Arrested Development in Zaire: 1978 – 2018

By Robert Hamilton




The aim of this paper is to present a critical analysis of development projects and programs undertaken in Zaire during the period 1978-2018. Through a brief appraisal of the nation’s history, it can be seen how this has affected the nation’s ability to benefit from the various development projects undertaken by the World Bank and related agencies. Colonialism stands like the rotting whale in the room, its corpse pervading everything that comes after it. The IMF and the World Bank, and their western donor investor corporations, are eerily similar in attitudes and behaviours to those colonial administrations that went before them. The CIA propped up the Mobutu regime, whilst on Cold War duty in the region. This delivered nearly four decades of repression and control over the local population in Zaire. A civil war which has cost the lives of some 5 million people has followed the expulsion of Mobutu in 1997. Those are the challenges that this nation must overcome to begin the journey toward sustainable development, which can benefit the larger population. Is it possible for this bedevilled nation to overcome the substantial hindrances to achieving the kind of development that serves its own unique requirements?


Brief Historical Outline


The Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire) is a large African country, in both geographic and population terms. It is equatorial and boasts a relatively small Atlantic coastline. In most part, Zaire, contains the Congo River basin (Thomas, 2012). Zaire has had a plethora of names and name changes over recent centuries. It has been known as the Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Zaire, and is, often, referred to as Congo-Kinshasa. Its history is littered with the bloodstains of its colonial past; it is mineral rich, has been exploited by Europeans, and is a model for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. More recently, it is remembered as the site of “Africa’s first Cold War battleground” and the martyring of national black hope, Patrice Lumumba (Berkeley, 1993). CIA involvement and corrupt military officials, including Joseph Desere Mobotu, who would become Zaire’s despotic president, are salient points in its recent timeline. Military involvement by Belgian, French, Moroccan, and US forces are part of this nation’s history. Christianity is the majority religion in Zaire.


The nation is rich in minerals, but extremely poor in good governance practices. Understanding a little of the country’s history is vital if an appropriate analysis of development projects and their successes and failures is to be achieved. Colonialism has been blamed for many of Africa’s woes and Zaire was harshly mistreated by the Belgians and subsequent administrations. The brutal rape of this country and the systematic exploitation by Europeans and US interests has left the DRC in a damaged state on many levels. The Mobuto regime was backed by US agencies and this perpetuated political and administrative underdevelopment and disengagement in the population for some 37 years (Ali, 2014). Mobuto ruled Zaire for nearly four decades, from 1965-1997, and it is widely estimated that he stripped the nation of some $5 billion during that time. Basing his personal fiefdom in the northern jungle city of Gbadolite, he lavished wealth upon this locale, including an airport fit for a Concorde, palaces for the ruling elite, and unsuitable infrastructure projects comparable with wealthy western cities. Mobutu was, finally, forced into exile in Morocco by rebels in 1997 (Ali, 2014). Reports from credible media outlets agree on a figure of some 5 million Congolese dead from the civil war, which began in 1997 and continues to this day (Gettelmen, 2012).


World Banks Projects: Past & Present


As of 2018, the World Bank has 29 active development projects in Zaire, which involve around $3.8 billion (The World Bank, 2018). 63% of this investment is classified as infrastructure and sustainable development, 16% human development, 15% agriculture and private sector development, and governance 6%. Looking back into World Bank development investment history in Zaire is both informative and salutary. The failure of many infrastructure development projects, initiated in 1960s and 1970s in Africa, have been well documented in the literature. The construction of large highways and dams, with no supporting infrastructure around them, wasted billions of dollars, as they ended up mothballed and neglected inside nations like Zaire. The thinking behind this large-scale infrastructure investment was based on how the west perceived its own growth model over the preceding decades and the example of the more recent expansion in the Soviet Union (Mold, 2012, p. 239). Economists and nation building planners saw this type of investment as destined for success. Rostow in his publication, The Stages of Economic Growth – a non-Communist Manifesto, in 1960 stated that capital accumulation was vital for economic development and that foreign investment would rapidly speed up progress in developing nations. The title of his text, also, illustrated the Cold War imperatives of the time (Mold, 2012, pp. 239-240). Why did it, then, fail so spectacularly in nations like Zaire?


The World Bank and other international financing institutions were at this time enamoured of investment in infrastructure projects, which could generate incomes and thereby repay investors. It must be remembered that bankers and economists who work for banks are schooled in the capitalist free market tradition. Everything they do is predicated on making a profit for their bank or investors. Development programs in the 1960s and 1970s were not interested in human capital, but in railways and electricity generating dams – things which could make money. The World Bank loaned large amounts of money to governments in Africa, like Mobuto’s Zaire. Interest was charged on these loans and this would result in the debt crisis of the 1980s, when these projects did not achieve the expected positive economic outcomes for their host nations or their donors (Mold, 2012, p. 240). GDP growth rates in Sub-Saharan Africa would fall from 4.1% in the 1970s to just over 2% in the 1980s and 1990s, these were half that of East Asia and lower than World levels (Mold, p. 241). United Nation’s Agencies, such as UNESCO, FAO, and WHO, advocated for greater investment in agriculture, health and education, and this approach would, eventually, form the beginnings of the Basic Needs approach to development in the mid to late 1970s. At the time, however, the UN did not have access to the necessary funds to invest in human capital. The World Bank set the agenda for investment in development during these decades.


In Zaire, in the 1970s, during the copper boom, Mobutu would oversee a series of gigantic investment projects. The DRC contains large amounts of the global copper reserves. These projects would include: long distance power lines from Inga to Katanga, a massive dam on the lower reaches of the Congo River, a steel mill, a new copper mining project, manufacturing plants, and a collection of other infrastructure developments. US and European financiers invested more than $2 billion in Zaire between 1970 and 1980 (Mold, pp. 242-243). An example of the overly ambitious nature of these projects was the steel mill, which was built for a capacity of 250 000 tons a year. Production at the mill peaked at 25 000 tons in 1975 and the mill closed down in 1986 due to unprofitability. The hydro-electric dam project was another massive white elephant. The 1100-mile-long power lines carrying the energy to steel mill and copper mine “bypassed thousands of electricity-starved villages” along the route (Mold, p. 243). This is a perfect example of the World Bank infrastructure development projects of this era, which were stunningly indifferent to the needs of the local population.


IMF: Undemocratic and Unaccountable


The brief overview of the Mobutu era World Bank development projects mentioned above calls for some incisive analysis of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policies of the last fifty years. Joseph Stiglitz is an American economist, and Nobel Prize winner in his field, who has spent considerable time examining these international bodies and their performance in relation to economic development in the third world. His insights into the workings of the IMF and World Bank are invaluable when attempting to understand their failures in arresting the ongoing poverty and the lack of sustainable economic development in Africa and the developing world. Stiglitz emphasises the framework of these organisations and how that makes any accountability for their poor performance near impossible to achieve. You have, in the case of the IMF, a group of finance ministers and treasury officials who oversee the activities of those economists directly employed by the IMF. Those finance ministers and federal reserve governors located in the wealthy western nations have far more power than their IMF peers in developing nations. Stiglitz points out that the IMF board is not only undemocratic, it is made up entirely of treasury officials and finance ministers (pp. 118-119). Like the World Bank, their view is an entirely economic focussed one. The IMF lacks the plurality that exists within a truly democratic government body. It lacks the viewpoints of those concerned with issues beyond the scope of economics. Where are the health and education specialists? Where are the humanitarian aid consultants? Where is the investment in human capital? All of this tunnel vision is, then, cloaked in secrecy, as the IMF does not see the need to justify its behaviour or performance. Those in control of economic development for the third world are not accountable to anyone but themselves, it seems. Stiglitz identifies the need for changes to the current set up or for the abolishment of the IMF, on the grounds that it has failed in its charter (pp. 126-127).


Modernism vs Indigenous Knowledge


The capitalist framework has failed when it comes to development in Zaire and in Africa over the last 50 years. Pfeiffer identifies the issue, as one of modernisation versus indigenous knowledge. The west comes armed with development money and technology, and it demands that these places modernise culturally and economically (Pfeiffer, 1996, p. 41). The price tag for development is the subjugation of existing frameworks and structures. Nations like Zaire must play the game the west’s way or remain in poverty and suffer, according to the current model of development investment policy.  However, in this writer’s view, having bankers and economists running these programs does not work, because they are attempting to impose western paradigms upon communities which do not traditionally subscribe to this way of life. The neoliberal, trickle-down effect, economic model makes a small section of the local population very powerful and wealthy, whilst displacing thousands and, possibly, hundreds of thousands of poorer inhabitants in places like Zaire. The horrendous activities of the western backed Mobutu regime have seen ethnic cleansing by the Katangans over the Kasaians and around 5 million inhabitants of Zaire killed during civil war since then (Berkeley, 1993). The human rights of those Congolese without power or powerful allies are transgressed. Women and children are raped, and their menfolk brutally murdered as a result of the civil war, which has plagued this nation. The local population has been artfully manipulated by Mobutu and his henchmen over decades in their bid to hang onto power in Zaire. Even now, many years later, the country is plagued by ineffective and corrupt governance.


Gibson identifies the dangers of ‘globalisation’ and that it is, often, local women in Africa and other third world regions, who lead the charge for recognition of human rights in the face of blind development funded by bankers and western interests (p. 1). He reinforces the view that 20 years of ‘structural adjustment’ development in Africa has been a colossal failure on every measurable graph or table in existence. The larger population of Africa has paid with theirs and their childrens’ impoverished lifestyles for the World Bank funded abuses of African elites like Mobutu.  The UN’s human development index shows a decline or stagnation in indicators for the Congolese since 1990 (UN Human Development Report, 2016). 19.1% of the Gross National Income in Zaire is external debt stock. The 1980s and 1990s saw development investment in infrastructure in Zaire steadily reduced in relation to the overall levels of aid. The debt crisis in Africa during the 1980s was not a positive influence on investment levels coming from Europe and America (Mold, p. 246). In 2000 and beyond, there has been a recognition in the international financial world that China’s presence as a major investor in Africa has made for a more competitive infrastructure investment provision market. The post-colonial dominance has been broken and there is greater competition between international contractors. Which means the host developing nations are getting a better deal than previously, when the west dominated this sector. There is, also, less opportunity for corruption via the Chinese way of providing direct aid or exchanges of raw materials. Fewer situations involving weak African governments receiving large loans are occurring (Mold, p. 250).


On the Ground in Kinshasa


Dr. Dieudonne Musibono from the University of Kinshasa conveyed his views on his experience of the current situation:

“According to the Congolese Mining Code (2002) and the Mining Act (2003), investors in mining should support social actions to promote development (Article 452, Mining Act, 2003). Some industries are investing in clean water, building or rehabilitating school and health infrastructures, rehabilitating roads, planting some trees, etc. but the overall outcome remains marginal.” (Ali, 2014)

Multinational mining companies like Banro, MMG and TFM have invested million of dollars in initiatives like these without any long-term effects on life improvement for the Congolese, according to Musibono. His summation is that these interventions are humanitarian and not enduring developments. Support for these projects end when the investing company departs Zaire (Ali, 2014). Musibono further identifies the absence of a national government development plan, which leads to piecemeal projects that, often, do not address broader development issues in the country. An example of this was in Namoya (Maniema, DRC), when Musibono was working as an environmental consultant for Banro. The Banro Foundation made money available for local development projects and the communities chose to invest in a new roof for the school principal’s office, 43 new beds for the hospital, and the construction of a spring 5km from the town. None of these projects were development orientated, they were humanitarian and paternalistic, in Musibono’s view. He advised creating a rice cooperative and purchasing several trucks to distribute produce to marketplaces like Bukavu or Kindu, as an example of a sustainable development project, which would benefit the community in real terms (Ali, 2014).


Developing Human Capital Approaches


There has been a push for greater development of human capital via human rights advocates and academics, since the Copenhagen Social Summit in 1995. We have seen the emergence of new approaches beyond Basic Needs, including the Capability Approach, the Human Rights Approach, and the Human Security Approach. In many ways, each one has been an evolvement toward the greater appreciation and evaluation of human capital. Indeed, concerns and cares are now moving toward environmental security and biodiversity security across the planet. Shiva Vandana reports on the failure of globalisation to provide true environmental activism upon local issues. Many writers in the field point to the spin doctoring of the language used in the development arena.  Are terms like ‘participatory development’ more spin than reality, when it comes to fancy speeches by the World Bank versus action on the ground (Williams, 2004, p. 557)? Buzzwords are given prominence over any accountability, when it comes to performance, by agencies like the World Bank and the IMF. Poverty reduction and empowerment are equally thrown around by development agencies and their representatives (Cornwall, 2005, pp. 3-5). There are, always, a lot of words, written and spoken, in this realm by those in the positions of power. It is much harder to hear the views of the local inhabitants on the ground, who are directly affected by these policies and activities.


Like most things in the human sphere, development is all about power and who holds it. Over the last 50 years, economists, bankers and western politicians have held the whip hand when it comes to development policy and practice globally. Those who hold the money, hold the power, and those who provide the resource opportunity have next to no power. This is despite the fact that it will impact upon their country, their land, and their people most of all. The idea that western agencies can appear to be assisting those in financial need and, at the same time, make profits, has held an enthralling attraction for governments, banks and private sector interests. The resultant poor outcomes for nations like Zaire, over the last five decades, are rarely blamed upon the good guys in the west, but squarely upon African despots and an absence of African moral fibre and rectitude. The thinking today, in the general community, is that Africa is a basket case. The media fans this consensus via its bleak reporting on civil wars, starvation crises, and other disastrous occurrences in the region.  I spent time looking for positive stories about Zaire and the Congolese and found one, called “I Am Congo: Stories of Hope”. This online ESL aid attempts to present a more positive view of aspects of life in Zaire via short films. Participation and empowerment are desperately required in real terms in Zaire, when it comes to good governance and development policies. Unfortunately, a backdrop of civil war and ethnic cleansing does not augur well for any substantial positive changes in this regard. Copper production in Zaire has fallen to historically low levels due to the continuing civil unrest and the exploitation of the mine’s infrastructure by Mobutu henchmen in the past (Berkeley, 1993). The latest news reports state that NGOs and health authorities in the DRC will begin providing experimental Ebola vaccine in Mbandaka in the north-west, where an outbreak has been detected (Burke, 21st May 2018). The vaccine developed by pharmaceutical corporation, Merck, is not licensed, but it was effective in west Africa during limited trials.


PARSAR Project Aims for Food Security & Poverty Reduction

This 2012 agricultural development investment project has, according to the African Development Bank Group website, strengthened food security in Zaire. Rural infrastructure completed includes: 1 020 km of rural roads, 160 drinking water sources developed, 80 communal latrines constructed, 20 markets and 35 warehouses built, and large amounts of training instigated to over 2 500 people (AFDB, 2018).




It can be concluded that Zaire’s mineral rich status has not helped the nation achieve any optimal level of economic sustainability or shared wealth among its population. Indeed, many economists, now, recognise that resource wealth can be a hindrance to equitable economic development. Equally, the political and economic support provided by the US to the Mobutu regime during the Cold War era, further damaged the development of the DRC for some 37 years. Development aid is clearly no golden egg laying goose for many countries in the developing world. It can breed corruption and economic dependence, which damages their future prospects in a competitive economic market.

Zaire’s dark colonial past is another historical scar and likely trauma, which negatively affects its ongoing future. The bitter taste of slavery, and, then, the colonial exploitation by Belgium, France, Morocco and American interests cannot be underestimated.

The World Bank and the IMF are run by economists, treasury officials, and bankers under the control of western interests first and foremost. Development programs, like the ‘structural adjustment’ infrastructure project of the 1960s and 1970s were spectacularly unsuccessful and economically wasteful in places like the DRC. These international financing agencies remain defiantly unrepentant in the face of criticism. Now, in the early part of the 21C, infrastructure development programs are run in tandem with investment in human capital. They are seen as complementary and that must be in part due to the evolvement and acceptance of new approaches to development in concert with greater recognition of human rights.

Modernisation is no longer being blithely accepted as the only way forward in the development space. The wisdom inherent within indigenous traditions are gaining some nascent recognition in the human rights and development discussion. Globalisation is starting to be viewed as a danger for local populations and their concerns. The spin doctoring of the language used in the development arena is being identified as insincere and, perhaps, without the necessary subsequent action taking place on the ground. Empty rhetoric, which is damaging the development sector’s integrity.

Respect for local issues and listening to the local people are the only way forward, for sustainable development in Zaire and throughout the developing world. The terrible violence and civil war in the DRC can only be countered by supporting good governance and reducing corruption opportunities, through smarter ways of providing development investment, like the Chinese have achieved in many places in Africa. More investment in food security projects is essential in Zaire to assist the survival and wellbeing of the population.

©Robert Hamilton









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