Last week the U.S. Congress turned some of its attention to the situation in Congo. Not surprisingly, Hollywood actor Ben Affleck’s testimony became the focus of the media attention. The House Foreign Affairs Africa Subcommittee hearing heard testimony from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and human rights groups, including the Eastern Congo Initiative that Affleck founded in 2010.
The new Chair of the Africa Subcommittee, Chris Smith, R-NJ, noted that Congo is one of the five poorest countries in the world, with 80 per cent of its people living on income of less than $2 per day. With the regular outbreak of armed conflict and mass rape, many lives have been lost in eastern Congo by the failure to respond to the challenges to health posed by malnutrition, malaria, pneumonia and diarrahea. Most affected are children under 5, the majority of the estimated 5.4 million (International Rescue Committee figure) who have died in the war torn areas of eastern Congo since 1998.
Affleck’s testimony emphasized the importance of the national elections scheduled for this year. “The path to stability in today’s Congo requires fostering stable elections and preventing another disaster that would easily require hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance. Come November we must be able to look ourselves in the eye and say that we did what our principles demanded [and] we helped democracy emerge in a place where tragedy is the alternative.”
Having traveled three times in the last year to the eastern Congo, among the actor’s policy recommendations were the appointment of a U.S. envoy to Congo and increased funding of the Congo electoral process. Interesting to note that Mr. Affleck did not call for that funding to be channeled through the U.N. whose peacekeeping and civil society support efforts are woefully underfunded.
Last month the head of the U.N. Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) warned that lack of funding of their election related activities would be dire. Former U.S. Ambassador to Congo and Indianapolis native Roger Meece declared, “it is not yet clear we will have needed funds in the 2011/2012 budget cycle to ensure the necessary logistical support we are uniquely positioned to provide.” He did not mention that at this time the UN presence in Congo is scheduled to end on June 30.