(Internews' partner, AFEM radio is cited in this opinion piece in the New York Times.)
By BEN AFFLECK
Turning Point: The European Union and the United States impose sanctions for human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When I first visited eastern Congo in 2006, it was difficult to understand how anyone could be hopeful about the region’s future. The Congolese had just emerged from a decade of some of the worst violence the world had known since World War II: More than 3.5 million people died as a result of conflict, according to estimates. The genocide in neighboring Rwanda had flooded the region with over a million refugees, including fleeing armed combatants. The emergence of militias and the near-collapse of the Congolese state resulted in a protracted struggle. Civilians were caught in the crossfire, causing massive internal displacement and suffering.
But I soon recognized fierce optimism in nearly everyone I met. There were remarkable private sector and civil society leaders working to provide education, health care, legal services and more — Congolese women and men who were rebuilding their country in the face of enormous uncertainty.
In 2009, the businesswoman and social entrepreneur Whitney Williams and I founded Eastern Congo Initiative to support community-based leaders and advocate on behalf of the Congolese. Among our first grant recipients was Chouchou Namegabe’s organization AFEM, the first radio station in eastern Congo owned and run by women. We partnered with Dr. Denis Mukwege, who last year was a finalist (again) for the Nobel Peace Prize for his heroic work treating thousands of rape survivors. His Panzi Hospital also provides legal assistance to women to exact justice on those who have perpetrated crimes against them. Children’s Voice, an organization founded by Christine Musaidizi and based in the regional capital of Goma, has provided thousands of eager kids with the opportunity to learn and play in a safe environment.
This progress alone, however, wasn’t going to be enough to help a nation of nearly 80 million people recover from two decades of conflict. What about jobs?
Most people don’t know that Congo used to be one of the world’s greatest coffee producers, before war and disease wiped out nearly 90 percent of the crop. In the 1970s, Congo was thriving agriculturally. Imagine what would happen if Spain lost 90 percent of its olive oil production, or if Florida lost 90 percent of its citrus crop. Years of violence and instability, along with poor land management and an outbreak of a debilitating crop fungus, contributed to the decimation of its once-thriving coffee and cocoa sectors.
The Congolese are optimistic because their country, which is about the size of Western Europe, has enough arable land to feed Africa’s growing population. Though most rural residents live in poverty, the fundamentals are there: the soil, abundant rainfall, and most importantly, communities of farmers doing everything they can to provide for their families. Better yet, global demand for specialty coffee is growing rapidly. Congolese coffee farmers were positioned to take advantage of this emerging market, estimated at more than $30 billion in the United States alone.
In May of this year, on my way back to Goma, I was in Starbucks at the Los Angeles airport when the little tag that read “Congo” caught my eye. It was Kawa Kabuya, a coffee from Congo in Starbucks’ Reserve collection.
Starbucks isn’t the only company to take notice of Congo’s agricultural potential. Today every chocolate bar from Seattle’s Theo Chocolate includes Congolese cocoa. Congolese products are in the biggest stores in the world.
There is still a lot of work to be done. During the conflict, untold numbers of women and young girls were victims of sexual violence and abuse, and as a result they are often stigmatized and subject to further abuse. When my own children sit with me while I pack for these trips, I know that if we were a Congolese family, it’s a coin flip that one of the three of them wouldn’t have made it to their fifth birthday. It’s hard to imagine a parent not losing hope.
To sustain their momentum, the Congolese need our attention and support. In the private sector, Congolese coffee and cocoa farmers need greater access to financial assistance and help with organizing and advocacy efforts.
At the political level, a crisis looms. An election originally scheduled for late 2016 has been delayed until 2018, and observers say that the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, appears intent on remaining in office. International organizations need to ensure that national elections are held as soon as possible and that a peaceful transition of presidential power takes place. The security of ordinary citizens, particularly women and children, depends on it.
Following the recent trip to the region by Ambassador Nikki Haley, the United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the American government has an opportunity to help steer the democratic process to a better, more peaceful outcome. This is why we are grateful for the strong support of numerous members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats. In particular Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, and Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington State, both of whom have traveled to Congo with us and have since sponsored hearings and legislation on a number of issues relevant to Congo. The key position of United States ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo remains vacant. By filling this position quickly, the current administration would signal American commitment to a peaceful resolution.
Congo continues to face enormous challenges. But through hard work, the Congolese are striving to close the gap between poverty and prosperity, chaos and stability. It’s a journey toward progress, and it’s only just beginning.
Ben Affleck is an actor, filmmaker and the founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative.
(Banner image: from an Internews report on women's participation in the democratic process in the DRC)