Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Congo Peace Accords Mean Nothing To Victims

Blood continues to flow six months after the signing of a peace agreement that was intended to stop the horrendous violence in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to a newly-formed coalition of 64 aid agencies and human rights groups. The new Congo Advocacy Coalition was created to focus attention on the protection of civilians as part of the peace process in eastern Congo.

Ongoing fighting and violence against civilians has forced at least 150,000 people to flee from their homes since the Goma peace agreement was signed on January 23, 2008, according to the coalition's first report. Those newly displaced add to the 1 million refugees from earlier waves of violence in North and South Kivu. UN officials reported at least 200 ceasefire violations between January and July.

The most affected territories are Rutshuru and Masisi in North Kivu, where many displaced people found shelter with host families, receiving only minimal food and assistance, while others fled to displacement camps. The coalition reports that acute malnutrition rates have reached an alarming 17 percent in some areas, well above emergency levels.

Women and girls have been harshly victimized by the continued violence. More than 2,200 cases of rape were recorded in the month of June 2008 in North Kivu province alone, according to the coalition, and this number probably represents only a small portion of the total. At least 200 civilians have been killed in the violence.

Humanitarian agencies trying to expand programs since the signing of the peace agreement have been plagued by increased attacks by armed groups and unidentified bandits. At least 36 attacks were recorded since January 2008, the majority of them ambushes at gunpoint as humanitarian staff attempted to reach vulnerable populations. In the past few weeks, attacks against humanitarian staff on the main road to Masisi town have severely hampered assistance to over 186,000 people.

UN peacekeepers have deployed some 10,000 troops between fighting parties in North and South Kivu, but they are greatly outnumbered and thinly spread.

The Goma agreement was signed by 22 armed groups and the Congolese government. It followed a November, 2007, agreement between the governments of Congo and Rwanda known as the Nairobi Communiqué, which sought to address the issue of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan armed group based in eastern Congo.

The agreements were supposed to form the basis for the Congolese government's peace program in the eastern provicnes, but have largely been ignored by the alphabet soup of militias, army factions, guerilla bands, and outright criminal enterprises terrorizing the region. It's a humanitarian nightmare that may never end.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Prison Life (Or Death) In Congo

Life in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is tough, so it’s hard to imagine what it’s like trying to survive in prison. MONUC, the UN peace-keeping mission to the Congo, recently reported that at least 26 prisoners have died this year from severe and acute malnutrition in just one institution, the Mbuji Mayi central prison, in Kasaï Oriental province where much of Heart of Diamonds is set.

The prison houses 425 prisoners in a facility originally designed for 200. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions exacerbate health problems in prisoners who are fed less than once a day. MONUC has been providing a weekly water and twice-weekly corn ration to the prison on an emergency basis, but says it can’t continue indefinitely. Making matters much, much worse is that public hospitals won’t accept even the most dangerously-ill prisoners because they can’t pay for their medical care.

"Our concern is even greater as we noted that among these deaths, many of them are defendants, who are therefore presumed innocent because they have not been judged due to the slowness of the legal process," says MONUC Mbuji Mayi Human Rights Officer Assiongbon Tettekpoe.
In a place where even ordinary citizens sometimes scramble to provide the basic necessities of life, the bottom rungs of society stand no chance of survival.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Congo Violence Brings Starvation

Peace accords were signed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in January this year, but violence continues to destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The UN World Food Program (WFP) warned in July that the agency’s resources were being stretched beyond its capability by refugees forced from their homes by the ongoing guerilla action.

North Kivu province has been particularly hard hit, with at least 100,000 people forced from their homes in Rutshuru district alone, bringing the total displaced in the province since March 2007 to over half a million. Impromptu refugee camps spring up overnight, mostly without supplies or assistance..

The WFP reports it has already cut rations in half to some displaced people camped close to the provincial capital Goma, in an effort to stretch supplies for those in most desperate need at the heart of the mountainous hinterland. The organization says it needs to distribute 10,000 tons of food per month, a gargantuan task given the tinderbox nature of the region, extremely limited transportation infrastructure, and world food prices.

Many of the refugees are farmers in the region’s breadbasket. Their displacement has caused food prices to spike in urban areas that rely on the hinderlands for their food supply.

Malnutrition threatens the lives of thousands of children. The WFP says their surveys in the Masasi and Rutshuru districts show rates for acute malnutrition of over 17 percent.

Complicating the situation is the continual harassment by armed groups that live off the countryside by looting household food supplies, steal or destroy farm equipment, and rape or kidnap women trying to cultivate their fields. Many of the displaced families have now missed three successive planting seasons.

The WFP says it plans to spend US$142 million for its operations in the eastern DRC during the next year. The United States ($62 million), European Commission ($25 million), UN CERF ($16 million), France ($8.7 million), Canada ($6.4 million), Belgium ($6.2 million), Japan ($5 million), Norway ($3 million), Switzerland ($ 2.5 million), and Germany ($1.1 million) have stepped up to the plate, along with Greece, Luxembourg, Korea, Spain, Finland, and Poland.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Africa Will Save Zimbabwe

Despite popular opinion—including that of the NY Times and George Bush—the United States should butt out of Zimbabwe. There are numerous reasons, but the most important one is that Africans can and should settle their own affairs.

Perfectly and quickly? Of course not. To our satisfaction? Highly unlikely. But, given time and support instead of demands and threats, the nations of Africa are finding their own solutions to most of the difficult problems posed by independence in other parts of the continent. Zimbabwe is no different.

Russia and China had their own reasons for vetoing the U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on Robert Mugabe and his government, but there are several other points that should be kept in mind as we decry their actions:

1. U.S. coercion does more harm than good by confirming in Mugabe’s supporters’ minds (and others) that the opposition party, MDC, and especially its presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai are tools of white colonialists. Whether they are or not is not relevant. Quite frankly, when Tsvangirai pleaded for help after withdrawing from the election—all but asking for whites to invade Zimbabwe to put him in office—he lost his street cred.

2. The fact that the U.S. has nothing to say about equally-tyrannical leaders like Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos belies our statements that Mugabe must go because he rules without the consent of the voters.

3. U.S. interference polarizes the regional governments that are most likely able to broker a deal. Governments that align themselves with the U.S. position look weak in the eyes of their own people. They also are pulled farther away from regional powers who openly resent U.S. intrusion, making it more difficult for them to form a united front to pressure Mugabe to step down or form a unity government. It’s hard to overstate the amount of resentment toward white powers that exists in many quarters.
The biggest single reason for the U.S. to back off is that the continent’s nations have overwhelmingly told us to. The African Union and Southern African Development Community denounced the U.N. resolution before it was vetoed. South Africa, the regional leader and country most affected by the crisis, is particularly vehement in telling the U.S. to mind its own business.

There is plenty of strong opposition to Mugabe among the nations of Africa. Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, Liberia, Senegal, and Sierra Leone have all denounced the sham election and spoken out for the rule of law to be established in Zimbabwe. Botswana has even increased its troop positions along the border. If George Bush and his unlikely partner the NY Times would stop treating them like children, the Africans will solve their own problems.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Long, Long Road for Roads in the Congo

It may not be as dramatic as millions of dollars in emergency aid to fight famine, but the recent US$110 million road-building aid package for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) announced by the World Bank and Great Britain may save more lives in the long run. It’s a pittance in comparison to what’s needed, of course, but as part of a larger long-term effort, even this small package will have an impact.

The DRC has 2,250 km of paved roads—-supposedly. Even if they all actually existed in passable form and were laid end-to-end, they wouldn’t reach all the way across the nation. The UN Joint Logistics Center reported in 2006 (before it ceased operations in the DRC due to the ongoing conflicts) that the Congo has an additional 15,000 km of unpaved roads, 43,000 km of tracks, 21,000 km of country roads, and 90,000 km of local roads.

Lack of passable all-weather roads is one of the most significant infrastructure shortcomings in the country. Roads are necessary to provide access to important services such as schools and hospitals, deliver aid, and enable peace-keeping forces to reach remote areas under attack by rebel war lords. On a much more mundane, level, however, they are essential for boot-strapping efforts to help the agricultural economy. Great Britain is contributing $60 million to the project because, as British ambassador Nick Kay pointed out, roads

"…are also of a major importance in the agricultural sector, whose revival constitutes an important way of reducing poverty in the DRC."

The funds are slated for the rehabilitation and upgrading of 1,800 km of high priority roads in the DRC provinces of Orientale, South Kivu and Katanga. Even while much use of them will be made by the mining interests in those regions, others will benefit as well since highways, unlike railroads, can be used by everyone from long-haul truckers to short-haul bicyclists. Other, similar projects in the DRC are being financed by the European Union and the African Development Bank.

Modern transportation systems are the backbones of modern agricultural economies. If farmers can’t get their goods to world markets, they can’t compete in them (all other issues notwithstanding). Farmers who can’t send their goods to market have no incentive to produce more food than their own family needs to survive, so they don’t invest in equipment, fertilizer, irrigation, or land.

It may be overly simplistic, but the $60,000 spent to provide a mile of passable road in the Congo may feed more people than the 120 tons of rice (at recent prices) the same $60,000 would purchase for famine relief.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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Monday, July 7, 2008

FFA - Future Farmers of Africa

The growing world food crisis may be a blessing in disguise for Africa’s farmers, the largest un-tapped agricultural resource in the world. Record commodity prices and soaring demand have sent agribusinesses looking for opportunities to expand—and Africa’s potential is glowing on their radar screens.
Uganda tea plantationOil, precious metals, and gemstones aside, the surface of the soil has barely been scratched in Africa. There is less agricultural mechanization, less irrigation, less fertilizer use, less production financing in Africa than anywhere else in the world. There are fewer farm-to-market roads, less soil and seed research, and fewer educational resources for the regions farmers. When you add in the conflicts that have chased farmers out of their fields and the neglect of agricultural infrastructure by both local governments and world development organizations, it’s easy to see where improvements can be made.

Consider the upside for just one commodity, maize. Africa, with the second largest land mass of the seven continents, produced 46 million tons in 2006 (the latest data), according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Latin America, with less than 60% of Africa’s surface area (and about one-third the population), produced nearly twice as much, 91 million tons. For the sake of perspective, U.S. farmers grew 268 million tons that year, while China’s produced 146 million.

One of the biggest obstacles to development of a full-scale agri-industry in Africa has been lack of capital from both private and public sources. Aid programs have tended to target subsistence farmers in a well-intentioned effort to alleviate persistence famine in many regions with improved production methods. But turning the continent into the world’s next breadbasket requires both empowering the small family farm to compete in world markets and establishing serious industrial farms in areas where they don’t exist today. That takes capital investment, both for land and equipment and for infrastructure.

According to the Wall Street Journal (June 30, 2008), commercial banks, charities, and governments have set up funds with hundreds of millions of dollars to provide that capital in response to rising food prices. Among those looking for places to invest are:

Olam International Ltd., a Singapore-based nuts and grains producer who put $200 million into African agricultural projects last year

Rabobank Group of the Netherlands started a $75 million fund for developing country food projects

Emergent Asset Management, London, is recruiting investors to buy farmland in 13 sub-Sahran countries. They are reported to be raising $750 million for the effort.

Durabilis, a private fund in Belgium, has $15 million to help start food businesses in Africa

Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund, based in Nairobi, has $100 million from private investors to buy stakes in ag-related businesses.
America’s BlackRock and France’s BNP Paribas SA and Credit Agricole SA are reportedly building fund and looking for opportunities.

Money by itself won’t turn Africa into a farming wonderland, of course. Roads must be built to bring supplies like fuel, seed, and fertilizer to the farms and return the output to market. Water must be managed to provide irrigation. Local processors must emerge to absorb raw commodities and add value. Individual farmers must have training in how to run a business, not just grow a crop to feed their families. In addition, a stable governance climate must be developed—one where contracts are enforced by equitable laws, licenses are granted without corruption, and investors can have faith that their businesses won’t be ripped from their hands at the whim of a new government.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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