Dangerous tales: Dominant narratives on the Congo and their unintended consequences

By Prof Séverine Autesserre (Columbia University)
12:40 PM, January 08, 2013

Life conditions in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo have deteriorated significantly since the end of the transition to peace and democracy in late 2006. Each year, the people of the eastern provinces feel less secure than the year before. [1] There were more people internally displaced in 2010 than at the end of 2006. [2] Armed groups, including the Congolese army, relentlessly commit horrific violations of human rights. The Congo has dropped twenty places (from 167 to 187) in the Index of Human Development, officially becoming the least developed country on earth.[3] Overall, current conditions for the populations of the eastern Congo remain among the worst in Africa.

There are many reasons for the deterioration of the situation, notably incendiary actions by domestic and regional leaders, grassroots antagonisms over land and power, and the persistence of corruption at all levels of the political and economic system. A number of recent studies have convincingly analysed these internal dynamics, as well as those at the level of the Great Lakes region, and shown their nefarious effects.[4] In addition, a few researchers have explored why the international efforts at building peace and democracy have failed.[5] This article takes the analysis one step further and considers how, despite a number of positive results, the international efforts themselves have contributed to the degradation of the situation.

This article focuses on the negative consequences of external efforts that aim to help the Congo build peace and democracy. These include advocacy campaigns in Europe and North America, as well as humanitarian, development, and peace-building initiatives implemented in the eastern Congo by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the diplomatic representations of various states, and international organizations
such as the United Nations (UN) and the African Union.

There is no doubt that these international efforts have achieved many positive results. Re-establishing peace, albeit a precarious one, over most of the Congolese territory would not have been possible without the presence of the UN peacekeeping mission and the work of African and Western diplomats. Likewise, it is mostly thanks to these interveners that the Congo managed to organize its first democratic elections in 2006. As of the time of this writing, the UN mission remains the only military force capable of protecting the population from the exactions of the Congolese army and various other armed groups. Humanitarian agencies are the only ones able to respond to epidemics and, in the eastern provinces, to provide access to drinkable water and basic health care. However, aside from these encouraging aspects, the interventions have also produced a series of detrimental outcomes.

In the past five years, three narratives have dominated the discourse on the Congo and oriented the intervention strategies. These narratives focus on a primary cause of violence, the illegal exploitation of natural resources; a main consequence, sexual abuse against women and girls; and a central solution, reconstructing state authority.[6] There is no doubt that the illegal exploitation of Congolese mineral resources is a significant cause of conflict, that sexual violence is a terrible and widespread form of abuse, and that reconstructing state authority is an essential measure. However, we can wonder how the illegal exploitation of resources came to be seen as the main cause of violence, sexual abuse as the worst consequence, and the extension of state authority as the primary solution to the conflict, to the exclusion of other causes, consequences, and solutions.

This article considers three central questions: Why use simple narratives? Why these three in particular, and not any of the numerous alternative framings of the situation? What are the effects of the exclusive focus on this specific cause, consequence, and solution? While my answers to the first two questions demonstrate that interveners had good reasons for adopting dominant, simple narratives, and for focusing on three of them, my answer to the third question demonstrates that this adoption had some positive results, but was damaging overall.

The use of these three narratives has enabled advocates to put the Congo on the agenda of some of the most powerful states and organizations, and thus prompted action to end what remains a ‘forgotten conflict’.[7] However, I argue that the well-meaning international efforts have also had unintended ramifications that have prevented the intervention from achieving its stated goals, and that have even, at times, contributed to the deterioration of the situation in the eastern Congo. The international actors’ concentration on trafficking of mineral resources as a source of violence has led them to overlook the myriad other causes, such as land conflict, poverty, corruption, local political and social antagonisms, and hostile relationships between state officials, including security forces, and the general population. Interveners have singled out for support one category of victims, sexually injured women and girls, at the expense of others, notably those tortured in a non-sexual manner, child soldiers, and the families of those killed. The dominant narratives have oriented international programmes on the ground toward three main goals – regulating trade of minerals, providing care to victims of sexual violence, and helping the state extend its authority – at the expense of all the other necessary measures, such as resolving land conflict, promoting inter-community reconciliation, jump-starting economic development, ensuring that state authorities respect human rights, and fighting corruption. Even worse, because of these exclusive focuses, the international efforts have exacerbated the problems that they aimed to combat: the attempts to control the exploitation of resources have enabled armed groups to strengthen their control over mines; the disproportionate attention to sexual violence has raised the status of sexual abuse to an effective bargaining tool for combatants; and the state reconstruction programmes have boosted the capacity of an authoritarian regime to oppress its population.

To develop this analysis, I first explain why policy makers and practitioners need simple narratives in order to work, and why it is especially important for those involved in the Congo. I then consider each of the three dominant narratives in turn. For each case, I present the narrative, locate its sources, and explain why it has become dominant over competing narratives. I then show how it has oriented international intervention strategies on the ground, acknowledging the positive outcomes and highlighting the main negative consequences.

This article draws on a year of ethnographic research conducted in the eastern Congo from June 2010 to July 2011. During that time, I investigated mainly the situation in North Kivu – the most violent area of the Congo during my fieldwork – but I also gathered data on the other unstable provinces, notably South Kivu, North Katanga, and Oriental Province, as well as in the capital city of Kinshasa. In addition, I completed three short trips to Europe and North America to study the perception of the eastern Congo among interveners based in capitals and headquarters.

Overall, I have gathered data from more than 170 in-depth interviews with international interveners and Congolese stakeholders. I also draw on field observations, analysis of key policy papers, and participant observation. The latter research method consisted of patrolling with military peacekeepers, implementing state reconstruction programmes with UN officials, assisting community reconciliation projects with NGOs, participating in dozens of coordination meetings, and training, briefing, and advising NGOs, diplomatic missions, peacekeeping sections, and other agencies. Furthermore, this article builds on ten years of ethnographic research in the Congo that I conducted between 2001 and 2010 for an earlier project, including more than 330 in-depth interviews and a year and a half of fieldwork.

Virtually all of my contacts asked to remain anonymous in view of the personal and professional risks involved in providing information on the topics analysed in this article. For this reason, I fully reference only the data obtained through on-the-record interviews and from public sources. All the information and quotations that I do not fully reference come from confidential interviews and participant observation.

Source: Oxford University Press

Read the full text on Oxford University Press - African Affairs


  • The power of simple narratives
  • The cause: conflict minerals
  • The consequence: sexual violence
  • The solution: state building
  • Conclusion


  1. See the protection investigations that Oxfam conducted between 2007 and 2010, notably the latest one, ‘Les femmes et les enfants d’abord: sur la ligne de front aux Kivus’ (Oxfam, Oxford, June 2010).
  2. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, ‘Democratic Republic of Congo – IDP figures by year’, <www.internaldisplacement.org/idmc/website/countries.nsf/%28httpEnvelopes%29/96849E3579EE3240C12577FC0044524A?OpenDocument#15.3.1> (23 June 2011).
  3. UN Development Programme, ‘Human Development Index’ (reports, UNDP, New York, 2006 and 2011).
  4. Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble with the Congo: Local violence and the failure of international peacebuilding (Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2010); René Lemarchand, The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2008); Filip Reyntjens, The Great African War: Congo and regional geopolitics, 1996–2006 (Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2009); Thomas Turner, The Congo Wars: Conflict, myth and reality (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY, 2007); and Koen Vlassenroot and Timothy Raeymaekers, Conflict and Social Transformation in Eastern DR Congo (Academia Press Scientific Publishers, Ghent, 2004).
  5. See notably Autesserre, The Trouble with the Congo, and Théodore Trefon, Congo Masquerade: The political culture of aid inefficiency and reform failure (Zed Books, London, 2011).
  6. The advocacy documents produced by Enough <www.enoughproject.org> and Friends of the Congo <www.friendsofthecongo.org> provide a perfect illustration of this focus. For a claim similar to mine regarding the first two narratives, see the recurrent debates in the blogs Texas in Africa (by Laura Seay, texasinafrica.blogspot.com) and Congo Siasa (by Jason Stearns, www.congosiasa.blogspot.com).
  7. On the categorization of the Congo as a forgotten conflict, see Médecins Sans Frontières’ yearly list of the ‘Top Ten Most Underreported Humanitarian Stories’ <www.doctorswithoutborders.org/news/issue.cfm?id=2403&ref=tag-index> (21 November 2011).
About the Author
Autesserre, Séverine

Severine Autesserre is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Autesserre’s research in the Congo culminated in her Grawemeyer Award-winning book, “The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding,” published by Cambridge University Press in 2010. The book also won the International Studies Association’s 2011 Chadwick Alger Award.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect CSR Manager's editorial policy.
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