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Child Survival in the Democratic Republic of Congo

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A month ago I had the privilege to share the podium at a landmark conference in Washington, DC with a group of distinguished professionals committed to improving child survival around the world. This group included U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, USAID Administrator Dr. Raj Shah, health ministers and practitioners from far-flung corners of the world, from Ethiopia to India to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Overall, mortality rates in most countries are dropping twice as fast now as anytime during the past two decades. This past May, World Bank economists reported that child mortality rates for children under 5 are swiftly declining across the continent of Africa. To echo Michael Clemens from the Center for Global Development, this is indeed one of the "the biggest, best stories in development." Senegal, Rwanda, and Kenya have experienced drops in child mortality of more than 8% a year. If sustained, this rate will cut child mortality in each country in half in roughly 10 years.

However, while applauding this remarkable benchmark, we must not forget that this victory is just one rung on a tall ladder -- and in some cases, our foot is still on the bottom rung. In Congo, the numbers are still grim. With just 1% of the global population, Congo is responsible for over 6% of global under-five mortality. According to USAID, 148 out of 1000 DRC children will not reach five years. This is the 5th highest under-five mortality rate in the world. Thus, Congo faces daunting challenges and has to negotiate colossal hurdles to save these children and provide them a hopeful future.

These children's lives are further endangered today as Congo's North Kivu province is yet again grappling with a rebellion that has displaced an estimated 200,000 Congolese internally and outside the country. In this conflict, which has indirectly killed millions of people since 1998, women and children bear the brunt of the atrocities and human rights violations. Boys and girls are abducted to serve either as fighters or sex slaves. Families that survive the fighting often face hunger, malnutrition and diseases, which reduce children's survival prospects and deny them the potential of a promising life.

On previous trips to Congo, I have met women who are impregnated by militiamen and forced to have their children outside the safety of hospitals. I have visited with children who are unable to receive much needed medicine and care because they are surrounded by dangerous roads and militia strongholds. In some areas, families cannot get the nutrition they need because they cannot reach their farmlands that are occupied by militiamen.

Congolese children are resourceful and accomplish much with the limited resources available to them. With better resources, each and every child could shoot for the stars. But without peace and security, Congo will not be able to reduce infantile mortality rate and provide these children -- the country's future -- an opportunity to grow up and become productive members of society. Neither would Congo join the rest of the community of nations and partake in the dividends of this achievement in child survival.

The Congo conflict, however, is the world's problem. We cannot afford to ignore this outburst of violence as a local problem. Congolese children are citizens of the world. Evidence suggests that when we work together our diverse nations and communities can indeed bring an end to our most persistent global crises.

Donor nations should exert pressure on all pertinent actors to stop the fighting and resolve the situation as soon as possible. Congo's international partners have an opportunity to press the Kinshasa government to undertake a comprehensive security sector reform with their technical and financial assistance. Time and again, the Congolese people have displayed a strong spirit of resilience and a determination to forge a path toward peace and progress. The world should stand with them.