DRC’s poverty-stricken population needs urgent policy change to enable a better future

President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Felix Tshisekedi, left, and former DRC president Joseph Kabila. (Photos: EPA-EFE / Hayoung Jeon | Jock Fistick / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

After years of stagnation, Tshisekedi’s ‘sacred union’ could transform the country’s prospects through five sectoral policy choices. 

First published by ISS Today

The Congolese population is impatient for change. The lack of visionary and accountable leadership has made the country a classic case of the ‘paradox of abundance’. 

In December 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) saw its first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960. The shaky coalition government that emerged has, however, done little to improve the population’s living conditions. 

After a drawn-out fight, president Félix Tshisekedi has now skillfully loosened former president Joseph Kabila’s grip on power to create the new ‘sacred union’ coalition. With a majority in the Parliament, the president and his allies have a unique opportunity to place the welfare of the DRC’s population at the centre of government actions. 

A new report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) explores the benefits that appropriate policies and determined implementation by government could have. The analysis first presents the DRC’s current development trajectory and then explores the impact of complementary scenarios that chart the long-term effect of specific policies. 

Everything depends on the extent to which members of parliament and others from Kabila’s camp – who have now joined the sacred union – genuinely desire to change the country for the better.

Poverty is widespread in the DRC. The current gross domestic product per capita is 40% of its value at independence in 1960. In other words, the average Congolese only has about 40% of the income that their parents had at independence more than half a century ago. Instead of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030, over 60% of the population will by then still live below $1.90. Average levels of income would only recover to their 1970 values after 2040. 

Bad governance, weak institutions, corruption, infrastructure shortage, low stock and quality of human capital, low agricultural productivity and rapid population growth are the leading factors hindering the DRC’s progress. 

Using the International Futures (IFs) modelling platform, the ISS evaluated the effect of five sectoral policy interventions that the sacred union could pursue to improve inclusive, sustainable growth and development. 

The first intervention – improved governance – places democratic accountability at the heart of reform. It models the implementation of the 2006 constitution’s decentralisation provisions (which have yet to be acted on), an anti-corruption campaign and improved state capacity and effectiveness. Better governance and regional outreach also increase security. 

The second intervention – the physical integration of the country – emulates the impact of the construction and rehabilitation of transport infrastructure. Also, the electrification rate in urban and rural areas is increased through decentralised mini- and off-grid schemes using renewable energy. Improvements in digital connectivity unlock the provision of basic services such as better water and sanitation through public-private partnerships.

The third intervention models the effect of lower fertility rates, an increase in the quantity and quality of education, and better access to affordable healthcare. The fourth shows how better agricultural production through investment in modern practices boosts yields per hectare. This is augmented by improved harvesting, storage, transportation and the introduction of efficient marketing for crops and animal products. 

The final intervention – on economic transformation – reflects a future where the DRC has diversified its production and export bases to substantially reduce its high dependence on mining and hydrocarbon. 

Of all five interventions, the last one on economic change has the greatest effect on economic expansion and poverty reduction. However, in the short term, agricultural development appears to be the low-hanging fruit that would boost the population’s well-being. A concerted policy push across all five sectors (the Comprehensive Scenario) could significantly improve economic growth and poverty reduction over the next 30 years (Figure 1 and 2).

Figure 1: GDP – Comprehensive Scenario vs Current Path. Source: Forecast in IFs version 7.54; historical data from the International Monetary Fund, (Graph: Supplied by ISS Today)
Figure 2: Extreme poverty at $1.90 – Comprehensive Scenario vs Current Path. Source: Forecast in IFs version 7.54; historical data from the World Bank. (Graph: Supplied by ISS Today)

The DRC’s complex development problems call for decisive action by Tshisekedi and the sacred union. The ruling elite must end their recurrent quarrels motivated by personal and party interests and focus on the welfare of the majority. This would give hope to millions of desperately poor Congolese. 

The government should promote good governance by investing in solid institutions, combat corruption through better transparency, increase its capacity to mobilise domestic revenues, and improve spending quality.

Addressing the infrastructure deficit is also necessary for inclusive growth and economic diversification in the DRC. Specifically, the provision of basic infrastructures such as roads, electricity, safe water supply and information and communication technology needs to be accelerated. 

In addition to revamping the education and health systems, the DRC should address food insecurity and widespread malnutrition by improving agriculture production. This could be done by increasing land under cultivation and investing in agriculture technologies to increase crop yields.

The mining sector dominates the DRC’s economy. It needs to be diversified to reduce its dependence on a volatile global commodity market. The government must also improve the poor business climate to stimulate domestic and foreign investment, especially in the manufacturing sector. 

None of this is possible without strong political will and financial resources. Tshisekedi and the sacred union have a historic opportunity to break with the past. They should start by implementing the 2006 constitutional provisions on devolving power to provinces and local government and support those changes with governance reforms in Kinshasa. DM

Kouassi Yeboua, Researcher and Jakkie Cilliers, Head, African Futures & Innovation, ISS Pretoria.


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  • “Bad governance, weak institutions, corruption, infrastructure shortage, low stock and quality of human capital, low agricultural productivity and rapid population growth are the leading factors hindering the DRC’s progress. ”
    For a moment I thought SA was under discussion. Same-same, but different.

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