DR Congo: The case for taking the administration seriously

Introduction: Stylianos Moshonas, Tom De Herdt and Kristof Titeca explore the challenges facing the DR Congo civil service.

The Congolese administration in its current state has long been pointed to as a major impediment to Congo’s ambition to achieve developmental outcomes: threadbare on the service delivery front, inefficient, excessive in urban settings, and corrupt - indeed indicative of the state’s predatory nature. In a sense, the civil service has come a long way: the outbreak of war in the 1990s came atop decades of economic crisis, structural adjustment, and state decline, and meant that in 2001 - when donors re-engaged with the country after ten years of absence - administrative capacity was very emaciated. Since then, though, a wide array of (mostly donor-promoted) structural reforms have been unrolled in the DRC.

However, when one looks at international engagement, an interesting paradox has surrounded the civil service in Congo, which has occupied a singularly ambiguous position. Even though international actors in Congo have never ceased stressing ‘state redress’, ‘restoring the authority of the state’, and ‘state reconstruction’, while pumping vast sums of aid into service delivery - particularly in health and education - the area of civil service and administrative reform has been largely neglected. In 2003, a timid reformwas initiated with the participation of several donors, but proved inconclusive, wasteful, and sidetracked; most donors had withdrawn by 2010.

Cyclists outside the transportation building in Kinshasa
Image Credit: Tomas via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

This is partly understandable: during the ‘democratic’ transition of 2003-2006, Congo’s international partners were focused on the overarching priority of holding elections, however serious the setbacks to structural reforms were. Their gambit was to have a credible interlocutor legitimated through the ballot box, as a prerequisite to tackling more serious issues, including administrative redress. This outcome proved elusive, as the political context following the 2006 elections proved far from conducive to progress on institutional reforms.

At the same time, the question of Congo’s administrative capacity is hard to overstate: after all, the participation of civil servants is unavoidable for development projects and programmes, and in the absence of a modicum of improvement, severely impairs aid delivery. For example, in the health sector, which is one of the better-endowed sectors in terms of development aid, only 30 percent of public health sector workers receive a salary, the rest relying either on a prime de risque (the occupational risk allowance paid by the government) or on user fees. Needless to say, for the development projects which eschew paying performance bonuses to health workers, achieving objectives is extremely difficult.

Currently, administrative reform is once again underway - in 2013, heavily incentivised by World Bank funding, a new phase of reform was launched, this time, with greater ownership from the government, and a much more ambitious scope. Yet again, however, its position in the governmental list of priorities is deeply ambiguous: on one hand, administrative reform is important insofar as it affords substantial funding over the years 2014-2019 (the original project involved $77 million, and was scaled up by an additional $50 million in 2017 to cover administrative decentralisation), and because it keeps operative relations with donors afloat - an important legitimising tool for a regime increasingly beleaguered on both the national and the international scene. But is it more than that? A good indication of government commitment comes from the fact that virtually no domestic sources of funding have been made available for it, and all activities are funded by the World Bank. Given the vagaries of the current political context - with efforts absorbed by insecurity in the East and in Kasai, and electoral issues - the attention accorded to administrative reform has become even lower.

What is clear though, whatever the outcome of the current political stalemate may be, is that the civil service will have to, and most likely will continue to be, the target of renewed efforts at rationalisation. What lessons, if any, can be drawn from the record on that front to date? In the past, too many phases of reform - whether country-led as in 1972-73 in Zaire, or donor-sponsored as in 2003 - have proceeded in a tabula rasa fashion, without associating civil servants. This is utopian. As under-performing and dysfunctional as the DRC’s administration is, reform can only come from building on what is already there, in an incremental way.

The question remains, however, of how the most perverse aspects of the Congolese administration can be tackled. In the 1970s, a close observer of the Zairian administration, David Gould, already noted how self-enrichment and profiteering had become integral to the holding of public office; he ascribed this ‘bureaucratic attitude’ to the indifference of the ruling elites towards the efficient functioning of the administration, insofar as ‘the class in power obtain[ed] what it need[ed] via other channels and [left] the bureaucracy to its own devices’. Forty years later, with crisis, retrenchment, and war, if anything, the state of the civil service is even worse.

In a context where a position in the civil service offers only a meagre remuneration, but can come with opportunities for profit (or at least, survival), and where recruitment tends to overwhelmingly depend on patronage, a pattern exists whereby a portion of the revenues generated on the job are channelled upwards, towards patrons and higher levels of the bureaucratic command chain. In areas where significant funds have been invested by donors - such as primary education or health - this tendency is referred to as financement ascendant, pointing towards the fact that instead of flowing towards service delivery, funds tend to be absorbed by the administrative apparatus.

How can such tendencies be addressed? This is not an easy question. Undoubtedly, however irrational or perverse such aspects of the public bureaucracy may appear, it helps to try and understand them as a rational response to a particular socio-professional environment. Modern bureaucracies in the Western world too developed out of the needs to accompany and regulate capitalist transformation. Not only has the latter been strikingly feeble in places like Congo, but equally, the administrative apparatus - from its inception in the mid-1880s - has been effectively geared towards resource extraction.

This is not to suggest that improvements in administrative capacity have to necessarily wait for economic take-off to come, however. Even without an ideal reform - all too often, efforts at improving bureaucratic capacity have failed precisely because ideal solutions proposing a blank slate were proposed - there is some latitude for positive change. This of course implies several prerequisites: the propitiousness of political context is perhaps the most obvious one. Efforts geared towards improving existing arrangements, rather than by-passing them, is another. However, while there is no single, easy answer to conundrums like this one, one thing is certain: donor programmes and projects active in governance in the DRC require far deeper engagement with administrative issues, and this in itself calls for a much sharper understanding of the sort of arrangements that underpin the public sector.

Stylianos Moshonas (@SFMoshonas) is a Postdoctoral research at the Institute of Development Policy, (IOB) University of Antwerp

Tom De Herdt (@tomdeherdt) is Chair, Institute of Development Policy, (IOB) University of Antwerp.

Kristof Titeca (@KristofTiteca) is Lecturer, Institute of Development Policy, (IOB) University of Antwerp

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