Poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the richest countries in natural resources. How is it that it is still one of the poorest countries in the world?
You’re probably reading this article either from your mobile phone, or else it’s probably near you. Take a close look at it. Even though the design looks pretty straightforward, it wasn’t easy to manufacture. Did you know some parts are made of the element tantalum? This resource is primarily imported from the DRC and can be found in most everyday electronic items.
Besides tantalum, the Democratic Republic of Congo has many more incredibly valuable natural resources, such as gold and coltan. Despite this wealth of resources, the DRC is the poorest country in the entire world in terms of personal income. So how is it that a country so rich in resources is so poor?
About the DRC
The DRC is geographically the size of Western Europe and the largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa. Aside from being one of the poorest, it is also one of the most violent countries on earth. The country ranked 179th of 189 countries on the 2019 Human Development Index, and they now have the second-largest hunger crisis in the world after Yemen. Of the estimated 100 million inhabitants, most people live below the poverty line, having less than €1.60 a day to spend.
In general, essential public services are minimal. 43% of children are malnourished, and only 23% of rural areas have access to drinking water. The lack of infrastructure and the economic inability to build new infrastructure critically limits the Congolese peoples’ quality of life, increasing poverty. Fortunately, 42% of the food families consume is produced by themselves, and growing crops is being used as a tool towards recovery and peaceful co-existence between ethnic groups.
Colonial history and origins
Congo is a product of complex historical forces, from being a monarchy to a colony of Belgium. King Leopold II of the Belgians wanted to conquer the nation and formed the Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo in 1878 to open up European trade along the Congo River (from which the country derived its name). Consequently, King Leopold inflicted hardships with slavery and the large extraction of natural resources to help him reach the concessions made to large European private companies. If slaves did not meet the quotas, Leopold’s army would kidnap families, burn villages, rape women, and slaughter people - amongst other horrific torture and punishments. It is estimated that between 5 and 10 million deaths resulted from the colonization of Congo.
Because of intense international criticism and a rise of missionaries, the Belgian Parliament purchased Congo from King Leopold, and the country came under Belgian and French rule. Nevertheless, the oppression and social disruptions remain even now and have left a negative image of Westerns as well as interference in creating a practicable system of administration, political education, and social responsibility.
In 1960, however, it became independent and eventually changed the name from the Belgian Congo to Zaire and ultimately to “the Democratic Republic of Congo.”1 In June of 2020, King Philippe of Belgium wrote a letter to the Congolese people stating: "I would like to express my deepest regrets for these injuries of the past, the pain of which is now revived by the discrimination still too present in our societies" in an effort to recognize pain caused in the past, as well as the opportunity for progress and cooperation in the present.
The root causes of poverty
Wars, lousy government, corruption, and colonialism are all fundamental roots of the country’s problems. Due to longstanding policies not allowing Africans to be trained or educated, in 1960, when Europeans left the Congo, there were only 3 Africans in managerial positions in the entire country. This left behind a knowledge and skill gap that proved insurmountable for the Congolese people, and the country struggled to create an effective government and infrastructure for decades.
In 2003, the second Congolese civil war ended, which accounted for over 5 million deaths and was considered the world’s deadliest conflict since World War ll. But even after the war ended, the nation was still fragile, and the economy and societal infrastructure were destroyed. Joseph Kabila was president at the time and began to rebuild the country during his following 18 years of presidency. Then, in 2019, Tshisekedi won the election, the first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960. Tshisekedi was born into a wealthy family in 1963. His father was the late Congolese opposition politician Etienne Tshisekedi, a well-known figure who served as prime minister for three brief terms in the 1990s. Tshisekedi has promised to make the eradication of poverty across the DRC his main priority.2
Though the war officially ended, the country’s eastern region remains troubled with violence among armed groups, land disputes, sexual violence, and intercommunity conflicts, contributing to humanitarian crises. Nationwide, 5 million people have fled their homes and lost their livelihoods. Furthermore, it is common for presidents to allocate wealth for themselves, contributing to economic mismanagement, ethnic divisions, infrastructure decay, and rising poverty.
With all the natural resources the country has, it has the potential to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Eighty-million hectares of arable land and more than 1,100 minerals and precious metals establish its economic growth potential and the ability to feed 2 billion people. Now you might be wondering: “Then why does poverty still exist?” Well, unfortunately, only ten percent of the hectares are under cultivation. Illegal mining and conflicts led by armed militant groups limit people’s ability to use the many resources and keep the country from achieving its true potential.
Let’s go back to the tantalum. This bright, very hard, silver-gray metal is highly corrosion-resistant and makes a worthy substitute for platinum. Australia has historically been the world’s leading tantalum producer, but due to the desire to reduce material costs in smartphones and other electronics, large corporations and mining companies started extracting this resource from countries such as the DRC instead due to its significantly lower costs. This caused one of Australia’s largest tantalum mines to close, doubling tantalum prices in only a year. Thus, the resource became even more cherished, motivating many Congolese people to work in the sector, and soon after, the warlords jumped in as well.3
Though the situation regarding poverty in the DRC has been gloomy, efforts to improve conditions continue. There have been significant improvements in the education sector over the past ten years. The school completion rate for primary-age children has increased from 20 percent in 2002 to 70 percent in 2014. The DRC developed an Educational Sector Plan for 2016-2025, which focuses on improving learning quality and increasing education access throughout rural and urban areas.
The DRC government and its international partners have also prioritized health issues. Almost half of the children between the ages of 1 and 2 now receive all vaccinations. Funds were allocated to contraceptives and essential medicines in 2015 for the first time. The next steps are to improve natural resources, rebuild infrastructure, increase food security, reduce ethnopolitical conflict, and restructure the political environment.
How can we help?
Increased awareness of the situation in the DRC across the globe is key to helping the Congolese people. Many people in the DRC need humanitarian assistance and protection, including 5.6 million children. Luckily there are organizations driven to improve the country’s conditions. Take World Vision, for example, where you can help by sponsoring a child. The funds are used for building safe communities, disaster management, and providing quality education- amongst other things.
Another way is to make a donation to a reputable humanitarian organization working in the disaster zone. Some websites post lists of these organizations through which you can donate, such as the World Affairs Council.
Some areas in the DRC are not affected by conflict, and improvement and investment are possible. Some investment opportunities include solar energy projects by providing working capital for SMEs. Lendahand’s joint venture, Energise Africa, for example, is already active in 26 of the country’s provinces, and we hope to soon have projects in the DRC available on Lendahand as well.
How much do you know about poverty?
Lendahand created a Poverty Awareness Quiz. One of the questions was: “what’s the poorest country in the world regarding income?” 42% of respondents knew the answer was the DRC, and awareness of this issue is a good start in solving the problem. If you’d like to test your knowledge on poverty worldwide, you can participate in the quiz here.
1. D. Cordell, 2020.
2. DW, 2019.
3. VisualPolitik, 2019.