Overcoming poverty and suffering is a noble cause, isn’t it? In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there is chronic military conflict, horrendous human rights abuses, and poverty so severe that the country ranks among the bottom ten in the Human Development Index, it seems impossible, doesn’t it?
It is a noble cause, but also a difficult one. Many people do not feel safe, corruption is rampant, and the government does not have authority over much of its territory. Even where it does, its soldiers are sometimes perceived as a threat equal to the many armed groups everyone always talks about.
DR Congo has a population of 66 million people. Most live in extreme poverty, millions live in situations of conflict and abuse, and everyone suffers from bad governance. Overcoming all of this may sound like an impossible task. Why should anyone give money to Oxfam for an impossible task? “Let the Africans solve their own problems,” I sometimes hear, even from my friends.
Here is the good news: it is not an impossible task, and Oxfam helps people solve their own problems, rather than imposing solutions on them.
Last week, I sat on rocks in a very remote village in South Kivu. Many children were around me – children who could be the next generation of Congolese leaders. Clean water, captured from a natural spring that had recently been rehabilitated by Oxfam, was flowing out of a pipe. I filled my bottle from that spring capture system and was so relieved to drink it, exhausted as I was from the many hours it had taken to get to the village.
I didn’t get diarrhoea or cholera from drinking that water, but this hadn’t been the case until very recently for the local people there. All over the world, and particularly in the Congo, people die simply because they don’t have access to clean water. The system Oxfam constructed with the local communities and authorities is very simple and doesn’t require much maintenance. But it works. All the children around me wanted to drink the same water and they smiled.
The next day, I visited a much bigger Oxfam water project, where 55,000 people now have clean water after only three months of work. Again, it is thanks to a simple system: gravity takes dirty river water down to a sand filter. Yes, sand and gravel cleans water, if it flows slowly through it. Sand is readily available in that part of Congo. The water goes slowly through the gravel and sand and by the time the water reaches the town there is no trace of bacteria left.
Local material, local resources, and the engagement of communities and local authorities: that is the recipe to keep people clear of deadly disease. It works. Recently, I visited a water project Oxfam finished more than 15 years ago and people still had clean water.
If people have clean water close to their homes, they do not expose themselves to the many risks coming from rebel groups and the Congolese army during their search for water. If people can get clean water without having to walk 10km every day, they can engage in productive activities and spare more money to send their children to school. In short: clean water reduces disease and gives people a chance to get themselves out of poverty.
So overcoming poverty and suffering in the Congo is possible on a small or large scale. It is very difficult. But it is possible. Oxfam is there. Let us persevere and let’s not give up on the Congo.