Monday, April 18, 2011

The Poorest Rich Country in the World

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is not a land of the wealthy. The average annual income here is 189 bucks, less than I spent during last week's trip to Madagascar. Of course, money isn't everything. But according to the 2010 United Nations' Human Development Index, which attempts to account for numerous other factors that impact quality of life, including education levels and health, the DRC trails every other country in the world except for Zimbabwe.

The crazy thing is, the DRC is a land of enormous wealth. Its elephants and rubber trees financed the construction of the decadent palaces and monuments of colonial-era Belgium. It is home to the world's most voluminous river and the vastest tropical forest after the Amazon. Its mountains teem with copper, cobalt, gold and diamonds, to name a few. Even its soil is relatively resilient, as I realized during my Malagasy sojurn (Madagascar has some of the most fragile, and the most degraded, soils on the planet.) Despite the abuse of farmland here, and the almost universal lack of erosion control practices, fields continue to produce, at least for the moment.

King Leopold II's Laeken Palace, Belgium

Political economist types have theorized that such well endowed countries are inherently destined for slow or even backwards development. While plenty of examples (including my own country) suggest otherwise, there's certainly some truth to the theory. Congo has attracted a slew of voracious plunderers, drawn by the promise of boundless riches, heedless of the welfare, let alone the suffering, of the general population.

Leopold-era rubber slaves, victims of the profit-crazed monarch's brutal regime.

It seems to me that true humanitarian intervention, that is, when people, in the case of exceptional circumstances (e.g., post-tsunami Japan), are unable to clothe, feed, or shelter themselves, and the state is temporarily incapable of addressing the need, is almost always justifiable. But a case like Congo is much more complicated. The people here are intelligent, educated, capable, and often willing to work to better their lot, but the political climate makes real progress almost impossible. This environment is incredibly frustrating for me, who
knows that in a few months' time I can retreat to
the States, my mission "complete."

I can't imagine what it must be like for the Congolese.

1 comment:

  1. Not sure how UN Human Development Index could put Zimbabwe at the bottom, lower than DRC and many other incredibly poor countries. I have been to both and Zimbabwe is relatively very wealthy by African standards. Health care, education, income, quality of life, etc.

    I don't mean this as a critique of your posting Emily, the story is great and on the point.



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