The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been widely described as a failed state, unable to meet its citizens’ basic needs. Nevertheless, many essential services – even in areas like Kivu province, which are affected by violence – continue to be provided at the local level. This forces us to think beyond the idea of a “failed state”.
In our new book, Negotiating Public Service in the Congo, we unpack the ways in which the functions of the state continue to be reproduced through a wide range of actors. These range from churches to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), donors and ordinary citizens. We looked at various sectors including electricity provision, garbage management, public transport and the justice sector.
In each of the service sectors we encountered deeply hybrid forms of governance where central state rule has become secondary to localised arrangements, allowing public services to work.
Things that work
One of the examples we found was around salary “top-ups”.
A lack of money means that official salaries are almost never paid in full, so they are almost always complemented with various salary “top-ups”. These take a variety of forms. They can be negotiated within the state administration and take the form of institutionalised and formalised top-ups. Or they can take place outside of the administration, be informal and sporadic.
Some of these top-ups are considered legitimate while others would be considered illegitimate by most. This is particularly true of those extracted from ordinary citizens.
These top-ups contribute to salaries but also to the broader public service infrastructure.
Another example is how parents pay a variety of school fees. These are used in part to pay for teachers’ salaries. The money is also used to pay for school buildings and other infrastructure. This is a longstanding practice.
The end result is that public services are provided by a wide range of actors, and through a wide range of practices. These happen both at the national level, within ministries, and at the very local level, between civil servants and citizens. It is these kinds of arrangements – in which resources are extracted and redistributed – that make sure public services are provided.
But there are consequences.
The bottom-up financing of the administration subverts the usual hierarchical command-and-control mode of operation.
As resources are extracted on a local level, civil servants are paid in a bottom-up manner, which erodes the authority of the administrative hierarchy. In turn, this undermines the influence of the expertise of people higher up in the system.
For example, school inspection services are deprived of their capacity to monitor and control the system because they are partly dependent for their salary top-up or transport on the ones they are supposed to sanction.
This has a profound impact on the performance of the public administration. For instance in primary education, these dynamics have brought more children to school, and have opened up more schools because every child brings additional revenue. But this has had a detrimental effect on the quality of education. At the end of primary school less than half of 6th year pupils can read a full sentence in French, the official language of instruction.
Public service challenges
The problem is that the DRC state faces huge challenges in delivering public services.
Financially, it hardly has any funds. It has a US$ 4 billion budget to finance a government for 90 million inhabitants in a territory the size of Western Europe.
The history of this goes back to the 1970s and is a result of falling copper prices, the end of the Cold War and therefore the end of international support. This, combined with the internal pressure for democratisation, led to economic, social and political turmoil. By the beginning of the 1990s, the Zairian state budget (Zaire was renamed the DRC in 1997) literally imploded as a result.
Civil servants had to fend for themselves and turn their position into a source of revenue. Thus, users of public services were asked to pay fees and compensate for the disappearing income paid on the basis of normal tax revenue.
A recent survey on informal taxes estimated that informal income generated 85% of total officially registered state income. This happens either in the form of broadly accepted fees for particular services, as outright extortion practices, or both.
Related to this a parallel circuit of would-be civil servants developed around the official state. Approximately one third of Congolese civil servants are not paid by the state. They perform exactly the same functions as a “normal” civil servant, the only difference being that they don’t receive a state salary.
Instead, they are paid partly with informal tax income generated from citizens, and hope to get around the official recruitment system and get their name on the public payroll – doing so would allow them to get an official salary, and no longer be dependent on the smaller salary from informal tax income.
In other words, the state and the public administration didn’t disappear. Instead, they were thoroughly reshaped, tailor-made to the interests of people at the local level: both lower-level civil servants, non-state service providers acting on behalf of the state or as replacement of the state, and the users of those services.
Change is possible
President Félix Tshisekedi recently became the country’s new head of state. This could be seen as an opportunity for change: former president Joseph Kabila’s regime was considered a prime example of “bad governance”.
In our view, change is indeed possible. But there are some important considerations.
The DRC state continues to exist from the bottom upwards, through local-level arrangements rather than engineered from above. This means political reform cannot simply be imposed. It needs to be negotiated with the lower-level actors (both service providers and users) who appropriated the system and turned it around in function of their own agendas.
This will take time. State-building is, inevitably, a long-term process and simply circumventing the state doesn’t serve the process well. Quite the contrary: it only reproduces the existing situation by feeding local-level structures without making these accountable to the higher-level state administration.
It’s important to remember that the new regime’s political fate is also partly sustained by grand-level corruption made in transnational circuits around natural resources, usually with the complicity of US, Canadian or European firms. For example, the illicit financial flows leaving the DRC are estimated to be as big as the flow of official development assistance entering the country.
At this level, too, the international community has a role to play in determining the context within which a more accountable government may take root; a government whose fate is more directly linked to the performance of the public services it provides than to the capital assets it is able to mobilise in times of duress.