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In the Congo, War and Embargo Complicate World Bank Project

BY Rebecca Chao | Monday, December 16 2013

The provincial budget minister talks to the press after a generally assembly and budget vote (Credit: World Bank)

Five minutes after a faulty connection cuts off my conversation with Rémy de Frank on Skype, my phone rings with a text message: I’ll reconnect in an hour, de Frank writes. The power runs for only two hours a day in his Congolese town. But while that thin thread of the Internet that connected us from South Kivu to Soho has broken down, de Frank’s mobile phone is working just fine.

De Frank, a researcher for a local think tank called CRESA, lives in the Ibanda commune of Bukavu, the capital of the South Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He speaks in a mix of French and English and is determined, despite consistently interrupted Skype calls, to tell me his thoughts on a participatory budgeting program conducted by the World Bank that took place in the three communes of Bukavu. It is a project that depends, our Internet disconnection a fitting case in point, on the reliability of the text message and mobile phone, when all other modes of communication fail.

The war-ravaged province of South Kivu sits at the eastern border of the DRC, beside the stem of Tanganyika, an African Great Lake. Boris Weber, team leader for the World Bank's ICT4Gov, explains that after years of conflict and violence in the province, the provincial government was simply not sending the money allocated to local governments. “Partly, they just didn’t have any incentive to send it. Also, they had no way of knowing and tracking how their money was going to be spent,” he says.

The World Bank’s participatory budgeting program, piloted in 2012, aimed to resolve that dilemma by giving those in Bukavu a direct say in how they wanted to see their budget spent; therefore creating the accountability needed to incentivize the provincial government to send money down the line.

The results were tangible though perhaps transitory: 54 repaired classrooms, a new bridge in the Luhindja commune, a new health center, repaired sewage system in the Bagira commune, as well as much needed water fountains and toilets in the Kamagema markets of the Ibanda commune. While deterioration in the security situation forced the World Bank to withdraw prematurely from the Congo, the program continues to operate, says Weber. And in a promising gesture, the government made participatory budgeting a legal requirement for drafting budgets throughout the province in late 2012.

De Frank, however, expresses distrust in the efficacy of the program and wonders, if it is now legally required, why he has not heard about it. “Every time I ask my friends in Bukavu about a text budget participation program, they tell me, they don’t understand this text budget participation. For me, I don’t know this program,” says de Frank. He says he is well in tune with the development community: he worked with a group of experts from the United Nations three years ago on peace building in the eastern Congo and was selected as an emerging leader for the US State Department's International Volunteer and Leadership Program. He lists a number of development projects implemented by the World Bank and the International Rescue Committee but the participatory budgeting project is not on his radar.

Weber explains, “When we designed this, we tried to reach as many as possible and may have possibly excluded populations.” He emphasizes that context is key in evaluating the merits of the program. “In an idealistic world, 100 percent representative participation is ideal but we all try to look at where we came from: from zero,” he explains. “There was no awareness of local budgets. There was no investment in the budget. There were no investments at the local level. The entire process [of participatory budgeting] promoted this idea for the first time, that citizens take a part in defining [their budgets]. It’s about reforming tradition.”

The project reached remote areas with SMS, says Weber, like small villages that still lacked electricity and were hard to reach by road but had good network coverage. In South Kivu, a stretch of land as big as Rwanda, accessing a voting station requires taking a lengthy and dangerous bus ride to the capital. The SMS-based program allowed remote villages to participate in the budgeting process without having to travel. For the first time, South Kivu’s youths got involved, says Weber. They had never been very active in the decision-making process until then.

A general assembly and vote at the Ibanda Commune (Credit: World Bank)

Thomas Maketa, a DRC-based member of the ICT4Gov team says that the SMS-based system even reached the Pgymie populations in South Kivu. “Pygmie people do not feel comfortable participating with so-called ‘large normal people,’” says Maketa. “I met a Pygmie woman who said the SMS tool enabled her to vote and express her opinion in a way that was comfortable for her. She felt empowered by that.”

One of the program’s participants, Josaphat Musamba Bussy, said the project worked on a small scale but he sees flaws. Like De Frank, Bussy lives in the Ibanda commune. Here, locals voted for the installation of toilets at the Kamagema Markets, which was considered an important project since food and other items are sold and the lack of toilets was unsanitary.

“I sent my vote. I participated,” says Bussy. But he had voted for a project that was not passed: to fix a steep set of stairs that led from a residential area to a main road. The current one remains broken and hazardous.

“It’s a very good system in theory because it allows people to contribute to the management of their communities,” says Bussy. “But the projects were very localized.” Those from one neighborhood would vote for a project that directly affected them and larger neighborhoods, it seemed, had more sway over the vote. He also believes the current program “is dangerous” because it gives people the opportunity to buy votes, though he admits, “I cannot lie. I have not seen people buying votes. I had not heard of people buying votes, but I think this is a danger.”

Weber explains that the participatory budgeting voting process is overseen by a steering committee made up of civil society representatives who ensure the process is transparent. Still, Bussy's point, regarding what safeguards there are to prevent preferential voting, is a valid one and not lost on the World Bank. In an article written by O’Reilly Radar's Alexander Howard, Weber noted that mobile phone ownership in South Kivu, while difficult to calculate, hovered only at around 14 percent, even though families often share one device. Surely, with one vote per phone and one phone per family, results skew in favor of those with greater access to mobile devices.

Despite the skepticism of South Kivu locals like de Frank and Bussy, World Bank figures reveal a successful story: that the program results in a 16-fold increase in tax revenues in Ibanda alone. The provincial government had also increased transfers of funds to local governments by up to four-fold.

Tiago Peixoto, an open government specialist at the World Bank, has warned, however, against drawing definitive conclusions. “It is difficult to confirm a causal relationship [between] participatory budgeting and the increase in tax compliance at scientific levels thus far,” he said, “but the evidence collected thus and testimonials of local officials suggests the existence of this causality.”

De Frank says even if more people are paying taxes, he hasn’t felt it and he doesn’t trust the government. He explains that the commune is not really set up for democratic participation since it is overseen by a chief appointed by presidential ordinance rather than elected by the people. “The fact that these people haven’t been chosen by the population, their loyalty is to the people who sent them and not directly to the population,” says de Frank. “It’s really a problem with bad governance. We haven’t elected communal leaders since 2006. And they come from everywhere, often from outside of Bukavu. There are some that have been there 10, 15, or 20 years.”

Photos depicting the realization of the project with before and after shots of project sites.

Indeed, for those like de Frank, it is hard to believe that enough has changed in the community through one development project when most residents still lack basic necessities like electricity. At times when I speak with de Frank, I can only see the faint outline of his silhouette on Skype as he sits in the dark.

“It is catastrophic,” says de Frank. “The factories don’t work. You see I am in my office. It is dark in here. It’s not like your office.” As if the country is moving both backward and forward at the same, Rémy explains that the communication networks, however, are more or less reliable.

“Sometimes the electricity is cut at the moment when the doctor is doing an operation at a hospital,” says de Frank from experience. The electricity went out just as his uncle’s wife entered the operating room. Fortunately, she suffered no harm as the hospital quickly started the backup generators. “Some hospitals have these generators and some don’t,” notes de Frank.

The looming issue in South Kivu is its slow recuperation from past conflict. “With that war,” says de Frank, “Everything was brought down to zero.” But what has stymied its recovery is the “Loi Obama,” as the Congolese call it, or “Obama Law” and better known as Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform act of 2010.

The law requires companies to ensure that their supply chains are clean of conflict minerals so that their money stays out of the pockets of corrupt warlords. The consequence of the act is a de facto embargo that chokes industry in a province like South Kivu, which relies on mining. “What that means is we can no longer sell our minerals where we want. We have to accommodate the demands of traceability,” says de Frank. The law has put a halt on the export of crucial minerals like tin, tungsten and the tantalum that are used for making – of all things – cellphones.

“Before the law, there was money that circulated,” says de Frank. “Afterwards, it is difficult to have something. Very, very difficult.” The lack of income pouring into the province has affected basic services like transportation, water, electricity, and sanitation, among others. On top of it all, the push for Dodd-Frank came from human rights groups like the Enough Project and Global Witness.

While the World Bank’s project can bring a toilet to a busy marketplace and update old classrooms – accomplishments not to be undermined in regards to their impact – for Rémy, no amount of mobile voting can change the complexities of war and politics in the Congo and its impact on citizens like himself. He still more often than not sits in the dark.

Conversations with local Congolese were translated from French to English by Coyne Lloyd.

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