Five Lessons from the Congo’s Instability: Q&A with Ian Quick

MONUSCO Force Commander Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz (center) is shown strategic positions at Munigi Hill outside Goma. Democratic Republic of the Congo, June 11, 2013. (UN Photo/Sylvain Lechti)

Efforts to stabilize the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the early 2000s assumed there was a complete lack of authority in those parts of the country not under formal state control. This was never the case according to management consultant Ian Quick, who previously worked with the United Nations stabilization mission in the country (MONUSCO).

In fact, there was a “very dense ecosystem of local actors and political and civic structures for regulating how people lived together,” Mr. Quick said.

“So the difficulty is that our starting point was wrong. Our starting point was ‘formal state institutions are a good thing, people will naturally welcome them.’”

He said the subsequent displacement of established actors was likely behind much of the resistance to MONUSCO and its preceding mission in the Congo. Mr. Quick said the mission has failed in its responsibility of quelling the instability affecting the country since the late 1990s, which followed the overthrow of long-time authoritarian leader Mobutu Sese Seko.

These failings are cataloged in Mr. Quick’s new book Follies and Fragile States: How International Stabilization Failed in the Congo, which identifies a total of five major “follies” of the mission. These include failing to respond to the geographical and political realities of the country, and having a fixation over linking too many disparate concerns together.

Speaking with International Peace Institute Research Fellow Lamii Moivi Kromah, Mr. Quick said there were many ways in which UN peacekeeping missions could be improved.

“An obvious one is security protocols have to change,” he said. “There has to be a change from a compliance-risk management perspective to more of a balancing of risk versus reward in terms of the access and the situational awareness you get from greater proximity to the local population.”

Listen to the interview, which has been edited for clarity and length:

The subtitle of your book is “How International Stabilization Failed in the Congo,” which you explain in what you call “five follies.” How did you decide on these five follies?

That is an excellent question. It could be four, it could be six, it could be a hundred. But really, what I was trying to do with the book and with the work that I am doing after the publication of the book, is unpack this fact of strategic failure that we saw in 2012 into issues that are tractable. I say tractable in the sense that institutions who are working there can engage within those areas where they need to do better. And this is not a very, very big fact like the resurgence of violence in 2012, that’s too broad, it’s not a very, very narrow fact, like if “project x” failed, there is some good middle ground where you can pin down and say “these are the things that we don’t really know how to do very well, this is what has led us to this situation.”

In your book, you mention areas where the Congolese state has never had control and places where communities preferred armed groups over the state. What are the inherent challenges of extending state authority when the state is not wanted or trusted?

There are many challenges in doing so. I like to think of this along a longer historical arc. In the DRC—this is a century or so back to the colonial period—you have repeated attempts to establish central control but also legitimacy in these areas. So delivery of services in addition to harder power, policing, and security control. And what they ran into was a very dense ecosystem of local actors and political and civic structures for regulating how people lived together, and these were shaken up several times by incoming migration and external events. But the reality is that this idea of a vacuum that we were tossing around in the early 2000s had just never historically been the case.

So the difficulty is that our starting point was wrong. Our starting point was “formal state institutions are a good thing, people will naturally welcome them.” But of course, if they are displacing established actors, there are winners and losers in that process, and when you are starting from a fairly low level of capacity, you are displacing a system which works maybe not perfectly with a system that may work considerably less well, and this is what lay behind a lot of the resistance that our work saw, some of which was passive, and some of which was actually quite violent—it is an attachment to alternative systems, other ways of doing business, and sometimes simply vested interests, groups that were benefiting from an alternative arrangement and we just underestimated the extent to which there would be winners and losers in that process.

Folly number three is interesting – geographical denial. Can you explain why planners felt geography could be overlooked as a major factor? To what extent did it help to relocate the headquarters of MONUSCO to the east in 2014?

I think what happened is that the early enthusiasm for statebuilding as a way that peacekeeping missions could exit was fed by qualified success in places like Sierra Leone, in places like Liberia, obviously with faults, but still it was a point that was good enough that draw-down on a considerable scale was contemplated. At the time that this was in discussion in the DRC, you had the same approach being taken in places like Kosovo and Timor-Leste, and there just wasn’t an adjustment of that to the geographical circumstances of the DRC.

There is a very big and very interesting literature on historical state formation in these very big countries. Essentially, the very short version of that is that the ability to project power or to establish legitimacy over these large distances and very difficult topographies grew only slowly. And still in very big countries with weak governments like Pakistan or Nigeria or even a relatively good government for the region like Senegal, you still have areas in which the presence of the state is very, very light. It is not called on to do all that much, and nor would people welcome it trying to do all that much. This rather different experience I think was overlooked in the case of the Congo. We were looking at early successes as they were seen without really stepping back and thinking “how does this translate to a context that physically looks very, very different?”

You mention in your book that donors, the UN, and national authorities were heavily involved in planning and implementing stabilization programs. Why were civil society and the local population not consulted on major programs that were clearly aimed at impacting their lives?

This is a thorny question, and it was one of the key lines of criticism for stabilization efforts. A lot of NGOs decried the UN extending predatory governance, this was a phrase that kept recurring, or “building on sand,” building on a foundation that simply could not support what we were trying to do. There is a lot of validity to the criticism, to be completely honest. Early drafts of stabilization frameworks were drawn up with a fairly small circle of interlocutors in Kinshasa, and these where the people who were sitting in the big chair—this was head of government and key Cabinet officials. Now the reasons that was done—I think you have to look back to the way that international institutions are actually set up. This was not because the people on the ground were not aware that there were issues with the legitimacy and the competence to be perfectly frank, in some cases, of those officials. It was more that their standard operating procedures, the operating software of their institutions, really pointed them in that direction.

If you look at the UN side, the development agencies, and the humanitarian agencies as well, but certainly the development agencies’ standard job descriptions and the well-established processes for programming state unambiguously that the point of reference is national authorities. This is something that has been reinforced by the UN General Assembly time after time, it has been reinforced by the executive boards of these organizations time after time, so we are looking at a global practice that in the DRC’s specific circumstances led us into some problems, but to ask for a completely different approach without reaching back to where this operating model is coming from, is asking too much of the people in the country. It is quite a difficult adaptation to make.

Likewise, when you look at the diplomatic side, the financial and political partners that we were dealing with, they are accredited by a national government, and it has happened that the national government says, “you may not have a presence outside of the capital, this is not your job.” It is a very unusual thing for those institutions to push back, for them to go to their foreign office and say, “we want to establish a permanent presence in areas the government does not want us to be in.” This is a big ask for diplomats. This is not to excuse the fact, it did lead us down some very dangerous paths, but it does flow back to a failure to think about what a good, inclusive, and more open policy process would look like in Congo and then securing the agreement of the wider stakeholders, the headquarters level of all of these many agencies operating there to convince them that this was the right approach in the DRC’s case.

The release of your book coincides with the launch of the UN’s High-Level Panel Report on Peace Operations, which similarly tries to capture the key issues needed to reform UN peacekeeping operations. How can the necessary adaptations you suggest in your book be implemented in practice?

We hear messages like these recommendations of the High Level Panel once every 10 years. We hear a contradictory set of messages a hundred times a day while we are sitting at our desk in the Secretariat, or as a consultant in whatever field mission we happen to be in. There does need to be a modelling of what this behavior looks like from the top and it has to be linked with a serious working through of what the moving parts are. If we want to do local engagement, what does that actually mean for our core systems and processes, for our human resources profile, and for the people that pay the bills and provide the trips in the case of peacekeeping?

And there are a lot of implications there. This is not straightforward stuff. An obvious one is security protocols have to change. There has to be a change from a compliance-risk management perspective to more of a balancing of risk versus reward in terms of the access and the situational awareness you get from greater proximity to the local population. The unit of planning for things like the results-based budgeting system of the peacekeeping mission has to change, it is written for the national unit for analytical simplicity, but it would have to be restructured into something that was tailored to local approaches. None of this stuff is easy and in fact, in an intergovernmental organization all of this stuff is hard because it has to pass through a quite complicated committee system. Nonetheless, if we are serious about doing it, we have to translate that high-level statement of what is needed into a clear-sighted thinking-through of what the implications actually are in a very practical way. And that then needs to be linked to resources.

Thank you for joining us today.

Thank you. I appreciate it.