Better services in DRC: Changing the state, starts from within

Sometimes we forget that the state is not a thing, but a set of institutions made up of people. People can shape how the state functions and can trigger changes in the way it provides services and makes itself accountable to the population.

The DRC is one of the first countries to come to mind when we talk about fragile states. But we sometimes forget that the state is a set of institutions made up of people. How do these people – state officials and civil servants – think about the state? This is an important question because they are the people who shape how the state functions and can trigger changes in the way it provides services and makes itself accountable to the people.

In the course of research conducted for my PhD thesis on how the delivery of health services contributes to legitimacy of the state in the DRC, I talked to a lot of state officials about their perceptions of the state, especially in relation to the functioning of the health sector. It isn’t hard to get Congolese people to talk about politics and government. This isn’t just because we are a political people: in our collective consciousness, the state remains the meta-institution which could play a leading role in both lifting living conditions and building national values to shape national identity. But unsurprisingly, the day-to-day reality leads ordinary Congolese to the see the state as a corrupt, parasitical entity unable to command people’s loyalty. As a fellow passenger in a Bukuvu taxi remarked: ‘Why should we pay taxes to the so-called state when they are not used on public services?’

The consensus among Congolese state actors is similarly that the state is deeply dysfunctional. The problems of the Congolese health system in particular lie not in its design or its suitability for the local context – ‘It is among the best in Africa’, say some public health pundits – but rather in the negative impact of the political system on the sector.

One of the factors contributing to this seems to be tacit, informal practices which prevail in service delivery. One state actor said: ‘There are two ways of handling social issues. The first one is the formal, the legal way, which is tortuously long and sometimes ineffective. The second way, à la Congolese, takes shorter time through a short way’.

There is a tension between professionalism and procedural legitimacy on the one hand, and the tendency towards political interference on the other. State workers expressed their frustration about how clientelistic politics undermines professional ethics: ‘people get unethically recruited, promoted and demoted at the expenses of administrative principles’ complained one head of public department in Bukavu.

For some, the fragility of the state can also be observed in its interactions with development partners. ‘The weakness of the DRC state is perceived in the process of contracting with funding stakeholders engaged in the health sector’, said one state officer. Thus, although according to Paris principles on aid the partner agencies should align with national policy, this is not always apparent in the DRC. While they did not say it directly, my respondents implied that some development partners capitalise on the weakness of the state to advance their own agenda.

Does this mean there is little hope for change? Negative perceptions of the state have calcified in the minds of the long-suffering Congolese people to the extent that ‘whatever is good is attributed to NGOs/non-state actors and what goes wrong belongs (always) to state’ (according to the head of the health zone in Uvira). Acknowledging and addressing this deep mistrust is the first step to improving service delivery and furthering social welfare, ‘le social du Congolais’. There are at least some people working in government who understand this and who are brave enough to talk about it.