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Goma needs aid, but an effective state would be nice

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Sat, 1 Dec 2012 22:57 GMT
Author: ed-stoddard
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Ed Stoddard is a Reuters senior correspondent reporting from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

When I was last in Goma almost 11 years ago, the lakeside city on the Congolese border with Rwanda was reeling in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption that covered the city in a blob of steaming hot lava about a kilometre wide.

To my astonishment, a decade on, the lava seems to have been mostly removed and broken up to be used for the rebuilding of what I described back then as a “living Pompei.”

Hardened lava smashed up into black-grey rubble has been used to construct foundations for houses by the city’s resourceful residents who are long used to hardship.

But little else seems to have changed in a city near the equator that has been both cursed and blessed by geography.

In the latest twist to the saga that is Goma, the city fell on Nov. 20, to M23 rebels who launched an insurgency against President Joseph Kabila's government in Kinshasa, 1,600 kms (1,000 miles) to the west.

Those rebels pulled out on Saturday under an accord brokered by regional powers, but the change of hands will make little difference in the long run to Goma’s long-suffering residents.

Grinding poverty still seems the order of the day, just as it was over a decade ago. By late Saturday afternoon, local markets had returned to their usual bustle though hawkers complained about banks remaining closed, so people had little cash on hand to spend as liquidity dries up.

Many of those hawkers, mostly women in colourful local dress selling smoked fish and local vegetables grown in their own plots, would not have a bank account themselves. They are stuck in a perpetual state of subsistence and survival with little hope of accumulating capital themselves.

“My husband doesn’t work, this is all we have,” one woman told me as she stood before a few onions she was trying to sell. Other hawkers offered smoked fish from Lake Kivu, tomatoes or other produce and charcoal. But no none had much to sell.

With or without rebels – another group controlled the city last time I was here – it is clear that the Congolese state has been an utter failure here, which helps explain why people remain stuck in a subsistence economy.

Most of the streets remained unpaved and scarred by bone-jarring pot holes. Open sewers emit a foul stench under a hot tropical sky. Power supplies are unreliable. The Kinshasa government has done little for these people, and its failure to produce an effective army leaves the city vulnerable to future attacks.

Democratic Republic of Congo also ranks low on almost any corruption measurement you can think of and there is little doubt that small business is strangled here by the Congolese police and army, who are slowly re-asserting control after the rebel pullout.

In Congo, government officials are often the scavengers of a predatory state.

Aid is clearly needed here and there are lots of groups doing good work here: Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, and many, many others.

The same groups were all in town over a decade ago and they clearly make a difference to the lives of people who live on the edge. But without an effective government here that taxes properly and paves roads, builds schools and produces an effective army that maintains national security – there seems little doubt that the populace will be stuck in a cycle of subsistence and survival.

And that is a shame, not least because the volcanic ash that coats the place has also, over the centuries, blessed the region with a fertility that should be a farmer’s dream.

A functioning state would harness the energy that has gone into the building of fences around plots where almost anything would grow, given the chance.

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