Q&A: A Short Dialogue on Extreme Poverty in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Between Diana Putman, USAID Mission Director, Christopher Darrouzet-Nardi, Mission Economist, and Victor Mangindula, Senior Program Specialist

How would you describe extreme poverty in the DRC?

Victor: The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is emerging from a long period of political turmoil and war. Despite recent progress toward the stabilization of the most conflict-affected eastern part of the country, insecurity still prevails in several locations. The consequent massive displacement of people, deterioration of basic infrastructure, destruction of productive assets and dramatic increase in urbanization have led to a prolonged economic downturn. Today no one can dispute the fact that large segments of the Congolese population live below the poverty line threshold of $1.25 per day.

Poverty-affected people can be grouped into several clusters based on the levels and characteristics of poverty. Those in the extreme poverty, or destitution, cluster are deprived of the most basic human needs, including food, safe water, health care, education, sanitation and shelter.

The face of extreme poverty is mostly visible in the numerous slums scattered across urban areas. In the capital city of Kinshasa, households without resources live in appalling conditions in cardboard huts along streams polluted with household or industrial wastes. Many of these families are single-parent households headed by women. These female heads have no access to economic opportunities and rely on meager resources drawn from activities that increase their exposure to health hazards and violence. They can neither afford to send their children to school nor provide them decent health care. Almost every day, they have to make the hard decision of choosing which one of their children will get one meal.

Chris: The average Congolese person is the face of the extreme poor in the DRC. With an estimated six out of seven people living on less than $1.25 per day, the outliers are people living above the extreme poverty threshold.

The DRC has the highest extreme poverty rate in the world. That high rate, coupled with the country’s large, growing population (about 70 million today but expected to reach 100 million by 2030), puts the DRC on track to have the second-highest total number of people living in extreme poverty within 15 years.

Digging deeper, we see some trends: People living in rural areas are undoubtedly poorer than their urban peers and score worse on multidimensional aspects of poverty, including health, education and access to infrastructure. Women tend to be poorer than men, a phenomenon seen most acutely in female-headed households. Youth are especially affected due to poor employment prospects, low educational achievement and a large age cohort. In addition, certain provinces are poorer than others—notably Equateur, Bandundu and the Kasais—but extremely poor Congolese live in all regions of the country.

Looking beyond income to indicators such as infant mortality, literacy and malnourishment, considerable variability exists among the DRC’s provinces. Generally speaking, Kinshasa tends to see less poverty than other provinces. Despite continued conflict in the East, the Kivus, southern Orientale and northern Katanga provinces do not fare worse categorically. In fact, they score much higher on some indicators, possibly because of extra support from donors.

Diana: I agree with how both of you characterize extreme poverty. Let me add a couple of additional comments. I have a painting in my office by a Congolese artist in shades of brown and orange that depicts people fleeing with only the things they can carry on their heads.

The latest numbers indicate that there are approximately 2.9 million internally displaced people in the Congo, many of them women and children. These are people driven from their homes—once, twice and some many times—by armed groups rampaging through the countryside, pillaging everything they find. These people have lost whatever meager assets they have been able to accumulate—perhaps a few cooking pots, farming implements, a pencil or notebook for children lucky enough to go to school or one spare change of clothes. How will they be able to get above the $1.25 threshold?

Or can the face of extreme poverty be found in the exhausted women street vendors in major cities who spend an hour or two walking to get to the city center, hawk vegetables or bread for only a few pennies profit and then return home to figure out which of their children will eat that night?

Yet I remain inspired by these Congolese people, who will be able to rise above this poverty when given the chance. You can see their dignity in the way they wear perhaps the only outfit they possess and their eagerness to take advantage of any and all opportunities they are given, whether it be literacy training, access to a savings and loan group or new seeds and tools.

What do you see as the biggest challenges to ending extreme poverty in the DRC? What have been the most promising efforts so far for reducing extreme poverty?

Chris: The biggest challenges to eradicating poverty in the DRC include poor governance, an almost complete lack of infrastructure, the country’s vast size and its low starting point, and the sheer depth of poverty. The most promising efforts to reduce poverty involve accelerating inclusive economic growth and scaling up effective programs to improve multidimensional poverty scores.

Poor governance is a deep-rooted problem in the DRC that dates back to colonial times. Government employees have a vested interest in maintaining a corrupt, malfunctioning administrative system, one in which personal enrichment is the valued norm and impunity prevails. When you add in an underpaid and under-skilled workforce, the Government of the DRC becomes overwhelmed by the needs of its citizens.

The absence of nearly any road network in the DRC—a country equal in size to Western Europe—contributes to the challenge of elevating people out of poverty. The remoteness of many regions poses an extreme limitation on access to services and markets, as well as on the amount of influence government can have in citizens’ lives. Millions of Congolese effectively live out of the reach of any type of government or donor intervention or modern economic activity.

The good news in the DRC is that the economy is growing at a steady clip, averaging 6.3 percent real growth per year for the last decade. Even given the high population growth, real GDP per capita is rising at least 3.3 percent on average each year. A key component of this success has been stable macroeconomic policy and several years of high prices for minerals—including copper, coltan and gold. Inflation is in the single digits and likely to remain that way.

When the notion of poverty is broadened to include social indicators, there is reason for further optimism. The 2014 Demographic and Health Survey shows improvements in nearly all important categories, including child and neonatal mortality, measures related to underweight children and the prevalence of malaria. Nonetheless, the absence of investments in agriculture and in infrastructure such as roads, railways, river transport and energy—the primary economic activities for the bulk of the population—makes it difficult to further accelerate and sustain inclusive growth.

Most important, the DRC is at an abysmally low starting point. With a growing population of 70 million people, a rapidly expanding urban population, poor infrastructure and a small amount of total economic activity, even substantial gains—such as a 7-percent growth rate—will compound very slowly in terms of eradicating extreme poverty. There are just so many people living so far below the poverty line.

Victor: Ending extreme poverty in the DRC will require the restoration of foundations for broad-based economic growth and an improved provision of basic social services in both urban and rural settings. A strong political commitment by the government and increased availability of financial resources are essential to attaining these objectives. More investments in the productive sectors, such as agriculture and small-scale industry, as well as support services (such as feeder roads and marketing channels) are needed to improve livelihoods at the grassroots level.

The Government of the DRC has formulated a strategic framework focused on poverty reduction and growth to guide its annual action plan and priority investments. The government is using domestic and external resources to finance substantial investments in basic infrastructure development. Over the last few years, the country has successfully stabilized the macroeconomic environment, which now reports low inflation rates, reduced public finance deficits and increased foreign exchange reserves. High growth rates have been induced by expanded foreign investment flows into the mining sector; however, concerns have been voiced that growth in this sector has no trickle-down effects at the grassroots level.

Diana: So true, gentlemen. The prerequisites for inclusive economic growth boil down to political will, vastly improved governance, infrastructure expansion and greater attention 21to agriculture—and not just mining—with a focus on conserving the Congo Basin’s natural resources. Importantly, the Congolese people are responsible for their own destiny, and their embrace of modern systems in areas such as justice and rule of law will be essential to building their economy. Additionally, increased attention must be paid to creating a literate, healthy workforce with fewer children per couple, so that families will be able to move out of poverty.

Let me also mention the new country development cooperation strategy of the USAID mission in the DRC. This strategy is focused on improving governance and strengthening the capacity of Congolese institutions—be they government, non-governmental, private sector, faith-based or community-based organizations.

With limited resources for funding agriculture or economic growth programs, we are severely constrained and must take a more indirect route in reducing extreme poverty. Our ample health and education funds give us the opportunity to put in place some of the precursor conditions that will enable the Congolese population to take advantage of economic opportunities as they arise.


The views expressed in this Q&A are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Agency for International Development or the United States Government.

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