Fragile Progress in the Congo

02/04/2014 06:14 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2014

Central Africa is on fire. In recent weeks, ethnic and political conflicts in South Sudan and the Central African Republic have left as many as 2,000 dead and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Bordering both of these countries to the south is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a nation desperately holding on to its own tenuous peace, and a potential tinderbox for the flames to its north. Last month before the holidays, I visited the DRC's vulnerable eastern provinces alongside representatives from the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI). I returned home cautiously optimistic, and certain that to ensure long-term stability in the region, the U.S. must continue to show leadership in the DRC.

The Congo is the site of the deadliest conflict since World War II, resulting in more than 5 million deaths since war first broke out in 1996. Since then it has remained an active conflict zone, with dozens of militias patrolling its eastern provinces and clashing with both government soldiers and the UN's single largest peacekeeping force, MONUSCO. But a recent surge in UN forces coupled with increased diplomatic engagement, led by U.S. Special Envoy Russ Feingold and UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson, has yielded tangible signs of progress.

Last November, after an 18-month rebellion that displaced hundreds of thousands of Congolese people from their homes, the M23 militia was defeated by a special UN intervention brigade operating in concert with Congolese forces. This aggressive joint operation is now targeting longstanding militias like the FDLR, founded by the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the al-Shabab-linked ADF-NALU. This progress represents a crucial psychological victory for the Congolese security sector, demonstrating for the first time in years that the DRC can have a security apparatus capable of winning and maintaining peace.

But the Congo's greatest recent success stories have not come from its military or its institutions. They've come from its people.

While traveling in the region last month I met true heroes -- doctors, teachers, farmers -- who, in the wake of decades of conflict, are working to rebuild their communities and create opportunities for their families. It's their tireless efforts that give me hope for the Congo's future, and it's their promise in which the United States must invest.

I choose the word "invest" deliberately, because while the DRC presents many challenges, I believe those challenges are far exceeded by its opportunities. Despite being one of the poorest countries on Earth, the Congo is also the most resource-rich. Even beyond so-called "conflict minerals," the DRC holds tremendous promise in sectors like agriculture. This is a country with enough arable land to feed one third of the world's population, yet without proper investment in farming, it can't feed its own people. Years of instability have devastated the farming sector and prevented the development of crucial infrastructure needed to help it function. Now, as areas in the eastern Congo begin to stabilize, we're seeing the seeds of progress begin to take root and evidence of economic activity.

During my time with the Eastern Congo Initiative, we toured a specialty coffee plantation in South Kivu province, growing high-quality Arabica beans at the same latitude and in the same conditions as famed Rwandan coffees. ECI and its partner organizations in the region are working with smallholder farmers like these, in both the coffee and cocoa sectors, to improve the quantity and quality of their crops and provide access to international markets. Already these projects are attracting the investments of socially conscious U.S. brands like Seattle's Theo Chocolate, which now gets more than half of its cocoa from Congolese farmers.

I came home inspired by these hard-fought projects, and by the impact they're having on the lives of the Congolese people. I also know that the efforts of individuals and organizations on the ground ultimately depend on the long-term stability of the security sector, and on the long-term commitment of the United States. I can say with certainty that it is in the interests of all Americans to continue supporting this cause.

It is in our financial interest to create and grow opportunities for investment. With the U.S. private sector leading the way, USAID should do its part to support and encourage sustainable economic investment, particularly in the east, where small investments create big opportunities for communities to disrupt the familiar cycle of poverty, instability and violence.

It is in our strategic interest to maintain stability and eliminate safe havens for radical groups in the region. As the international community, the UN and the Congo's own military forces continue to work together to extend the successes they have achieved in the last year, the U.S. must remain actively engaged and supportive, to ensure that the hard-won -- but fragile -- stability that is emerging in the DRC is not lost.

And above all, it's in our moral interest to stand on the side of the Congolese heroes, and to do what we can to support them on the long march back from war. There are too many fires in Central Africa to let this one smolder any longer.