Democratic Republic of Congo

An image of the country's flag.

Poor resource governance has been both the cause and result of conflict, instability, and poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for more than a century. Improving the governance of the country’s significant natural resource base is critical to achieving greater prosperity, sustaining it, and ensuring that it benefits the nearly 65 million people living there. But better resource governance is an enormous challenge, demanding: vision and leadership from government leaders at all levels, even as conflicts continue in the country’s eastern regions and corrupt practices persist; major investments in physical and institutional infrastructure, supported by appropriate laws and regulations; and the application of substantial technical expertise in mining, forestry, agriculture, and the maintenance of ecosystem services in the world’s second-largest tropical forest.

[An initial possible area of focus for better governance is the mining sector], where the DRC has huge potential for export expansion and wealth generation that could benefit the nation as a whole in the relatively short term. To date, however, the sector has been marked by corruption, political interference in parastatal mining companies, lack of institutional capacity, and policies that have constrained investment not only in mining but in value-addition in DRC. Small-scale and artisanal miners produce most of the country’s gold, tin, and tungsten and were responsible for 70% of the country’s diamond production in 2009. [Artisanal miners] work under difficult conditions with little capital and are subject to periodic violence and conflict as militias seek to tap the sector for funding.

With growing recognition of the role that the Congo Basin will play in global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) and REDD+ (enhancing existing forests and increasing forest cover through conservation and sustainable management of forests), it is likely that greater attention to environmental governance will also come quickly to the fore. Many donors are already supporting the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP), providing a solid starting point for further efforts to enable forest-dependent populations (perhaps as many as 40 % of rural Congolese) to better manage the resource, but more needs to be done by the DRC government to sort out its timber concession agreements and monitor the exploitation of this globally critical resource.

Greater production in agriculture, currently the leading sector of the economy in terms of contributions to GDP, also depends upon improvements in resource governance and property rights. Waves of population displacements due to conflict and violence have affected the highly productive zones in eastern Congo, and many people have moved into more fragile ecosystems. The years of conflict have also degraded the national road infrastructure and reduced access to markets, driving farm families back to a subsistence standard of living. Nearly a quarter of the population lives in urban and peri-urban areas, where ongoing projects are creating and rehabilitating the infrastructure needed to supply safe water, sanitation, and electricity. The population supports a thriving, intensive agricultural sector, but reliance on untreated urban wastewater for irrigation threatens food safety. More significantly, 80% of disease in the DRC and one-third of all fatalities are related to contaminated water.

Donors have increased their support for development in the DRC in recent years, and the upward trend is likely to continue, driven by the poverty and human needs of the country, the huge business opportunities, and the high international priority attached to conservation of the Congo Basin ecosystem. Continued poor governance of the country’s natural resource base, however, will limit the impact of this support and may perpetuate the cycles of exploitation, violence, and conflict that have thus far prevented the population from sharing in the nation’s wealth and promise. Donors, including USAID, will need to work together to reverse the patterns of the past.


  • Support the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo to initiate development of a comprehensive legal framework for agricultural land rights. The DRC is a candidate for a new or substantially revised legal framework for land, especially land used for agriculture. The current system provides little security to landholders and does not foster productive and sustainable use of the land. As road infrastructure is built for purposes of mineral and timber exploitation in the coming decade, new lands may be opened (or re-opened) for commercial agriculture, and tenure issues may become acute. Addressing land tenure issues may also prove essential for stabilizing populations suffering from violence and displacement; customary law is fragmented and very localized and appears to be inadequate to deal with the current complex situation. Donors supporting agricultural development, including USAID, could undertake focused assessments in priority regions and use expertise gained from working in other post-conflict African countries to identify areas where, in the short term, donors might help the government implement appropriate existing law. A longer term effort could assist the government to design a legal framework that provides for secure access to productive land (with special attention to access for women and marginalized populations), and establishes an effective framework for land administration. Expertise developing effective legal frameworks in pluralistic legal environments with strong customary interests will be especially useful.
  • Support development of an implementation strategy to expand effective community participation in the governance of forest areas. Numerous parties have been engaged in helping the DRC with forest resource issues over the last several years. Working groups have identified the need for implementation of national policies that advance the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities, help secure their rights to the land and resources, develop mechanisms for participatory community involvement, map community forest resources, and develop forest management plans. USAID is working with the government to design and implement pilot projects that focus on the development of effective community involvement in forest governance. Based on the emerging experience in the DRC and other Basin countries, USAID and other donors can help develop model techniques and tools for community resource mapping, community-based forest management plans, and recognition of the rights of women and minority populations to use of forest resources. The pilot program experience and developed models and tools will be valuable to forest policy and implementation efforts at both national and Basin level.
  • Assess and develop land and forest dispute resolution systems. Both the formal and customary systems of land- dispute resolution in the DRC are facing significant challenges to their effectiveness, especially in protecting the rights of populations who now live in forest and agricultural areas subject to REDD/REDD+ considerations and of those populations that have been displaced through conflict and continuing violence. Donors could conduct an assessment of the existing formal and customary institutional structures and assist the government in evaluating options for structuring a more effective and accessible dispute resolution system for land issues that harnesses the capacity and social legitimacy of customary structures, to the extent appropriate, but recognizes the new demands for these resources that will have to be taken into account. USAID’s diversity of projects throughout the country provides access to local information that could assist in designing and implementing pilot projects to test land- dispute resolution systems and, ultimately, help inform the development of countrywide systems.
  • Support effective regulation and monitoring of mining operations to safeguard both human and environmental health. Expansion of industrial mining operations over the next ten years is widely seen as desirable for providing an important boost to the DRC economy. Artisanal mining is also likely to continue, and perhaps expand, as recovery from the global recession that dampened demand in 2009 takes hold. Many recommendations have already been made with regard to improving the governance and supervision of both industrial and artisanal operations to reduce corruption and violence, increase transparency, and ensure that benefits are widely shared among the population. However, expansion of mining will have significant impacts outside of the mining areas as well: pollution of water resources used for processing ore, construction of new roads to facilitate evacuation of ore, and movements of populations to provide labor for the operations (implying also expanding land-use for food production in adjacent areas). Experience to date indicates that these factors are likely to have serious effects on both human and environmental health. Donors should assist the DRC to ensure that governance, supervision, regulation and monitoring of mining operations are sufficiently broadened to include attention to these areas. Donors may be able to support government efforts by helping other civil society organizations develop or strengthen their capacity help to ensure that government oversight is effective.


The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), also known as Congo (Kinshasa), is still emerging from a decade of violent conflict. From the time that foreign-based rebel forces ended President Mobutu’s 32-year rule in 1997 to Joseph Kabila’s election as President and establishment of the National Assembly in 2006, the war in the DRC involved no fewer than nine foreign powers and caused the deaths of 3.5 million people (many due to malnutrition and illness) and displacement of another 2.4 million.
Much of the country’s transport infrastructure was destroyed or lost to disrepair. A culture of violence and conflict, corruption, and mismanagement permeated government. The new government is in the process of establishing itself, rebuilding administrative systems, regaining control of areas governed by warlords and militia groups, and is committed to setting standards of good governance.

The DRC is distinguished by the diversity and scale of its natural resources, including 2.2 million square kilometers of land, an area roughly equivalent to the territory of western Europe. More than half of the country’s land is forest, constituting the second-largest contiguous area of tropical forest in the world and the habitat for animals and plants found nowhere else. If harnessed for hydroelectricity, the DRC’s water resources could supply the energy needs of southern Africa. The country also has abundant mineral deposits, including cobalt, copper, diamonds, and gold.

In spite of these rich natural resources, the people of the DRC have realized few of the benefits. Corrupt leaders have siphoned off the wealth for personal gain. Rebelling militias have claimed resources to buy arms and fuel the conflicts for control of territory. The years of war degraded and destroyed market infrastructure, and agriculture was reduced to subsistence farming. Agriculture still contributes more than 40% of the nation’s GDP, but 73% of the population is malnourished. An estimated 80% percent of the population of 64 million people currently lives on less than US $1 per day.

Under the formal law, the state owns all the DRC’s natural resources (land, water, forests, and minerals); people can obtain various types of use and exploitation rights under an evolving set of laws and regulations. In practice, customary law endures, and natural resource rights are subject to parallel, incomplete, and often contradictory systems of formal and customary law. Land rights are often ambiguous, usually undocumented, and tenuous. Agricultural land is subject to seizure and land-grabbing. Formal and customary institutions are often ill-equipped to resolve land disputes. A large share of the rural population relies on the forests for their livelihoods, but the encroachment of displaced populations into protected areas, harvesting of bushmeat and firewood, and widespread illegal logging have contributed to the degradation of the forest resources on which they depend.

Corruption, an inadequate legal framework, and lack of institutional capacity have prevented the DRC’s population from benefiting from the country’s substantial mineral wealth. An effort to bring mining concessions made during the years of war into legal compliance has had little, if any, impact. Some observers nonetheless predict that renewed investment in the mining sector is likely to be the DRC’s best opportunity for increasing revenues within the next decade. The global recession of 2008-2009 caused a slowdown in many investments, but global demand for the copper, cobalt, and other minerals held in the country’s territory is expected to return and drive the sector forward again. The challenge for the government will be to provide better governance and oversight for these important national resources and ensure that the benefits are transparent and widely shared.

Published / Updated: October 2010