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Democratic Republic of Congo's President Joseph Kabila attends a two-day meeting of leaders from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Pretoria, South Africa, November 4, 2013. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

Congo leader Kabila must choose between reform – and survival

By Jason Stearns / 11.13.13

A version of this post originally appeared on the Congo Siasa blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

In Kinshasa in early October, President Joseph Kabila gave a speech in which he announced, in the interest of national unity, the formation of a "government of national cohesion."

Now, a month later, there are signs that Mr. Kabila will move soon to set up this government. When he does so, he will have a difficult choice: keep the current prime minister and maintain course on state reforms. Or bring in someone who can help him rally the political elite around him.

Prime Minister Matata Ponyo, who has been in office since April 2012, has been able to make modest progress on improving governance, especially with regards to the economy and state finances. He is particularly popular with the donor community, who think that he has been able to name some competent technocrats to various ministries and has inspired a new élan in government. Many soldiers and state officials are now paid directly through bank accounts and through mobile cash transfers; ministers are more transparent in their interactions with journalists; and inflation has remained negligible. (Although the cours des comptes recently released a damning audit of state finances.)

If Kabila wants someone who can keep up this progress, then Matata and his team might be the best bet.

But is this Kabila's priority? The president is about to plunge into a difficult period in the run-up to the end of his term in 2016. Due to constitutional term limits, he will then have to hand over the reins to someone else or change the constitutional term limits -- something explicitly forbidden by Article 220 of the 2006 constitution.A third option is also increasingly being floated: deferring elections, much like [former President Laurent] Gbagbo did in the Ivory Coast, for several years, using the national census and funding problems as a pretext.

As the president enters into this turbulence, it may be more important to have a prime minister who can rally the fractious political elite around him, so they can back whatever delays or legal changes he wants to push through.The current prime minister is a competent technocrat, but (in part, precisely because he comes from a technical background) he does not have much of a political base or the ability to mobilize key power-brokers. What's more, he has angered many bigwigs by clamping down on some of the corruption rackets they were running, and by insisting that heads of political parties are now allowed to participate in the government themselves.In other words, he has made a lot of enemies who are now clamoring for his departure, and the president may be looking for a different skill set in his next PM.

Doing good in Africa: Jeff Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project, Part 2

By Laura SeayGuest blogger / 11.06.13

A version of this post originally appeared on the Texas In Africa blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

It's hard to come up with anything to say about Nina Munk's magnificent new book that hasn't already been said. The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty takes as its task trying to understand Sachs and his Millennium Villages Project (MVP).

Ms. Munk, who had a high level of access to Sachs and his staff for about six years, details the MVP as the realities of development, culture, and community preferences slam up against Sachs' expertise and view that the solutions to global poverty are primarily technical.

Others have written about how Munk portrays Sachs' hubris in the face of overwhelming evidence that some of his ideas are not working, the pushback from experts and local leaders, and signals of distress from MVP field staff.

This will no doubt be very satisfactory to Sachs' most stringent critics, who have long puzzled over why he was initially so resistant to having the MVP rigorously evaluated using the gold standard of impact evaluation methods, randomized control trials.

Munk's narrative is damning on these and many other accounts. It is an absolute must-read for anyone who is interested in doing good for those in need. Far from writing a cheerleader's account about someone who "just wants to help," Munk raises questions about whether poverty actually has technical solutions, or whether cultural norms and behaviors can derail even the most well-funded and planned activities.

For example, Sachs' purpose-built livestock market in the Dertu, Kenya MVP now sits mostly unused. The reason? Somali-Kenyans living in the area don't want to sell their livestock in Dertu. Camels and goats are a sign of a family's wealth and serve as a kind of savings account for difficult times. In ordinary times, nobody wants to sell those animals - it would be like an American selling off her house to cash in on equity when he or she has no reason to want to move.

Technical solutions to the problems of poverty are all the rage in the era of randomized control trials and other well-designed studies of the impacts (or lack thereof) of particular interventions. There are good reasons for this; we need to have evidence as to whether some interventions work, and when we have such evidence, we can direct resources so they have the maximum impact to improve people's lives. But RCTs and other rigorous impact evaluations often lack a key element in their research designs: understanding the why's and how's behind program success or failure. The lack of contextual understanding is particularly important in understanding why interventions fail.

For example, the excellent Tuungane I evaluation by a group of Columbia University scholars led by Macartan Humphreys showed clearly that an International Rescue Committee program on community-level reconstruction did not change participant behaviors. The study was as well designed as an RCT can be, and its conclusions are very convincing.

But as the authors note, we don't actually know why the intervention failed. To find that out, we need the kind of thick descriptive qualitative data that only a mixed methods study can provide. (Full disclosure: I'll be leading an evaluation of a later phase of the Tuungane project to learn if anything has changed. More on that later.) A well-designed RCT makes it easier to ask those questions by providing clues and bases for hypothesizing on what went wrong.

I suspect that if Sachs had been willing to submit to rigorous, independent evaluation from the beginning of the MVPs, we might have a basis on which to test questions about why and how the MVP interventions succeeded and failed. As it is, we don't have that data.

But Nina Munk has done a great service in her detailed description of the process by which the MVPs and Sachs got to where they are today. While I'm not hopeful that this will actually happen, an honest, independent evaluation of the project's failures might be the best thing that could happen for the MVPs and the field of development studies.

Doing good in Africa: Jeff Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project, Part 1

By Tom MurphyGuest blogger / 11.06.13

A version of this post originally appeared on the View from the Cave blog. The views expressed are the writer's own. 

Yala, Kenya - It is not often that a greenhouse is found on the property of a primary school in Kenya.

But Muhando primary school in Nyanza province has one.

It is part of an agriculture program at the school supported by the Millennium Villages Project (MVP).

With successful crops and involvement by students and teachers, the project holds the potential to support some of the most vulnerable. Though it is still early and the teachers are not exactly sure what they will do with the profit.

One teacher asserted that the money made from the farm must support the needy children in the school. Another said it could be used to improve lunch. School meals are available at the school for children that pay or are determined to be vulnerable. Maize and beans are cooked in giant cook-stoves installed by the MVP.

The MVP is the brainchild of Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs.

The program seeks to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by tackling poverty from many different angles including education, health and agriculture.

The program's work at Muhando covers the full range of areas.

The program's fingerprints are all over the school. It bought the cow that produces six gallons of milk every week. It built the rainwater storage tank that collects rainwater from the roof of the school building. It established a computer lab by providing the computers for the school. It even used to provide kale, fruit, and other foods to stimulate participation in the meal program.

[MDV's] role now is mostly to check in. The meal support was pulled and transferred over to the parents who contribute with food or money.

This is how the program generally operates. It identifies areas of need, provides immediate support and transitions control quickly to the community, individual or establishment.

A poster with the portraits of reporter Ghislaine Dupont (r.) and radio technician Claude Verlon, two French journalists killed in Mali last week is seen at the entrance of Radio France Internationale building in Issy-les-Moulineaux near Paris November 5, 2013. (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)

French journalists in Mali were killed and not held for ransom. Why?

By John CampbellGuest blogger / 11.05.13

A version of this post originally appeared on the Africa in Transition blog. The views expressed are the author's own.  

It is not so surprising that Radio France Internationale journalist and sound engineer Claude Verion and colleague Ghislaine Dupont were kidnapped on Nov. 2 in the northern Mali town of Kidal. The kidnapping of foreigners in the Sahel is, if not frequent, then also not uncommon.

The question is, however, why were they murdered and not held for ransom? 

According to Radio France Internationale (RFI), Deutsche Welle (DW), and the Voice of America (VOA), the two journalists were kidnapped shortly after they concluded an interview with a leader of the MNLA, a Tuareg separatist group. 

Quoting the French foreign ministry, RFI reports the two were taken by a group of armed men. An MNLA spokesman is quoted by VOA as saying the captors killed the journalists and French troops found their bodies a short distance from Kidal. Apparently, they were murdered shortly after they were seized. No group or organization has claimed responsibility.

Criminal groups and jihadis operating in the Sahel (including northern Mali) have grown fat from the ransoms paid for the release of European kidnap victims. Hence the kidnapping of the two French journalists fits a pattern.

What does not fit is their murder. Kidnap victims are sometimes held for a long time. Last week, four French men were released in Niger after having been held for more than three years.

While never openly reported, the common supposition is that most kidnap victims are released upon the payment of ransom. Ransoms constitute an important revenue stream for jihadis in the Sahel along with a variety of smuggling and other criminal syndicates active in the region.

Official American and British government policy is to never pay ransom. Not so among some European states, and private corporations have long been suspected of paying ransom for their captive citizens and/or employees.

American and British policy and practice may reduce the attractiveness of their citizens to kidnappers. On the other hand, kidnappers will kill their victims when it is clear that no ransom is forthcoming. That can constitute formidable pressure on governments to pay.

So, if ransom was not the motive, why were Verion and Dupont killed?

The French and Malian governments have launched an inquiry and a search for the perpetrators. The UN Security Council has called on Mali to “swiftly investigate the case” and to hold the perpetrators to account.

But, in northern Mali where jihadist and other violence continues, infrastructure is poor, and the government weak or non-existent.

The likelihood of learning the truth behind this tragic episode is remote. 

Everyone says Africa is 'rising.' An 'Afrobarometer' poll questions that.

By John CampbellGuest blogger / 11.01.13

A version of this post originally appeared on Africa in Transition blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

 Afrobarometer is a research project coordinated by various institutions in African countries and with partners in thirty-one countries.

It recently conducted a survey of public opinion across 34 African countries that showed popular skepticism about the “Africa Rising” narrative. This, despite relatively high growth rates. 

In a report released on Oct. 1, Afrobarometer data indicates that 20 percent of Africa’s population often goes without food, clean water, or medical care.

Further, more than half of those surveyed think that economic conditions in their country are bad or “very bad.” Some three quarters thought their government was doing a bad job in closing the gap between rich and poor.

John Allen, writing on AllAfrica.com, suggests that the results indicate that higher benefits of growth are going to a wealthy elite or that official statistics are overstating growth, or possibly both.

Morten Jerven, in his recently book Poor Number, has shown the shortcomings of African statistics.

In its report on the Nigerian economy, the World Bank observed that Nigeria’s high growth statistics could not be squared by increasing rates of poverty.

These, and other inconsistencies, make Allen’s hypothesis on where the majority of Africa’s wealth is directed, look credible.

A Congolese armed forces (FARDC) soldier stands near the border crossing point with Rwanda following tensions between FARDC soldiers and the Rwandan troops in Goma town, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, September 15, 2013. (Kenny Katobme/Reuters)

In East Congo, high drama as long war begins to end (+video)

By Jason StearnsGuest blogger / 10.31.13

A version of this post originally appeared on Congo Siasa blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

The new round of fighting between Congolese government forces and the M23 rebels is reaching a dramatic climax.

With the Congolese army having swept through all of the major towns that the M23 held -- Kibumba, Rumangabo, Rutshuru, Kiwanja, and, since this afternoon Bunagana -- the M23 may be nearing its end.

This would be historic. It would be the first time the Congolese government had defeated a major rebellion, and it would be the first time since 1996 that an armed group allied to Rwanda is not present in the eastern Congo.

It is, however, too soon, to declare an end to the M23, as the rebels reportedly still occupy the hills along the Rwandan border between Runyoni and Tshanzu.

How did we get here? 

The fighting began last Friday morning on the southern front line, in the area of Kibumba. The resumption of hostilities was not surprising, given that the peace talks in Kampala had fallen apart several days prior.

The following day, the Congolese Army began a simultaneous offensive on the M23's northern flank where the army had been massing troops and weapons for several months. Progress was quick. By Saturday, the Army had taken control of Kibumba and on Sunday Kiwanja was under their control.

By Sunday, the army advanced to Rumangabo, the M23's military base, and Rutshuru, the territorial capital.

Today, {Oct. 30] they took back Bunagana on the Ugandan border, where the M23's political leaders had been staying. After heavy bombardment, Congolese troops were already reported to have scaled the Mbuzi hill and were trying to close in on Runyoni and Tshanzu. 

Africa Defence Review has a summary of the fighting, with a helpful map here

The fighting was heaviest around Kibumba, where the M23 put up a fight and both sides lost troops. Elsewhere, there seems to have been little resistance by the thinly-stretched M23. Reports put their total fighting force between 800 and 1,500 troops.

By Tuesday, there were rumors that their military commanders had fled to neighboring Uganda or Rwanda, although none of these could be verified.

But why did this round of fighting turn out so differently than previous ones?

How could the Congolese army, usually better known for its indiscipline and racketeering than its military prowess, knock the M23 out so quickly?

Three factors were key, even if the paramount factor is different to discern for now:

There is no doubt that the FARDC is performing much better now than in 2012. Its command structure has been changed and streamlined, beginning with the appointment of General Lucien Bahuma as regional commander in June 2012, and of General François Olenga as land forces commander in December 2012.

These commanders have paid more attention to making sure logistics were in place and salaries paid on time, boosting soldiers' morale and enabling the newly-trained commando battalions to do their job. Then, in January 2013, over a hundred officers -- many of them from the Kivus -- were invited to Kinshasa under the pretext of a seminar on army reform (they are mostly still in Kinshasa today).

This simplified the military hierarchy in North Kivu, which had become clogged up with competing chains of command, a coterie of high-ranking officers embezzling funds and issuing contradictory orders. 

The second factor was the United Nations: Observers on the front lines reported that the Congolese soldiers were being issued military rations by the UN, and that UN officers were jointly planning operations with the Congolese army. UN attack helicopters have been providing support, although the bulk of the fighting has been carried out by the FARDC. 

But the third factor may be the determining one: the absence of support from Rwanda. According to several reports from the front lines, despite indications of some cross-border support in the Kibumba area, the M23 was largely left to its own devices.

"The Rwandans just wouldn't pick up their phone calls," one source close to the M23 leadership told me.

This is a drastic change from August, when many sources -- the UN, Human Rights Watch, and foreign diplomats -- all reported hefty support coming across the border. The fact that the M23 did not put up much of a fight in Kiwanja and Rumangabo was another indication that they knew they stood no chance against the superior firepower of the UN and the FARDC.

According to several diplomats, US Secretary of State John Kerry as well as a senior British diplomat called President Paul Kagame last Friday to impress how important it was for Rwanda to sit this out.

While similar pressure has been applied before -- President Obama called his Rwandan counterpart with a similar message last December -- this time it may have just been the final straw for the Rwandan leaders. 

The coming days will be interesting. If the M23 is defeated, the Rwandan, and possibly the Ugandan governments will have to decide whether they will arrest the fleeing leaders or give them amnesty.

The Congolese army will be under scrutiny to see how they manage their victory. Any revenge attacks or targeting of suspected M23 collaborators could spoil the mood, and many will wait to see if they proceed to target the FDLR as promised.

Finally, the impact of a victory on the larger peace process in the region would be powerful. President Kabila, who signed the Framework Agreement last February largely due to pressure from the M23, could shake off some of the pressure on him to carry out national reforms and would be buoyed by the popularity such a victory would certainly bring. 

For the moment, however, we should wait to see what the coming days bring.

Congolese soldiers move to frontline positions as they advance against the M23 rebels in Kibumba, north of Goma October 27, 2013. (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)

In Kampala: Congo and M23 agree on almost everything before talks collapse

By Jason StearnsGuest blogger / 10.28.13

A version of this post originally appeared on the Congo Siasa blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

President Joseph Kabila expressed the view of many Congolese when he said during his speech to the country [Oct. 24], that the Kampala talks have dragged on for too long.

This despite the optimism that was on display last week as international envoys -- Martin Kobler, Modibo Toure, Ibrahim Diarra, and Russ Feingold -- converged on Kampala in hope of a deal.

And in all-night sessions substantial progress was made, as the Congolese government and M23 agreed on a majority of the issues on the table.

This included: The release of prisoners; the end of M23 as a rebel movement and the possibility to establish itself as a political party; the return and resettlement of refugees and internally displaced persons; and the return of extorted and looted properties during the M23’s brief occupation of Goma in November 2012.

The parties even made some progress on transitional security arrangements, although the M23 was still reluctant to talk about redeploying its troops across the country.

At the end, however, everything hinged, unsurprisingly, on the fate of the top M23 leadership. Since the beginning, this had been the main stumbling block. It is practically unconceivable for commanders such as Sultani Makenga and Innocent Kaina --- both listed on the UN and US sanctions lists and candidates for war crimes charges -- to be reintegrated into the Congolese army.

Still, the Congolese delegation seemed to exaggerate: Some reports suggested that the list of officers who couldn’t integrate still stands at 133, far higher than the list of 27 that had been spoken about several weeks ago in Kinshasa.

But even if Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda -- the head of the Congolese delegation -- lowers those numbers considerably, it is difficult to imagine the M23 accepting the exclusion of even its top 20 officers.

There were also reports that President Kabila is now willing to accept a general amnesty for crimes of insurrection (not war crimes or crimes against humanity, obviously) for all M23 officers if they can agree on that list. (There was also some talk that the reason for the collapse in talks was that one of the M23 delegates, Roger Lumbala, had insulted Mr. Kabila. It is true that the Congolese are still outraged that Lumbala had said, when he was arrested in Burundi last September, that he would kill Kabila is he saw him in the street. And the Congolese delegation did demand that Lumbala be excluded from talks. But Lumbala left, and the final plenary took place, so this was not the main problem). 

There is still hope for a deal, although the Congolese main negotiators will be in Kinshasa for some time now, with only a skeleton crew left in Kampala.

The next step will probably be for regional powers to discuss the M23 at a joint ICGLR/SADC summit, to take place in South Africa in early November. The danger, as always, is that a unraveling of the talks could lead to another escalation on the ground.

This time, if reports from within the UN peacekeeping mission are accurate, the Intervention Brigade may be willing to push further north against the M23, using military pressure to push the M23 and its allies toward a peace deal.

Of course, that’s a risky gamble, as a failed offensive could humiliate the UN and embolden the M23 at the negotiation table. 

The sun is reflected on a solar panel at a solar power field in Kawasaki, near Tokyo in this June 13, 2012 photo illustration. (Toru Hanai/Reuters/File)

How solar power is lighting up business in rural East Africa

By Tom MurphyGuest blogger / 10.25.13

A version of this post originally appeared on A View From the Cave blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

It takes only an hour’s drive from the major Tanzanian city of Arusha to arrive in Oldonyo-Sambu. While the distance connecting the small village famous for its giant market and a national hub, electricity has yet to arrive for the villagers.

The Italian conservation organization Oikos helped establish a solar energy program for the village in 2009. Technicians were trained, a building was built next to the market, residents led the business, and sales begun.

With its work done, Oikos stepped aside to allow the established business to run itself.

Now there are 300 customers for the solar panels, including five primary schools, two health centers and one secondary school.

Bringing electricity to the schools provides light for the students and in one case allowed for the introduction of a computer.

“We haven’t used the information age enough to solve our problems,” said Ramadhani Kupaza, director of Oikos East Africa, speaking of [the work in] Tanzania.

Accomplishing that takes electricity. The Community Energy Center sells varying sized solar cells to community members and businesses ranging from 20 to 140 watts. Options also exist for batteries to store the power captured by the cells.

Oikos staff stay in touch with the program, but have nothing to do with it at this point. With the proper set up, available materials, and a technician who can repair broken parts -- the project is now running as its own business.

“I want to buy two more,” said Lumanyaki Simion, a local business owner.

The music from his bar and restaurant blares out the door. The blue writing set against a light orange exterior paint above the entrance reads "Wakulima Bar.”

Before he bought the 140 watt solar cell from the center, the Wakulima Bar was not so loud. Now it is like many other East African bars. The "bartender" stands inside a cage with the television playing local music videos way too loud, and the booze is on shelves.

A small bar counter sits in-front of the cage with one intoxicated customer. The back opens up to a series of tables and a basic kitchen on the side that offers a handful of meal options.

Mr. Simion is a businessman. He bought the solar cells for his bar with cash and went on to buy two smaller ones for his own home, located a few hundred yards behind the bar.

As we arrived, he pointed out the two 20 watt cells on his roof. An LED light was illuminated out the front door, staying on all day long. Controls were located inside the house for charging the batteries.

He turned on his television and lights to show they work. Even through the rainy season the power stays on 24-hours a day. More cells will provide even better power at his home and new batteries will hopefully store more energy.

A boastful air fills his voice as he talks about the energy. As the US, World Bank and others commit to universal access to energy, people like Simion are seeking out other solutions to their power problems and are managing to thrive.

Tom Murphy reported in Tanzania as a fellow with the International Reporting Project. 

Mauritanians ex-slaves walk in a suburb outside Mauritania's capital Nouakchott, November 21, 2006. (Rafael Marchante/Reuters/File)

First global report on slavery: Half the top 10 nations are African

By Emily MellgardGuest blogger / 10.25.13

A version of this post originally appeared on the Africa in Transition blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

The Australia based, Walk Free Foundation on Oct. 17 published their first annual Global Slavery Index. The Index ranks 162 countries by how prevalent slavery is in each country and by absolute numbers of the population that is in slavery. 

They use a comprehensive definition of slavery, including: “slavery, forced labor, or human trafficking.

“Slavery” refers to the condition of treating another person as if they were property–something to be bought, sold, traded, or even destroyed.

“Forced labor” is a related but not identical concept, referring to work taken without consent, by threats or coercion.

“Human trafficking” is another related concept, referring to the process through which people are brought, through deception, threats, or coercion, into slavery, forced labor, or other forms of severe exploitation.”

This broad definition aims to encompass three widely ratified and recognized international treaties: the Slavery Convention, the Forced Labor Convention, and the Trafficking Protocol.

Under this umbrella definition, Mauritania ranks highest on the prevalence of slavery in any country. Fully 25 percent of the population is deemed to be enslaved.

The nine other nations with the highest prevalence are: Haiti, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Moldova, Benin, the Ivory Coast, the Gambia, and Gabon.

Half of the ten countries with the highest prevalence of slavery worldwide are African.

Walk Free also ranks countries by the absolute number of people in slavery. The ten countries with the most slaves are: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. Together these countries account for 76 percent of the 29.8 million people in slavery worldwide.

Countries with the lowest prevalence of slavery are: Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Iceland.

The United States ranks 134, with 57,000-63,000 enslaved people.

Mauritius, with an Index rank of 143, has the least slavery in sub-Saharan Africa, Swaziland ranks 126, Angola ranks 116, South Africa ranks 115, Madagascar ranks 112, and Kenya ranks 102.

The Index uses pre-existing data. Some of which were collected by individual countries and by Kevin Bales at Free the Slaves.

This is the first time however, that the data were collected together into a single report to provide a global overview of modern slavery.

Walk Free was founded in May 2012 by Andrew and Nicola Forrest. The aims of the foundation include: identifying countries and industries most responsible for modern slavery; identifying and implement interventions in those countries and industries that will have the greatest impact on modern slavery; and to critically assess the impact of these interventions.

They believe that slavery can be, finally, eliminated with broad grassroots public support, legislative action, and socially responsible corporate policy.

The election banners of Presidential candidate Dr. Robinson Jean Louis, rear, behind a man selling bananas at his makeshift stall in the city of Antananarivo, Madagascar, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013. (Schalk van Zuydam/AP)

In Africa's south, US 'democracy promotion' needs a rethink

By Jeffrey T. SmithGuest blogger / 10.23.13

The author writes on sub-Saharan Africa for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. The views expressed are his own. 

In July President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe won a seventh consecutive term in office. Should he serve his full five years, Mugabe will stand a spry 94- years- old at the end of his term.

His party, the Zimbabwe African National Union -- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) will have held power for nearly four decades. While Mugabe and ZANU-PF are notorious for using all available means at their disposal to remain in power -- including violence, intimidation and manipulation -- his stay in executive office is not by any means a regional anomaly.

Many political parties with roots in liberation struggles have yet to experience defeat at the ballot box, including the African National Congress (ANC) in neighboring South Africa and liberation mainstays in Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique.

Indeed, according to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, all but four countries in the region have registered a decline in the subcategory of “rights,” which takes stock of core international human rights conventions, civil liberties, and basic freedoms.  

Given that prevailing environment of democratic backsliding in southern Africa, it is high time that the United States both reevaluates and reshapes its strategy in the region.

In particular, the US should consider re-calibrating its engagement with domestic civil societies and instead should focus on policy development and oversight and work to better strengthen the adherence to the rule of law in more creative ways.

Now is certainly not the time to disinvest in the region -- intellectually or financially. So it is disconcerting to hear that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) plans a 44 percent decrease in funding for democracy and human rights initiatives for the next fiscal year.

While the US has invested substantially in democracy promotion projects in southern Africa, not nearly enough resources have been devoted to aiding domestic civil societies on issues of policy development and oversight.

By investing in these key areas, we help raise the cost of dictatorship in Zimbabwe, for instance, by promoting platforms like “portfolio committees”where civil society can engage more constructively with parliamentarians.

In doing so, we make it more expensive for the Mugabe regime to pass repressive legislation that not only constrains the lives of ordinary citizens and civic activists, but also provides blueprints to other leaders in the region who are wary of their own unpopularity and thus look for devious ways to stifle civic participation.

One must look no further than the recent proliferation of so-called "public order" acts across Africa to grasp the importance of preventing repression in its early stages.

Efforts to promote good governance and accountability should be an additional, related focal point for the US in the region.

Indeed, the US should actively work with civil society to link the often lofty rhetoric of human rights and democracy to everyday issues that affect ordinary citizens like access to employment, clean and running water, electricity, and other basic services. An emphasis on local governance and holding one's leaders accountable will combat rising voter apathy, as well as improve relationships between elected officials and the citizens they are ostensibly meant to represent.

US policymakers need not prescribe outside solutions to the problems that currently beset the region. In fact, southern Africa is replete with regional conventions and treaties, including, among others, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. However, these rules have not been enforced.

Due to an overall lack of accountability, many of SADC's longtime rulers feel it isn't necessary, or in their best interests, to abide by their own standards.

The July 31 election in Zimbabwe is a case in point. Estimates are that nearly one million citizens were systematically disenfranchised -- in addition to four million people living in the diaspora. There were numerous documented violations of political rights and civil liberties leading up to the vote.

Despite mounting and credible evidence of irregularities, SADC and the African Union (AU) were both quick to label the election as sufficiently "free and peaceful."

In order to combat the lack of respect for basic political and human rights, and in the process strengthen the rule of law in the longer term, the US should support strategic litigation efforts led by domestic and regional legal groups at the highest court on the continent, the African Commission for Human and People's Rights.

Supporting efforts to submit petitions on the right to participate freely in public affairs, the right to vote, and the right to peaceful protest and assembly -- all of which are recognized and presumably protected by the AU and SADC -- are vital interventions for the US to consider.

To strengthen democracy and enhance the respect for human rights, both of which are crucial elements for improving peoples' lives in a sustainable way, US policymakers should take a thoughtful look at past shortcomings in southern Africa.

The region is faced with potentially volatile elections in Madagascar this year and Mozambique and Malawi in 2014.

The sham elections in Zimbabwe, and most recently in Swaziland, present a concerning trend of endorsing deeply flawed electoral processes that may ultimately spark social unrest. Indeed, the negligence displayed by SADC -- which has indicated a preference for maintenance of the status quo at the expense of cultivating democratic principles -- may have profoundly negative effects on regional stability.

US policymakers should therefore not abandon activities that are aimed at building stronger civil societies and domestic institutions. Instead, we must find innovative ways that will encourage civil society actors to hold their governments accountable and keep ruling political parties in check.

To be sure, resolute engagement with domestic and regional civil society actors should remain a focal point of US government policy in southern Africa. However, a more strategic way forward is one that will focus on policy development and oversight, good governance and accountability, and the use of strategic litigation in Africa's own courts to better protect the rights of its citizens.

This rights-based approach will produce shared dividends for both the United States and its more progressive allies in the region -- forces that likely have the best chance of both outlasting and reversing the region's anti-democratic trends.

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