Live from the Great Lakes Policy Forum Conference on Congo Advocacy

Morning internets!  We’re on a field trip to the Great Lakes Policy Forum Conference on Congo Advocacy today.

We’re live-blogging live, but the conference policy of “on the record but not for attribution” means that we are apparently only allowed to tell you what is being said, not who is saying it.  So, to set the scene:

We have three panelists and one moderator, making up a total of three distinguished gentlemen and one distinguished lady who is a friend of the blog and is named Laura Seay.* Three of them are wearing suits!  One moderator is wearing a tie! And Tom from A View from the Cave is sitting behind us, which is awfully exciting.

*Laura has given us permission to attribute her statements, so this is not as much of a flagrant rule violation as you probably thought it was. Fooled you!

9:45: Not-to-be-identified-speaker-in-spiffy-yellow-tie notes that international advocacy around Congo is not a new phenomenon. Mark Twain FTW!

9:49: Broad theme for this panel is “how is the narrative of the Congo conveyed in Washington?” (Somehow we think the answer to that question is going to be “not that well, actually.”)

9:52: Oooh! A map!

9:53: Focus on eastern DRC means “we have ignored the rest of the country altogether.”

9:54: Your interest has been captured by eastern DRC, so those are the stories you tell. You think you are doing something good for the Congo, but you’re not. You’re arguably doing something for this region, but ignoring the rest. The result has been terrible.

9:56: Shout out to a great moment in “WTF Congo Advocacy” history – Secretary Clinton’s video cameras for rape victims initiative. Whatever happened with that, anyway?

9:57: No one asks about the Congolese government when something bad happens. When women get raped, we send NGOs, and students from good law schools to run clinics on how to prosecute people that no one has the power to arrest.

9:58: First reference to Dr. Mukwege. Who thinks we’ll get to ten mentions by 11:30?

10:01: What is lacking in the advocacy in this town is the courage to tell the truth. You’re thinking of your next job, and what people will think of you.

10:02: Explanation of who Edward Morrell was is probably not necessary – suspect 100% of this audience has read “King Leopold’s Ghost.”

10:03: Oooh, burn. Report saying that 48 women are raped every hour is “most ridiculous thing I’ve heard.” If you take a holistic view of all rape in a country, then the U.S. is in serious trouble too. Maybe we need to build a Panzi hospital here.

10:06: Exciting Panelist #2! (Suit, no tie. Have we mentioned these panelists are snappy dressers?)

10:09: External intervention is preventing Congolese from dealing with internal problems. U.S. should “stop the support of strong men in Africa.”

10:10: Panelist says that one of the things activists should do is to tell President Obama not to give Kagame immunity in U.S. courts, (as the State Dept. recently requested). Um, good luck with that. Guess we need to do another installment of “LOL International Law.”

10:14: Panelist expresses frustration that IBM and Apple get a hard time about conflict minerals, but mining companies get a free pass.

10:15: Emphasis on need to include the Congolese diaspora in the discussion.

10:17: It’s Laura time! She gives a shout-out to the people at Search for Common Ground who organized this event after seeing a blog post on Texasinafrica where she suggested something like this happen. Yay blogging, blogging FTW.

10:18: When she started her research in the Congo, no one was talking about the Congo, or about conflict minerals. Then celebrities and activists from Nick Kristof to Lucy Liu started visiting the HEAL Africa Hospital and Panzi hospital for advocacy and photo-ops. Then, several years ago, the focus shifted to conflict minerals.

10:20: Someone is yapping all through Laura’s remarks. Shush!

10:21: Laura, like most academics, is not a fan of the conflict-mineral narrative. There is insufficient evidence on more or less all points – how much of the world’s coltan is in Congo, whether cutting off revenue will cause armed groups to stop fighting, etc. More importantly, however, this is a narrative that was developed in Washington, and without the involvement of Congolese people. If we had involved local voices earlier, we might have recognized the potential harms of policies which have ended up putting thousands of people out of work – and might have also recognized how difficult supply-chain monitoring actually is.

10:23: Hooray, it’s personal anecdote time! Aw, Laura had a “delightful chat” with a bishop who asked her to be a “voice” for the Congolese, and now it’s a teachable moment about how we should listen DIRECTLY to Congolese voices and stop claiming to speak for them.

10:27: Hmm, apparently part of the panel thinks the conference is “off the record and not for attribution.” Not what the announcement says, suckers!

10:31: Money quote: “If it’s about U.S. consumers, please don’t call it a Congo strategy.”

10:33: Panelist wonders “when will we hold the mining companies responsible for what they have done,” in the same way that Holocaust survivors have held companies involved with the Nazis responsible through the courts for their involvement in the Holocaust.

10:35: Rachel Strohm has left the building. The room somehow seems dimmer.

10:36: Laura: Congo needs stronger institutions and rule of law. Period.

10:36: Apparently Congo is not a howling wilderness, there are sectors where things work. Laura suggests that we look at places in Congo that are pretty well governed, like Lubumbashi and Butembo, to draw lessons from them about how they collect revenue and get their institutions to work. More generally, security sector reform is a necessary precondition. The country needs to have all of its territory under its control. We need the FARDC to mean something.

10:38: Security sector reform needs to happen throughout the country, not just in the east.

10:39: Oh my my, “It should not be just one organization picking the witnesses for a congressional hearing on these issues.” And the SEC is having a roundtable on conflict minerals, and there should be Congolese voices at that table.

10:41: The floor is now open for questions. Oh sweet Jesus…

10:54: Some questions collected from the audience thus far:

  1. How should we deal with the lack of a willing partner in Kinshasa to undertake security sector reform?
  2. Is Kagame Hitler reincarnated?
  3. Will Dodd-Frank’s transparency requirements help with pursuing accountability for mining companies?
  4. Who is Kabila’s REAL father?
  5. Is the war in Congo Bill Clinton’s fault?
  6. Does “ICC” stand for “Injustice Colonial Court”?
  7. What are other African countries doing for Congo? We can say that the problems came from the West, but what are we doing to move forward from there, as Africans?

10:58 Panelist response: If you are an advocacy organization and you are caught between wanting to discuss the role of Rwanda in the conflict in Congo, and your sympathy for the Rwandan genocide, then you are compromised.

10:59 “The DRC actually has gone through security sector reform before, in the 60s.” Good point.

11:03: Internet is glitching out and there are no muffins. Oh the humanity…

11:05: Panelist discusses civilian review boards that oversee police in the U.S. Says wants an equivalent “civil society review board” for security sector reform in Congo.

11:06: Laura points out the African Union’s “tradition of not holding leaders accountable for their behavior” (see, e.g., Libya, Côte d’Ivoire), argues that accountability has to come from citizens of African states.

11:06: Laura says the blame game needs to stop in order to move forward. “No one is going to say that Belgian colonization was good for the Congolese people.” Um, didn’t Newt Gingrich say that in his PhD dissertation?

11:08: Another panelist pushes back. Blame is important, because opposite of blame is impunity.

11:09: Laura says she’s not pro-impunity, she just wants to focus on options that will allow “the woman who has been raped to safely return to her community,” rather than just allowing blame to dominate the conversation.

11:13: Floor is open again. Ruh-roh.

11:15: Love of god, why are there no muffins at this event?

11:17: Have we mentioned we’d really go for a muffin about now?

11:18: Question from the peanut gallery: Is the U.S. only interested in the rape story? Without it, would Congo drop off the foreign policy agenda entirely?

11:25: Panelist: for the love of god, don’t call your congressional reps and tell them you want them to “be more engaged”. That’s how you get Africom!

11:27: All we’re saying is, we were promised muffins.

11:30: Laura on how we can use democratic and diplomatic levers. There are opportunities, and we’ve missed a big one in the lead-up to the 2011 elections. Kabila is not that interested in SSR, but he is interested in reelection. We missed a big opportunity to support the elections in a way that promoted security sector reform. However, 40% of the DRC’s budget comes from foreign donors, so there are still opportunities there to put pressure on Kabila for SSR.

11:31: Laura raises a troubling concern: “What’s going to happen when Kabila wins with 25 or 30% of the vote?”

11:34: Laura notes that there are a broad variety of Congolese civil society organizations, covering all possible issues. They are smart, and motivated. However, they aren’t necessarily covering the “hot” issues, like rape or conflict minerals, so no one listens to them.

11:36: Another panelist takes up the same point. The NGO-partnership model mutes the conversation. “If I’m partnered with Enough, and I come to DC, then I am going to say what they want me to say, because my livelihood depends on it.” And everyone else gets ignored.

11:41: Question from the audience: if the U.S. doesn’t have interests in Congo, then why, according to Professor Erlinder, was the plan to invade formed in Virginia? (Panelists look bemused.)

11:44: Laura, responding to a question about what are the true root causes of the war in the Congo, asks “which one?” She notes that “the DRC wars are entangled, but they’re distinct.” She emphasizes, however, that state fragility contributes to all of it and that questions over land rights and citizenship continue to cause conflict.

11:48: Another panelist following up on Laura’s remarks: Conflict in the Congo is “overdetermined.” Ha!

11:52: Wow, audience NOT happy with Laura’s remarks about the need to resolve the citizenship status of Congolese of Rwandese origin in the Kivus. She said that there would not be peace until their status was clarified, and the room erupted in shouts of “no! no!” from Congolese audience members.

11:57: Ugh, we are SERIOUSLY due for a post on head of state immunity. Sorry, team “hold Kagame accountable in the U.S. courts”, no dice.

11:58: It’s over. Muffin time!

Amanda and Kate


  1. Feeling better about having to leave early for class with this excellent write-up. : ) I'm sorry we'll be missing you tonight! How long are you in town?

  2. As the organizer of the conference, I would like to thank you for live blogging this! I would also just like to add that I strategically cut out all of the muffins so that we could afford to fly in more speakers and participants from Congo (which is crazy expensive!). I hope you can come tomorrow when they will be speaking so you can see what you missed the muffins for…. just eat first. I will make more coffee.

  3. Hi Rachel,
    Thanks for organizing the conference, and for leaving such a nice comment. We really liked this morning's panel, despite the dearth of muffins. (We're very pleased to hear that the muffins were sacrificed to a good cause, though.)
    Sadly, we both have obligations in New York tomorrow, so we won't make it to the next panel. We're really disappointed not to be there – it sounds like it should be great.

  4. 1. Thank-you for this.

    2. It is very strange to read about what you said on a live blog.

    3. 11:06 – Point well taken. I should have said, "No reasonable adult with a solid sense of history is going to say that Belgian colonization was good for the DRC."

    Also, Rachel, you are the best. And I didn't feel any need for a muffin. 🙂

  5. There is real power in the ideas of supporting the establishment of rule of law and strong institutions and of stopping "the support of strong men in Africa". At the same time, there is a disconnect between these ideals and Western strategy which all too often resorts to the use of strong men to establish credible institutions and the rule of law while paying little more than lip service to the need to end strong man rule.

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