About the Author: Lyla Andrews Bashan serves as a Conflict Prevention Officer in the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization at the U.S. Department of State.
As our United Nations flight from Kinshasa landed in Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), we were greeted by Mount Nyiragongo, the volcano that hovers over the town. The most recent eruption, in 2002, left almost 50 people dead and 120,000 homeless. The remnants of this eruption can be seen in the many walls around town built with the same jagged volcanic rock that continues to blanket much of the ground. One is quickly reminded that this devastation is the least of Congolese worries: on the wall of the small United Nations airport is a color-coded sign titled, “Threat Assessment Level Goma.” The day we landed was a good day – the arrow is only pointing at the red level 4 rather than the maximum black level 5. We later learn that one of the front lines of the conflict between the Government of the DRC and the main rebel group at the time, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), is in the foothills of the volcano, just 12 miles north of Goma.
Many parts of eastern DRC remain unstable, especially in the province of North Kivu. The conflict, once a full-blown war involving seven national armies, has spanned 15 years and resulted in over 5 million deaths. This most recent stage of the conflict in the east involves the DRC Government, the CNDP, and another armed group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (more commonly known by its French acronym “FDLR”). The CNDP’s purported goal is to protect the Tutsi people and other ethnic minorities, while the FDLR is led by a small number of génocidaires, the ethnic Hutu perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Natural resources, ethnicity, and lack of state authority all work together to make this conflict highly complex, with no easy solutions.
Sadly, the violence and instability in the DRC is not an aberration in today’s world. Failing and post-conflict states pose one of the greatest national and international security challenges of our day. The U.S. Government has learned from past experiences that we need to be able to prevent conflict and, if necessary, help stabilize and reconstruct countries emerging from conflict. The State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) was created in 2004 to strengthen the U.S. Government response to conflict. As it has done in more than 20 countries, S/CRS has employed several of its stabilization and reconstruction tools to the situation in eastern DRC in support of the U.S. effort to improve stability in this conflict-stricken region.
One such effort is an $11.9 million program focused on border policing, civilian and military judicial reform, and local governance. The Office of the Coordinator’s conflict prevention programs are funded through section 1207 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes the Secretary of Defense to transfer up to $100 million per year to the Department of State for programs that support security, reconstruction or stabilization around the world.
Following this precept, in June 2008, S/CRS and USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation facilitated a three-day interagency conflict assessment in Washington that helped identify the main drivers and mitigators of conflict in the DRC. This assessment tool, known as the Interagency Conflict Assessment Framework, is designed to guide a shared interagency analysis of conflict dynamics and identify potential entry points for U.S. Government efforts. More than thirty interagency partners participated in this assessment and the findings fed into the DRC’s Country Assistance Strategy, a five-year U.S. Government foreign assistance strategy.
In the fall of 2008, S/CRS sent a team to DRC to explore how we could provide additional assistance to the U.S. Government efforts to promote security, stability and reconstruction in eastern DRC. This scoping team was comprised of the DRC analyst from the State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit and three S/CRS staff: a Conflict Prevention Officer, a Planning Officer, and a Diplomatic Security Agent detailed to the Civilian Response Corps (CRC). Civilian Response Corps members, drawn from the interagency community and coordinated by S/CRS, are U.S. Government employees with conflict expertise who are available to reinforce reconstruction and stabilization efforts in Washington and our Embassies abroad.
The first member of our scoping team arrived in country shortly after a rebel offensive in October 2008. S/CRS took the opportunity to reexamine the situation and support the embassy during this crisis. Once the situation had stabilized somewhat, the rest of the team followed, spending a few days undertaking consultations in the capital, Kinshasa.
We spent the next week in Goma consulting with U.S. and United Nations staff, international donors, and NGOs. In addition to our many consultations – over 30 in 2 weeks – we visited several camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The fighting that began in August 2008 has resulted in an estimated 250,000 IDPs, many of whom have been displaced several times. These are in addition to the nearly one million pre-existing IDPs. Visiting the camps allowed us to see first hand the condition of the victims of the conflict. This moving experience helped breathe life into all we were learning from our consultations with officials and donors.
The United States, along with the broader international community, has worked hard to create a level of stability in the DRC. Although the situation in North Kivu remains tense, other parts of the east have significantly improved in recent years. In coordination with the Embassy, USAID and other offices within the State Department, our scoping trip developed several potential avenues for enhancing stability in eastern DRC. As the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization continues to collaborate with our interagency colleagues and the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa, we hope to see good ideas become a reality on the ground and contribute to a positive outcome in eastern DRC.
In order to learn more about S/CRS, please visit our website.
Jason Lewis-Berry contributed to this piece. He serves as a Planning Officer in the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization.