Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Under the volcano

Arrived in Goma by road from Kigali yesterday; a surprisingly painless trip. Goma was flattened by volcanic lava in 2002. The area continues to experience minor eruptions and tremors, including massive methane releases toxic to humans and livestock. But it is a beautiful sight, the Nyiragongo volcano, particularly on a clear night when its lava dome lights up the sky. I have yet to climb it and peer inside; those that have claim it is a risky (not falling in but inhaling toxic fumes) yet amazing experience.

The volcano was the last thing on my mind as I approached the border, fearing I would have to negotiate my entry with drunken policemen and soldiers. Instead I found an efficient customs service manned by rational, non-threatening civil servants, as professional as on the Rwandan side of the border. Small signs of progress make big impressions, given the state to which the DRC has sunk over the years.

An hour later, I learned that a DC-9 from the primary national airline, Hewa Bora, crashed on take-off from the city airport. The fuselage spun into a residential/commercial area and exploded, claiming around 80 lives. DRC is well known as having the worst air safety record in the world. Locals have abandoned the former reference for commercial aviation, ‘air peut-etre’, in favor of the darker language of ‘cerceuils volants’, or flying coffins. See the BBC story here.

Still, I've managed to meet many local NGOs to discuss their work in hopes of connecting them to donors elsewhere. The primary constraint is capacity: very few are large enough to absorb much money, and all reauire direct supervision, regular training and institutional development. Despite a peace accord in 2004 and presidential elections in 2006, Eastern DRC is very much an emergency context, although limited development and recovery activities are underway. The national government is weak; the army provides no security and there are no public services or any basic infrastructure to speak of.

If I could change one thing about international assistance to Africa, it would be to drop the democracy and elections obsession. Security and infrastructure are the most basic conditions for progress. Democracy bakes no bread and stops no bullets in this part of the world.

For the next leg to Bukavu, I'm taking the boat!

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