DRC – Mbongo ya kobongisa: Where will the money for reform come from?

Since he began running for president, Felix Tshisekedi has made clear that in order to reform the Congo, huge resources will be needed. In August 2018, when he presented his policy platform, he said it would require $86 billion over 10 years to implement and an annual growth rate of 25%. In 2019, in his end-of-year speech, he scolded those who said his proposed budget of $10 billion for 2020 was unrealistic: “Pour un Grand Congo, il faut une grande ambition.”  

The realities of governing, however, have thwarted these ambitions. Even before Covid-19 hit, he was forced to reduce his 2020 budget by almost 50%. Then the pandemic cut the country’s GDP growth to 1.7 percent, far below the population growth rate of 3.2%, even though the extractives sector expanded by 10 percent in 2020. While the country’s coffers are projected to recover quickly, the government only has another two years to follow through on Tshisekedi’s promises before elections in 2023. 

Where will he get the resources from?

Donors, in particular the World Bank, are one possibility. The Bank appears to be ramping up its activities in the DR Congo. On May 5, its country director met with Prime Minister Sama Lukonde, announcing that the Bank had committed $3 billion for the DR Congo in the following 18 months. And this does not include the $1 billion it pledged last year to support education and healthcare in the country, nor the roughly $824 million it is currently investing in stabilization in the eastern Congo.

These are, obviously, huge sums. In 2019, the Bank committed more annual funding ($762 million) for the DRC than any year since 2002, and that sum is set to double if the recent declarations of the Bank are implemented. It is one of the largest revenue streams the country has––it is roughly as large as the funding provided by the US government (and much of that money does not go thru the government as is the case with the Bank) and far larger than any other donor. It was equal to around a quarter of the Congolese budget in 2019; the budget for Kinshasa’s five year urban renewal program is larger than the city’s entire annual budget this year. 

This is potentially a game changer for the Tshisekedi government. The Bank might be funding a large part of the president’s agenda . While it is only slowly disbursing the $800 million pledged in June 2020 to support free primary education––allegations of corruption have held this up––that money could allow Tshisekedi to implement his flagship promise. The new Disarmament, Demobilization, Community Reinsertion and Stabilization (DDRCS)  program that is a cornerstone of the government’s security strategy in the eastern Congo is also supposed to be partly funded by the Bank (they can only fund the reinsertion part), part of their $824 million Eastern Recovery Project.

What has led to this large increase in investments? 

According to people close to these negotiations, this uptick began before the Tshisekedi presidency and is linked to developments within the Bank––an increased focus on fragile and conflict-ridden countries. The change of power in Kinshasa, however, has also played a role, with the new president gaining favor by signalling a will to engage in reforms and poverty-reduction projects.

The education project is an example for this. The Bank was eager to intervene in this sector, as school fees are a heavy burden on low-income families. The policy and the initial funding was a government initiative that began in 2019. The Bank was supposed to begin contributing $100 million in November 2020, over a year after the measure had been implemented. Even that, however, was postponed when the government announced that they had detected massive corruption within the sector, with the Inspection générale des finances (IGF) launching investigations. It was only on 26 May, 2021 that the Bank finally informed the government that it would begin disbursing. According to sources close to the Bank, this process was actually reassuring, as it suggested the government had ownership of the program and was working to implement reforms. It estimates that, despite the rocky implementation of the policy, between 2 and 4 milion new students have been able enroll since 2019. Reassured, the Bank could now play a major role in implementing this measure. 

“weak institutional capacity”

Many projects, however, are not so successful. Another grant for $200 million in support of employment and cash transfers was cancelled after 20 months because of “weak institutional capacity” and “awkward institutional arrangements,” as well as the fact that neither the ministry of social affairs nor the Fonds social de la RDC –– the implementing partners –– seemed to see the project as a priority. 

Even when the Bank is able to disburse, the outcomes are sometimes lacklustre. Perhaps the most damning recent assessment was of a World Bank-led project––buried in the bureaucratic language of their project evaluations––meant to reform the state-run railway company, the SNCC. After 5 years and $425 million spent, the Bank concluded that the project was a failure, with only a negligible impact on the SNCC’s financial health, the railway infrastructure, and the state-owned company’s management. Some of the main reasons: a “lack of government commitment,” and “excessive optimism in the influence and impact that the external technical and management advisor could have on the financial and operational standing of SNCC.”

Still, the World Bank could be an extremely important player in the success of the Tshisekedi presidency. This raises important questions. 

First,  regaeding the accountability and sustainability of these projects. After all, while these projects are approved by parliament, they are rarely audited by that body and even the official state budget does not include most of these expenditures. Some of the projects, such as the Eastern Recovery Project, are managed by institutions such as the Fonds Social, which falls directly under the presidency. Nor is World Bank funding, much like funding by other donors, much scrutinized by civil society (some of whom are partners of those donors) or the press. Altogether, donors spend almost as much money ($3,3 billion in 2019) in the Congo every year as the Congolese government ($3,7 billion in 2018), but are not fundamentally accountable––despite efforts at participatory budgeting and community development projects––to the beneficiaries of their projects.

There are also questions about accountability within the World Bank itself. When its projects fail–like with the SNCC–who holds the bank or its officials to account? And if the bank’s auditors decide the fault lies with Congolese officials, why isn’t the bank doing more to hold those individuals to account by letting the public know who they are? For example,the head of SNCC at the end of the World Bank project was Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba, who then went on to become prime minister. While it is not clear whether he played a role in any foul play at SNCC, greater transparency would allow the Congolese hold their own institutions and leaders to account.

Perhaps the most important question concerns structural change. Development, after all, is not just about building things and creating wealth, but about creating systems and institutions that allow people to flourish. This will require reforming the state itself from the lame Leviathan––the bula matari (crusher of rocks), as it is still called by many––that it is today into a less oppressive, more dynamic and enabling creature. This is something that has bedeviled outside donors, despite all the impressive results in terms of roads built and teachers trained. In the past, for example, stabilization in the eastern Congo has failed not just because of a lack of funding but because of a lack of political commitment to engage in the tough reforms––prosecutions, land reform, cracking down on corruption and extortion––needed. The hope of the Bank is that by infusing cash and creating jobs Congolese will be more able to demand systemic change.