It’s too bad that much of the attention from Hillary Clinton’s trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has come from a rare off-the-cuff remark clarifying to a university student that she, not her husband, was the U.S. secretary of state. Because the real story is far more dramatic than that mini drama: it’s the fact that Clinton went to Congo in the first place, that she went to the eastern, war-torn city of Goma, and that she talked tough on a few key things.
Goma is the epicenter of the violence that has torn the DRC apart for the last decade and a half. There are no diplomatic-bubble hotels in Goma. There are no five-star restaurants. Clinton’s plane couldn’t even land there; she had to take a United Nations flight instead. And once you arrive, there’s no hiding the reality on the ground. Clinton knew that, and she went anyway: “It was very important for me to go to Goma,” she explained yesterday. “A lot of concerns were raised and many objections. And I said, I know we can get there and we’re going.” She’s already won points in my book.
Clinton’s comments about human rights — speaking out about rape, for example, rightfully caught a lot of attention. But here’s a few more subtle messages that she sent that could prove equally important:
1) “The Congolese military has to be better trained. It has to be paid.” Simple as it sounds, this message is anything but. DRC is home to the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission — a force that has still struggled to keep control over a vast country the size of Western Europe. If that is ever to change, the national army will have to fill the gap. The trouble is, for now, soldiers go unpaid, healthcare is limited if it exists at all, and training is spotty at best. No wonder soldiers are among those implicated in stealing, pillaging, and yes, rape; a steady salary would go a long way. If the government in Kinshasa isn’t up to the task, a strong-stomached donor should be sought.
2) “Right now, the benefits from [Congo’s] resources are not ending up broadly developing the country.” The economy is at the center of Congo’s crisis, and to think it’s not would have been to miss half the briefing book. It will be a miracle to reverse the resource curse that has overtaken Congo since the moment it became a Belgian colony over 100 years ago. But Clinton sounds like she’s ready to push for the best available option: “The model that Botswana used when it discovered diamonds — it made sure there was a trust fund created for the country so that all of the money didn’t leave the country.”
3) “I’m aware of the commitment that China has made, and I think that building roads is a very important development goal for this country. But so is good governance.” DRC is in the process of considering an offer from China in which Beijing would build infrastructure for the Congo — with deposits of some of the world’s most lucrative minerals for collateral. Opinions about the deal are surely mixed (the IMF is worried that it will just incur further debt for Congo), but some good roads wouldn’t hurt the country, and they would probably do more for many of its people than the last several decades of foreign mineral contracts ever have
What did the secretary leave out? Surely lots — and more specifics about mining are at the top of that list. U.S. companies are among those interested or involved in extraction in the country. Of course, Clinton doesn’t speak for private interests, but her voice is certainly heard. Strong words and committments on the U.S. side — for monitoring of the transparency and legality of U.S. operations in the country — would have gone a long way.