Theodore Trefon, who has emerged over the past 20 years as one of the keenest students of Congolese society and politics, has recently given us a superb analysis of the failure of international aid to stimulate development in Congo. The work is beautifully distilled, and accessible to an audience with only a modest familiarity with Congo's history and politics. Trefon writes with refreshing directness and clarity, and his work is unmarred by the infelicities of social science jargon. The list of citations is relatively short, but it includes almost all of the best studies of Congo under the two Kabilas (Laurent and Joseph, father and son) and of the failures of the aid establishment. His careful reading and first-hand knowledge of Congo allow Trefon to sprinkle the text with vivid illustrations of his points.
Most valuably of all, Trefon has identified political culture as the chief culprit in the failure of reform in Congo, and made an excellent case for it as the root of Congo's perpetual 'failure to launch'. He draws upon his extensive knowledge of colonial and post-colonial Congolese history with confidence, picking out ideal examples to illustrate some of the continuities of the country's political practices, and hinting at the origins of its culture. Through a well-chosen case study of reform areas, he shows clearly how elements of Congo's political culture have thwarted the (mostly) good intentions of the international community. In so doing, he also provides trenchant insights into the culture of the international 'aid machine' as well.
Indeed, various members of the international community have been active participants in the illusion of reform and concealment of failure in Congo since the demise of the country's former dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1997. In fairness to the outside world, little meaningful assistance was possible under the dreadful reign of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, Mobutu's successor, assassinated in January 2001. After his son Joseph succeeded him in power, however, Congo has been fulsomely engaged by a range of international actors. Alas, virtually all have come with their hidden agendas, institutional preoccupations and interests, illusions, and naïve hopes. The increasingly large United Nations peacekeeping [End Page 523] mission in Congo has failed in its chief obligation to provide protection to the civilian population from rapacious warlords, though it has taken pains to protect its own; the UNDP and World Bank have pursued well-intentioned development projects but unwittingly exposed many of Congo's most vulnerable to undue risk; bilateral donors have attempted to assuage their guilt for past sins in Congo through aid and debt relief programmes that only reinforced the worst elements of culture; and non-governmental humanitarian organizations have not been able to save millions from disease and hunger, despite valiant efforts. All have inadvertently widened the gap between the Congolese state and people, preventing the development of organic bonds between the two that are desperately needed.
The main thrust of Trefon's work, however, highlights the features of Congolese culture that forestall any hope of successful reform. One of these elements is a perverse reliance of Congolese elites on their 'insider' networks. Those especially include ethnically related allies and family members, but also those associated through their school, professional and class connections. The perversity of this practice is that 'outsiders' are considered exploitable. Second, Congo is suffused with a culture of secrecy, deception and obfuscation of all political realities, including assassinations, business deals and machinations with foreign leaders. Third, the Congolese state continues to be a deeply repressive instrument of control, just as it was under Belgian King Leopold and Mobutu. Citizens are spied upon and brutalized with little restraint. Finally, corruption remains as rampant as ever in Congo, permeating virtually all aspects of life. People are so profoundly disillusioned with their administrators that they wish to 'kill the state' (p. 102). Chapter 3 of the volume shows how such politio-cultural habits have prevented reform in the...