Vertical Connections: The Key to Ensure Sustainable Development

by Katharina R. Vogeli

(based on presentation given at September 2018 conference on “Sharing Past and Future: Strengthening African-European Connections” at AfricaMuseum Tervuren, Brussels)


Repression of peaceful protests by LUCHA activists

Vertical Connections:
The Key to Ensure Sustainable Development

by Katharina R. Vogeli

(based on presentation given at September 2018 conference on “Sharing Past and Future: Strengthening African-European Connections” at AfricaMuseum Tervuren, Brussels)



The 2030 Agenda, a collection of seventeen goals set be the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, is meant to ensure sustainable development by 2030. One hundred and sixty nine specific targets, if met, are to render possible the achievement of these goals, which cover both social and development issues, from poverty to global warming to social justice, and many more. These are important goals and it is vital that the international community join up to work toward their achievement.

However, are the objectives of the 2030 Agenda realistically achievable in countries going through simultaneous severe political and economic crises? Is a structural and state-centered engagement enough for countries marked by violence and conflict? Where the population is profoundly traumatized by decades of war and poverty? Is not sustainable peace a sine qua non condition for sustainable development?

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) provides a useful example to reflect on the challenges that need to be met to achieve sustainable development. Understanding the complex history of interwoven crises in the Congo help us also to gain a better understanding of the interconnectivity between peace and development.

This author holds that global cooperation needs to go beyond a state-centered and structural approaches. Without addressing questions of individual and collective dignity, trust, and community resilience, progress in peace and development cannot be sustained in the long term. The individual needs to be included in a strategy aiming to achieve sustainable peace and development at every level of society, thus ensuring coherence through vertical connections, bottom-up and top-down, using both structural and social psychological approaches.

The Democratic Republic of Congo: High growth but a poor and disenfranchised population

While the world was discussing how to bring development to underdeveloped countries, in 2015, the year the Sustainable Development Goals were passed, the Democratic Republic of Congo saw GDP growth go up to 9.5 %. With growth rates at this level, Congolese officials now referred to the DRC as an emerging country. And yet, above average GDP growth had no effect on the quality of life of the average Congolese. No trickle-down effect was noticeable.

A Private Sector Investment Conference for the Great Lakes region took place in February 2016, as part of the United Nations’ efforts to contribute to the implementation of the 2013 Addis Ababa Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework Agreement on the DRC and the Great Lakes. Economic cooperation, more trade opportunities and job creation through private investment were to bring stability and peace to the region. Yet, no measurable increase in investment or economic cooperation was noticeable and jobs creation did not materialize. One of the reasons for this is that the present investment climate in the DRC does not invite foreign direct investment.

According to the World Bank definition, the investment climate reflects “a menu of policy, regulatory and institutional factors that provide incentives sufficiently robust to induce the private sector to invest in socially desirable projects” (1). None of these factors are given in the DRC today: governance is weak and corruption endemic (2). Both road and energy infrastructures are practically nonexistent outside of the big cities and in poor state within. Where regulation exists it is not enforced, or in ways that are opaque and unpredictable. The east of the country is rife with violence, its natural resources contributing to fuel conflict. All these elements render private investments and economic initiatives hazardous adventures.

In a country with severe structural weaknesses, weak governance and a disenfranchised population, if sustainable results are to be achieved it is necessary to address each of these challenges at the appropriate level and manner. A country’s economy cannot be developed without an empowered population. Besides education and basic services, this means also an open political and democratic space, a healthy social fabric, and, most importantly, good governance and the rule of law. Sustainable peace, built on mutual trust and good faith are essential to provide the basis on which the population can confidently work together for their own advancement and for the common good. Foreign interventions, be it through development cooperation or foreign direct investment, will flourish on such a basis only.

Dignity and the quest for peace and development

During the September 2018 conference on “Sharing Past and Future: Strengthening African-European Connections”, Tervuren’s Dr. Jean Omasombo, talking about resistance movements in the 1960s, mentioned the profound economic and political crisis in the Congo during that period, and how these multiple and convergent crises presented a fertile ground for (armed) resistance. Present-day Congo is again experiencing profound and parallel economic and political crises. Yet today, as at independence, the crisis goes deeper: a key element contributing to the disenfranchisement of the population leading to resistance is the continuous and repeated violation of the community’s and the individual’s dignity. The challenge to build sustainable peace and development is thus even more important.

Colonialism and the misguided mentality of our forefathers about cultural dominance, which played out in everyday relationships between colonists and colonized, violated daily the inherent dignity of every human being, of every individual and the people.

The powerful class in the DRC treats their compatriots today with similar contempt as the colonizers did. Congolese from all walks of life, educated, not educated, young, old, rural, urban, in all parts of the country, regularly express their sense of humiliation. They feel humiliated by government and the political class, by all those who would have it in their power to impact the lives of the population positively but show no concern for them. They feel humiliated by the security forces who, according to reports by the United Nations and Human Rights organizations, are today’s worst perpetrators of human rights violations against their own but failed to protect the country against foreign interventions over the past two decades. They feel humiliated by the exploitation of their natural resources by foreign companies while the population of this resource rich country remains in abject poverty. They feel humiliated by the complete lack of perspectives for the young generation.

The dependency on humanitarian aid of millions of Congolese adds to a widespread sentiment of powerlessness – of having no choice other than to accept charity to survive. To feel at the mercy of the powerful, and not have a sense of agency in their own lives leads again to a sentiment of violation of their inherent dignity.

The crises in the Congo of 2018 can be compared to those of the 1960s. The actors are different, but the results are the same, engendering resistance and conflict instead of empowerment and development. The elements that lead to resistance and conflict must therefore be addressed to provide the conditions on which the 2030 Agenda can be implemented.

Changing the perspective: empowering the individual

The new leaders

As at the end of the colonial period, there are those who stand up today and who don’t accept the continuous violation of their dignity and who insist that the social contract between governed and governing is respected or reviewed.

First among them are the young, courageous members of citizens movements such as LUCHA, Filimbi, and numerous others. These young activists have reclaimed their dignity by confronting those who govern, by peacefully protesting for their rights, and by expressing their opposition against corruption and repression, even if this often comes at great personal cost.

Women leaders are also increasingly joining forces to fight for the respect of their rights as embedded in the constitution and in the laws of the land. They are building bridges between opposing political families, between generations and over the rural and urban divide. Their battle is based on ideals of equality, justice and the individual’s dignity.

The international community can contribute to a confident, ethical and accountable future leadership in the Congo and elsewhere if it is prepared to give this new generation of courageous and peaceful leaders a voice. Their initiatives should be recognized as important factors for the fulfillment of the objectives of the 2030 Agenda.


The role of communities

In the face of simultaneous political, economic, security and dignity crises, it is legitimate to question whether the individual and communities have the capacity to become agents of sustainable change, whether they can influence the situation from the bottom up.

Experience shows that it is indeed possible. Local leaders can prepare their communities for joint action. Local communities can change their circumstances – at least to some extent – instead of waiting until top-down initiatives might have a measurable impact. Tangible results from the SDGs will take a long time to be felt by the general population. Meanwhile, communities can be empowered, they can develop resilience in the face of poverty and conflict and become agents of their own destiny.

The story of “Tujenge Amani!” (3) (Let’s build peace!) shows how this can be done (4). This is also Maman Yvonne Ciza’s story. A retired teacher and civil society leader from Bunyakiri, she summed up her community’s experience over the past four or five years:

First, we thought the Muzungu (5) was going to bring us peace.
Then, we thought the President of the Republic was going to bring us peace.
But finally, we understood: it is us, ourselves, who build our own peace!

The communities in this remote area of South Kivu Province in Eastern Congo had suffered for decades under the continuous occupation and threat of succeeding militias, both international and local, since the early 90s, while the State was almost entirely absent. In recent years, they were victimized by the Raia Mutomboki, a local militia franchise which was initially established as a self-defense against foreign groups. After they succeeded in clearing their region from foreign armed groups, they turned against their own communities. Decades of war and violence had destroyed the social fabric of theircommunities. Their daily life was marked by distrust, and government representatives were perceived as their enemies. Yvonne Ciza and her community experienced their very own twenty-five-year security, economic, political and dignity crisis. A profound sense of helplessness and mistrust prevailed: abject poverty, a lack of security, and no perspectives for an improvement of their situation were perceived as unsurmountable obstacles.

Tujenge Amani!: how to turn victims into agents of change

  As a response to this latent crisis, Tujenge Amani! was launched in late 2013, based on a set of assumptions:

    • There can be no development and prosperity without sustainable peace. For peace to be sustainable, it must be more than a mere absence of violence. Rather, it must be actively constructed by those concerned, leading to a regrowth of a healthy social fabric and a resilient community.
    • Conflicts in Eastern DRC are intractable: decades-long tensions and crises are multiple, parallel, cross-cutting, they can be identity-based, economic, political, or all the above. No durable solutions to the multiple crises are to be expected in the short term.
    • Even if there are perfectly rational and objective issues at stake – such as lack of access to land and other resources – subjective sentiments related to identity, self-perception, and most importantly to a perceived violation of their dignity, demand a sensitive, patient, dialogue-based approach to conflict transformation.
    • Society and the individual have the power to change the status quo, to develop personal agency.
    • Peace can be sustained once the community has rebuilt basic mutual trust, strengthened its resilience and is thus capable of resisting manipulations that aim to disturb the trust and to rekindle violence.

This community-focused approach and the resulting dynamic since 2013 have led to the voluntary self-demobilization of over 1500 Raia Mutomboki combatants, with considerably improved general security as a result. In March 2018, after years of intra-community dialogue, representatives of the demobilized former combatants publicly asked for their victims’ forgiveness – which was in return offered, unconditionally, by representatives of their victims. The Mwami (6), on behalf of the victimized community, welcomed them back into the community in a formal ceremony with the Vice-Governor and hundreds of community members present.

Since 2013, a new sense of self-responsibility has developed amongst the population of Bunyakiri, resulting in jointly developed and executed development projects, security committees, and activities toward the reintegration of demobilized former armed combatants (7).

How could this community-based, and locally owned, process succeed where many others had previously failed? What steps followed the first dialogue between a group of suspicious Raia Mutomboki and skeptical and frightened community and local government leaders? How could a community living in perpetual fear evolve to a point where they felt strong enough to offer an unconditional pardon to those whose victims they had been for so many years?

Involving, from the start, all segments of society: state representatives, traditional authorities, women, youth, civil society, is key if the objective is to strengthen the community and rebuild its social fabric. The leaders of Bunyakiri practiced their new-found cohesion daily while they received training and were being accompanied by representatives of APC’s local representatives. Leaders who had started out from far opposites came to share the analysis of their past, their present, and how they would like to see their future. Because of this community’s evolution, the population no longer sees itself primarily as victims, but rather as responsible actors, able to shape their own future.

The necessity of vertical connections to achieve sustainable peace and development

Tujenge Amani! shows that it is possible to build peace and launch basic socio-economic development starting from the grassroots level, even when support from central government is lacking.


However, global initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals are needed to goad governments – both receiving and donor governments – in the same direction and develop coherent approaches and programs. To be effective, multilateral and bilateral actors need this consensus on the principles and values that underly their actions.


No efforts should be spared to foster the rule of law, to strengthen democratic institutions and to aid underdeveloped or emerging countries to diversify and develop their economies. Structural change is necessary for political and economic development that will lift a country out of sustained crises. And yet, sustainable change is only realistic if a simultaneous bottom-up effort is ongoing.


When political, economic, security and dignity-related crises are simultaneous, as is the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for structural changes to take hold, and their impact felt by the people, considerable time and political will and commitment is necessary. Until then, efforts to empower local communities and their leaders should be decisively supported by the international community.


To achieve the objectives of the 2030 Agenda, cooperation needs to be rethought. Impact-oriented cooperation needs to focus on connecting community-based activities with structural political and development initiatives at the center. For political and economic development, and for peace to be sustainable, top-down initiatives need to be harmonized with those working from the bottom-up.

[2] According to the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2017, the DRC ranks 161 out of 180
[3] Tujenge Amani! was jointly developed by the Congolese NGO Action pour la Paix et la Concorde, based in Bukavu, and the Embassy of Switzerland in the DRC. Testimonies from affected communities, collected for a short documentary film and used as part of an impact evaluation (2017) have shown signs of sustainable change and provided measurable results.
[4] Short documentary can be viewed on:
[5] Swahili: «the white man”
[6] Traditional king
[7 ]Association of demobilized former combatants, local authorities, traditional chiefs, civil society. These projects were partially financed by the United Nations’ Community Violence Reduction (CVR) programs, partially through small funds available from the Congolese NGO Action pour la Paix et la Concorde APC (financed by the Government of Switzerland)

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