and project managers is only now, gradually, being reconsidered. The current implicit strategy is to rehabilitate the state at all costs, with or without Congolese involvement. The negative side effects of policies designed in the early 1990s, notably the 'delegitimization' of state power (Bongeli 2008: 119), are still being felt. When Mobutu outlived his usefulness to his Western backers after the collapse of the Soviet Union, international partners abruptly withdrew support for the Zairean state. They channelled their aid through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and United Nations agencies. This gave birth to a project approach aimed at replacing a state considered to be corrupt and inefficient.

The project approach suffers from a number of problems. Congolese stakeholders are marginalized from the project-cycle decision-making process (notably identification and implementation) and qualified civil servants leave their administrations for better-paid work in internationally funded projects. This has translated into a series of projects that are not cost efficient, not viable and locally inappropriate. Project success continues to be evaluated in terms of amounts of money spent, rather than in results. The need to spend donor money according to a project calendar ('absorption capacity' in project-cycle management jargon) is surrealist in DRC. This requirement, combined with an abysmal lack of pertinence, led one European Union expert to describe the Congo as a 'vast cemetery of projects'. Most people working in the development field have their own favourite story about a project gone wrong. Mine relates to an international conservation NGO that felt it had to do something to help villagers in the Salonga National Park in the middle of Congo's dense tropical forest. The NGO designed and constructed a cement and metal contraption to smoke fish. A year after it was built it was still unused. The absurdity results from the fact that those villagers have been smoking fish efficiently and sustainably for hundreds of years thanks to their own traditional know-how.

The project approach upon which much of the reform agenda is based necessitates working with competent Congolese. These focal points, resource people and project coordinators play an interesting but dubious role. While they often say 'the receiving hand is underneath the hand that gives', they transform what may appear as a situation of dependency into a situation of subtle pre-eminence. Donors, international governmental agencies and NGOs sometimes become dependent on these Congolese state-sponsored reform intermediaries who use their positions of relative power to address their own agendas. Projects continue to be sidetracked by those who feel vulnerable to the prospect of real reform or change. Even the most talented technical experts can become entangled in the Congo's Byzantine web of vested interests. The plan to integrate civil society stakeholders in implementing projects has also failed owing to the dominance of state actors. Indeed, civil society actors have been powerless to combat the Congo state's resistance to change. International partners recognize the limitations of the project approach and have thought about alternatives. One of these is direct budgetary support to state institutions, but this approach has also encountered operational problems.


Excerpted from Congo Masquerade by Theodore Trefon. Copyright © 2011 Theodore Trefon. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preface and acknowledgements, ix,
Timeline, xv,
Abbreviations, xvii,
Map, xix,
The crocodile and the scorpion: a Congolese parable, xx,
1 Why state-building is not working in the Congo, 1,
2 The political economy of broken promises, 19,
3 A patchwork of unrealistic reforms, 49,
4 The administrative juggernaut, 87,
5 Culture matters, 107,
6 Conclusion, 122,
Notes, 131,
Bibliography, 134,
Index, 145,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews