Working for the two Congos – DR Congo, Kinshasa and Congo Republic, Brazzaville (the closest two capital cities in the world) – over the last three-and-a-half years has been like running a fast-track marathon. Everything was urgent and important. Time was never our friend.
Yet, when I settled in Kinshasa as the first World Bank Country Director to serve the two Congos in-country, I was convinced that I would find a few weeks now and then to catch my breath. As I am leaving, I know better. The two Congos demand all the time and energy we have… and more, to make a dent in the many development challenges of the countries.
As I leave Kinshasa for my next post as World Bank Country Director for Nigeria, I will surely miss the dynamic and hard working people of the Congos. Happily, I will take indelible memories with me. I will forever remember my first field trip to the Province Orientale in the northern part of DR Congo. It came on the heels of my assuming service in Kinshasa at the end of January 2008. I remember the big smile of farmers in several villages along the 750km road we were helping to rebuild in order to reestablish the Eastern Corridor with Uganda and Kenya. “We are happy,” the farmer told me about the road, beaming from cheek to cheek. He explained that, only a few days before, he had seen for the first time in seven years, a car coming from Bunia (a town in the same province). Another farmer noted: “Before the road was built, a trip to Kisangani would cost us $10. We are now paying $2. Now we can travel faster and sell our products more easily.”
Their words – echoed by others across Congo Republic – are true testimony to the impact of the Bank’s efforts to consolidate peace, rebuild and reunify the country for which credit must be shared with my predecessors: Emmanuel Mbi and Onno Ruhl, who reopened operations here in 2001 and then Pedro Alba.
When the going gets tough, push harder
Ordinary citizens and officials whom I met in both countries expressed gratitude for what the Bank had achieved in the same breath as they mentioned the many challenges and high expectations they had. My first contact with one of DR Congo’s Provincial Governors went quickly from Jambo (the Swahili word for ‘welcome’) through a warm hug to a badly concealed expression of impatience. The governor was blunt. He wanted to see the road completed as soon as possible as the project had lasted for more than two years. The contractor, who came along with me, explained the reasons for the long delay. It took at least six months to bring a single spare part through Pointe Noire in Congo Republic to the port of Matadi in southern DRC. The spare parts then had to be brought from Matadi to Kinshasa by train or through a road rebuilt by the World Bank, which helped slash the travel time between the two towns from 12 hours to four hours. The spare parts then needed to go by river from Kinshasa to Kisangani. That was the reality – now changing, albeit at a crawling pace – of DR Congo, a fragile state, with dilapidated infrastructure, an enormous endowment of minerals, forests, arable land, a biodiversity of global importance and a strategic location in the heart of the continent.
My memory flashes back to the celebrations of DR Congo’s 50th anniversary as an independent country in June 2010, which was also the tough time when we identified serious governance issues. Happening only a few days before the country was to reach HIPC completion, the governance discussion almost derailed the entire HIPC process, a process through which countries go to achieve debt reduction. Today we are all relieved that in the end we were able to deliver the largest debt relief package in the history of the International Development Association.
I recall the mass distribution of books to pupils; salaries to help retain teachers in classrooms; efforts to rehabilitate basic infrastructure; and the initiative to combat malaria through the distribution of two million bed nets. At first my fellow Kinois (residents of Kinshasa) could not believe that the state was able to deliver something free of charge, then they came around to the reality. I remember how hard we had to fight vicious rumors alleging that the bed nets were unsafe for people. These rumors posed a real threat to the public, especially children and expecting mothers, considering that 40 percent of malaria infections in Africa are noted in DRC and Nigeria alone. In the end, this operation was a great success thanks to an excellent collaboration between the Health Ministry, community leaders, and an international NGO in charge of the social marketing of the operation. Its impact is truly felt now with a very high utilization rate.
We were further encouraged by the fact that DR Congo occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of World Bank leadership. Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala came in July 2008 followed by Jeffrey Gutman, the vice president of Operations Policy and Country Services. Then, In August 2009, World Bank President Robert Zoellick, along with Africa Region Vice President Oby Ezekwesili came to Kinshasa to highlight the importance of DR Congo to the future of Africa. It was also at that time that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came for a visit to Africa with a stop in DRC.
A sleeping giant
To the credit of the Congolese, the two countries have changed significantly in the recent past. Yet, in DR Congo, where 68 percent of the population is less than 24 years old and the unemployment rate is at least 40 percent, we are humbled in the realization that despite our hard work, we have barely made a dent in reducing the incidence of poverty. Likewise, an economy heavily dependent on oil and in dire need of diversification continues to fail 50 percent of the 3.6 million citizens of Congo Republic despite robust economic growth in recent years. At the same time, the opportunities are immense. With an improved macroeconomic situation, prices of minerals at their highest level, the conditions set in the book “the Day After Tomorrow” can change the course of history in these two countries. It will take improvements to governance to ensure better use of resources to create a virtuous circle of development by investing in a strategic way to unleash the enormous potential. This is especially true in the energy sector. As of today, only 1700MW of the Inga hydro power plant’s 44000MW energy potential have been put in production and only half of the installed capacity works. Much like Inga, DR Congo truly is one of Africa’s “sleeping giants.” We must turn the lights on and wake up the giant.
As I hand over to my able colleague Eustache Ouayoro and prepare to take on my new responsibilities in Abuja, I wish to assure my dear friends on both sides of the River that to you, I am and will always be, Mama Congo.