Wednesday 21 December 2011

'Consuming the Congo' & 'Masquerade' reviewed in Foreign Affairs

Review by Nicolas Van De Walle

Two new books survey the contemporary Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), following close to two decades of state collapse and civil conflict. Eichstaedt’s book focuses on the conflicts in the eastern DRC in 2006–9. Through interviews with soldiers, politicians, and businesspeople, along with ordinary people, the book explores the role that resources such as gold and coltan played in fueling the conflict. One particularly fascinating chapter narrates a decadelong struggle between rival warlords and their foreign backers, including the Ugandan government, to control a lucrative gold mine. Coltan, a mineral widely used in advanced electronics, such as cell phones, has emerged as a convenient symbol of the West’s complicity in the wars in the DRC. Eichstaedt diligently traces the supply chain, from primitive mines in the forest to the subsidiaries of major Western corporations. But he notes that probably less than ten percent of the world’s coltan comes from the DRC and reports that many companies have responded to the negative publicity by adopting voluntary codes of practice that aim to mitigate the worst abuses associated with coltan mining.

Trefon takes a broader view of the DRC, examining the country’s sociopolitical dynamics and its failing institutions. His book has no heroes. It is sharply critical of the DRC’s rapacious political class. But Trefon is perhaps even more critical of the aid efforts of the United Nations, various bilateral and multilateral donors, and international nongovernmental organizations, all of whom he suggests might actually be making things worse, by perverting institutional incentives for reform. The Congolese state, meanwhile, remains essentially collapsed, unable to provide social services or ensure law and order. The uncoordinated proliferation of donor projects weakens the state apparatus by hiring away the few available competent Congolese administrators and by providing various perks and resources to a class of local middlemen who now live off foreign aid.

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