Europe in the Congo: high ambitions, big money, limited impact – By Kris Berwouts

BerwoutsAfter the Congolese elections of 2006, the European Union stood as the proud godfather beside the cradle of Kabila’s Third Republic. Together with its member states, the EU had mobilized about 85% of the funding for elections which were widely recognised as being the most expensive in the history of the planet.

Through its humanitarian and development programmes, Europe invested enormous sums in the Congo. It had the ambition to take the lead in long and complex processes of reforms for the army and the police, and the rehabilitation of the judiciary system.

Today, seven years later, Europe has faded away in to the wings. Not only has the European architecture suffered severe damage in the different political, economic and financial storms that scourged the Union, also other ambitious potential partners of Congo stepped into the ring. China, of course, sits in first place with the multibillion contract it offered the DRC in 2007. But also countries such as India, Tanzania, South Africa and others rapidly gained visibility and influence.


A few days ago, a report of the European Court of Auditors was published which examined the EU support between 2003 (the start of the transition after the end of the war) and 2011 (the re-election of Kabila).  The EU’s assistance to Congo in that period was about 1.9 billion euro. The report focused particularly on EU support for the electoral process, the justice and police and public finance management reforms and the decentralisation process.

The judgment is harsh.  Two quotes from the report:

“The Court concludes that the effectiveness of EU assistance for governance in the DRC is limited. EU support for governance is set within a generally sound cooperation strategy, addresses the main needs and has achieved some results. However, progress is slow, uneven and overall limited. Fewer than half of the programmes examined have delivered, or are likely to deliver, most of the expected results. Sustainability is an unrealistic prospect in most cases.”

“The absence of political will, the donor-driven dynamics of the programmes and the lack of absorption capacity account for these failures. However, while the Commission is well acquainted with the main causes and consequences of state fragility in the DRC , it did not take sufficient account of these challenges when designing EU programmes. Risks have not been adequately addressed, programme objectives tend to be overly ambitious, conditionality has a weak incentive effect and policy dialogue has not been exploited to its full potential and adequately coordinated with EU Members.”


The European Union did not fulfill its ambitions in the fields of democracy and security. This was in part due to the ambiguity in the signals they have sent concerning democratisation.

For example, the EU insists a great deal on the holding of elections, but goes quite far in accepting non-democratic practices. This behaviour is partially based on looking for a difficult balance between the desire to really contribute to the development of democracy on the one hand, and on the other hand concern about not damaging a stability that is relative and precarious. The result is often a choice between what is considered the lesser of two evils. Of course this pragmatism is also based on a good understanding by each international player of its own bilateral interests.  The ambiguity of the Congo’s Western partners is well understood, both by political players in the region and the local population.

If Europe wants to make a difference in security, democracy and governance in Congo, it will have to ensure the credibility, quality and transparency of the different processes and reforms it supports, and not limit itself to the technocratic accompaniment of some formal exercises.

Kris Berwouts has, over the last 25 years, worked for a number of different Belgian and international NGOs focused on building peace, reconciliation, security and democratic processes. Until recently, he was the Director of EurAc, the network of European NGOs working for advocacy on Central Africa. He now works as an independent expert on Central Africa.

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3 thoughts on “Europe in the Congo: high ambitions, big money, limited impact – By Kris Berwouts

  1. What is being suggested is long term in process and will require a transformative shift in DRC Leadership which now must recognize that the old past ‘bromides’ of rent seeking governance will no longer sustain future civic civil social society engagement.
    The Congo to prosper must be a country which is not in the ‘shareholder rent seeking’ ethos but rather embrace the ‘stakeholder social cohesion’ ethos model by which all in congo society will prosper together as engaged alert citizens whose objective is the further development of this most magnificent country.

  2. The Congo, 2,345,408 square kilometres (905,567 sq mi), is slightly greater than the combined areas of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway. These countries speak 5 languages of course, and are linked by outstanding communication networks. If merging the European countries into a single entity was ever mooted, it would be deemed to be foolish and ungovernable. Regional differences in economic development, culture, language and distance to the ‘capital’ would be cited. So why do we think that a largely landlocked country in the middle of Africa is a different prospect. The Congo has over 240 languages, and little infrastructure. It has 200 plus different ‘tribes’, and an undereducated population. It has never enjoyed a period of democratic stability in the 53 years of independence. The Congo is, and always will be, ungovernable. Let’s start from that point and see what can be done. The EU’s efforts remind one of the old Titanic/deck chairs cliche.

  3. You are assuming that the EU’s primary goal was to do all those ambitious thing like democratic reform, army & police, development. That is naive. The EU like China, SA, Tanzania have much more to gain than to lose in the DRC hence why they wanted to have the first foot in. Maybe shedding some light on all the business deals that came with the 1.9B investment. How much have European countries gained….

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