The Congolese Jigsaw Puzzle: A brief look into the complexity of the Democratic Republic of Congo's success and failures in development

November 2009

The Congolese Jigsaw Puzzle: A brief look into the complexity of the Democratic Republic of Congo´s success and failures in development

For much of the developed world, the complexities and setbacks that DRC has faced is startling and incomprehensible. Individuals, NGO´s and government agencies have tried for decades, to offer assistance (monetarily, physically, and morally) to help build up a country plagued by what seems like more than just misfortune. Recently, I joined my husband in his research to examine the apparent lack of development in DRC, after being presented with the perspective that the current government in Congo is failing and has not done anything to further its development. This perspective was communicated to us mainly by Congolese citizens themselves. The question that resonates in the minds of most people is why—why has this country been struggling for so long and when—when are we going to see changes? The discovery that my husband and I made did not come through research alone--- it came one unsuspecting night while we were sitting at the dining room table attempting to complete a jigsaw puzzle.

We both love the challenge of a jigsaw puzzle—testing your mind and endurance as you try to sort through the sea of colors and shapes to find the piece you’re looking for. As we sat there working on it, we were discussing the comments presented to us about President Kabila´s party. People desire a change. They want to see infrastructure restored and built up. That desire in itself is not an extraordinary request—it is a right that I believe they are all entitled to. The problem with their expectations is that they have set up the current government and any government that may follow, to fail to meet their standards. People have the notion that the government can address issues with transportation, education, communication, health care (including access to clean water and sanitation), and agriculture systems simultaneously. In a country that is already developed, such as in the USA, focusing on minor imperfections in several systems at once is a reasonable expectation for us to place on a government. Even then, it is still a tremendous challenge for a government in one of those countries to invoke change in a short amount of time. Take for instance an example from the United States where our government and public, have been faced with issues both in health care and the reported “economic crisis.” The current government and public have been dedicating immense time to researching different options and discussing what needs to be changed for Health Care Reform to be successful. It has taken nearly a year already, partly due to the minor setbacks in our economy, and still no conclusion has been met. We cannot expect our country to just stumble upon an answer--- even for us it will take time and effort on all of parts for a successful alternative to be reached so that we can continue to move forward.

How then can the citizens of the DRC or intellectuals, presume that a country starting from ground zero in so many of the areas listed above, can simply rise up and advance so suddenly after years of stagnation, corruption, extortion, and disintegration in all areas of infrastructure? The country has suffered through a series of misfortunes starting with the exploitation by King Leopold (claiming DRC as his property), the colonial paternalistic approach of the Belgians, the dictatorship, ruthlessness, and kleptocracy of Mobutu´s regime, to the most recent perpetual wars experienced in Eastern Congo. It is not unreasonable for the population to desire a tangible change—they have earned that through all of their years of suffering. However, it is sadly unlikely that the expectation they have placed on the current government to produce a massive influx of development overnight will happen, after all of those misfortunes that have accumulated over decades in that country.

Coming back to the puzzle: it is not unreasonable for one to take the time to try and separate out the pieces that make up the boarder of the puzzle first before attempting to construct the design on the front of the box. Starting with the boarder helps orient and familiarize one with where the next row of pieces will go. Similarly, that is where the ideal government in Congo has to start. Once in office, they have to first open up the box, dump out the pieces, and try to sort through everything, years of turmoil and corruption (that they have inherited), to find the pieces that need to be put together again to create the framework of the picture they had in mind--- a country of success, opportunity, and prosperity. After the border is constructed (The planning stage of development), the next beneficial step is to sort out the different shades of colors and designs of the puzzle pieces. Before meeting David, I used to just construct the border and then randomly hunt and search for the next piece that would fit the expectations I had of what it should look like. Needless to say, it was not the most efficient use of my time. In the same way, the ideal government will need to pay close attention to each area of infrastructure—separating out all of the pieces that will need to be used for that area, while making sure to focus on intricate details. This is the “Preparatory Stage.” From a project standpoint, this is the stage when an individual, organization, or government would gather all of the appropriate materials and “qualified” individuals that will be needed to implement a plan. For ages, DRC has been caught in a vicious cycle where individuals have been chosen to lead in prominent positions not by their qualifications, but through clientelism, nepotism, tribalism and regionalism.

Once all of the appropriate people of each area are gathered (all of the colors and designs are separated into the appropriate piles), then the next stage of “Implementation” can begin. This is not an easy stage. It is very time-consuming. When putting together a jigsaw puzzle, one needs to persevere. At times, it can feel overwhelming--colors and shades fading together in the confusing mix of what appears to be random pieces that have no apparent place. But in reality, it is the perseverance through each individual´s effort, that will determine the outcome of the puzzle and how quickly it can be constructed. When implementing, one has to keep re-evaluating whether or not a piece fits correctly. If it doesn´t, then one needs to backup, deconstruct what didn´t work, and try something else which should be a perfect fit. If it´s just a temporary fix (the puzzle piece doesn´t quite fit), then it will not allow for further expansion and development. It will only impair the process instead of benefiting from the step one thought, was a shortcut or an easy fix. The other piece will still be needed, but it´s proper place will be in holding together a different area. When looking at an ideal government´s role in the development of DRC, one needs to take this step into account. A puzzle can come together in just days if you work steadily on it, but a country--- depending on its current state, can take days, weeks, months, years, and even decades to try to rebuild an area or several areas of infrastructure.

A benefit that we have when putting together a jigsaw puzzle is that the manufactures conveniently provide a picture of what it´s supposed to look like and we can get clues to where a perplexing piece might go just by looking at the box. For a country like DRC, one does not have that luxury of simply referring to a picture to see where a piece might go. There is no such picture established for them to look at, but, they can set reasonable goals that can be achieved progressively as the puzzle is being assembled.

Continuous re-evaluation—both by the government itself and the citizens of that country, needs to take place. Pieces of different puzzles are not interchangeable. What worked in one country will not necessarily work in another. “One size fits all” does not work when in relation to countries or even jigsaw puzzles. DRC´s development needs to be individualized and the main contributors of the development itself (in all stages) need to be Congolese. Every person in Congo will need to be involved in the process of reconstructing their country, both at the local level and at the national level—tapping in to each of their individual strengths and specialties. This will promote a sense of pride, responsibility, and accountability throughout the country.

When looking at the labored or slow pace of DRC´s development, criticism should not be directed solely at one individual or government party. It also needs to address the manufacturer(s) (acknowledged at the beginning of this article) of the current state-- taking into consideration all those whom contributed to making those puzzle pieces (the erosion of DRC´s infrastructure) so small. It did not just happen overnight and it is reasonable to recognize that it will take time to recover—just like the recovery of the economic system in the United states is taking time. It is correct to acknowledge that with any individual or government, there will be shortcomings. But as individuals, we need to strive to not only acknowledge those, but also recognize any positive outcomes that they may have contributed to. We need to spend our time trying to strengthen and focus more on institutional systems and building them up, rather than solely lamenting and focusing on the areas that a government or an individual, is having shortcomings. The history, atrocities, and breakdown that DRC has endured are undeniable, but it is time that we encourage each other and them—from individual to individual and country to country—to have patience as the Democratic Republic of Congo is slowly reconstructed from the inside out (mentality and all).


Mary Ellen Manda, RN BSN

David Suze Manda, International MA, PhD candidate

October 19, 2009