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Do we really need white people to 'save' Africa?

New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof has come under fire by Africa bloggers for consistently placing Western protagonists in his stories of humanitarian crises. He should go the extra mile to understand the politics, writes guest blogger Jason Stearns.

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First, he does mostly depict suffering without a political context. His columns are usually based on a personal story of suffering intended to pull at our hearts strings. He rarely spends much time explaining why the calamity happened in the first place. This has the unfortunate side effect of making it seem like the war can be reduced to a bunch of rebels raping women in order to control minerals. That is not true.

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Soldiers did not take up their weapons yesterday so as to get to mines. Some armed groups are nowhere close to mines (e.g. LRA, some Mai-Mai groups), and some of the worst cases of rape have been by the Congolese police, far from conflict zones and mining areas. It is an open question how much rape is used to control populations, or whether it is a tool to socialize new recruits, or even just happens opportunistically.

In general, the origin of the conflict is rooted in the collapse of Zaire, local struggle over land and resources in the East, and genocide in Rwanda. Minerals have exacerbated the problem and prolonged the conflict, but are not the source of violence in the Congo.

The danger with Kristof's kind of reporting is that as long as we don't understand the political logic of the Congolese conflict, our solutions will be slapdash and inadequate. If it is just a bunch of savages raping to get minerals, we might conclude that the problem is getting rid of these savages or creating due diligence in mineral supply chains – laudable initiatives, to be sure, but they don't get to the bottom of the problem. Indeed, the current donor approach seems to be pretty much at sea and is largely focused on addressed humanitarian emergencies rather than promoting institutional change.

The Congolese problem is, unfortunately, complex (which is why no one has found an easy solution). It is rooted in institutional collapse, the logic of patrimonial rule, and competition between national and regional elites. In the Congolese political system, a leader's survival is based on accumulating resources and using force to co-opt or coerce your rivals. There is no contractual security to guarantee business or political investments, there are few strong institutional checks and balances – courts, audits, parliaments – to rein in excesses of power.

Why does this matter for Kristof?

Well, in this context, creating strong security institutions may be anathema to President Kabila, as it was to President Mobutu, as he fears being constrained by them or even overthrown; demobilizing the ex-CNDP may be anathema to Kigali and the Congolese Tutsi community, as they need muscle to protect their security and other interests; and demobilizing the FDLR – which has been a priority for the past decade – means either forcing Rwanda to negotiate with some of them or using force, neither of which is easy.

So the solutions he proposes may not be so easy.

Yes, it is complex. But so is all politics. Imagine what a wonk like Paul Krugman would sound like writing on the Congo? Please, Mr. Kristof, continue your vivid reporting. But also go the extra mile to understand the politics.

------ Jason Stearns blogs at Congo Siasa.

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