When I first arrived in Shamwana, with its dirt street and thatch roofs, I honestly thought that if there was a place in the world that wouldn’t feel the effects of the global economic crisis, this was it. How wrong I was…
Due to its immense mineral wealth, the Katanga province where I’m working is the richest of the DRC… a somewhat relative statement, of course. Copper, zinc, diamonds, manganese, gold and silver have historically been exploited by various foreign interests and have been the basis behind more than one war. Coltan, an essential component found in computers and cell phones, has become a new source of profit (and conflict!) as it is estimated that 75% of the world’s reserves of this increasingly valuable mineral are found in Katanga.
As nations worldwide slide into this global economic crisis and prepare massive economic bailout packages to save their economies, stories of friends losing jobs and retirement savings being decimated surface in emails from home and make it all seem so much more real.
The impacts out here in the bush are no less drastic. The global commodity markets have also dropped and practically all of the mining companies in the area have reduced their operations to a bare minimum. We hear stories of an estimated 200,000 workers being fired in this province alone since September. That’s huge. It is also directly linked to security and there were reports of an increase in random violence and robberies in Lubumbashi over the holidays.
Closer to home
When I arrived in December, the 737 from Nairobi to Lubumbashi was practically empty. This was shocking to my colleagues as in the past it has been filled with Chinese businessmen coming to Katanga to check on their mining operations and it was difficult to find a seat at all.
Funding for internal development and humanitarian relief is also expected to drop drastically with this downturn in the economy. This is a huge concern for MSF as we rely largely on private funds and I wonder to what extent this will affect our programs here and across the globe.
Many NGOs are facing similar problems and when asked to cut programs in the DRC, they opt to focus their energies – and funds – in the Kivus where you get ‘more bang for your buck’. While I absolutely agree that the needs in the Eastern DRC far surpass what I see here, it is hard to imagine that the Katanga programs of 2008 are simply no longer needed in 2009. The sad reality is that this isn’t just the bottom line we’re talking about… this is the lives and livelihoods of the people I see everyday.
Clément is the new driver I hired this week. Of the 34 applications I received for my one vacant Driver position, he was one of the 6 who got the chance for an interview and to do a practical test. He started driving 4 years ago with a local NGO, spent a few months working with Caritas and his last 2 years with Anvil Mining. Each change was not but choice but necessity. First, both NGOs closed their projects, putting him out of work each time. Finally, as Anvil mining suspends operations until commodity prices recover, he once again found himself out of work.
This round of interviews was really successful as all of the 6 applicants could actually drive and I had the luxury of including things like attitude and knowledge of land cruisers in my selection process. Just four months ago, we hired 2 drivers and the story was completely different. It was a struggle to find someone who had actually driven before and some of the applicants were so bad that they were forced to stop their practical tests before they even left the compound!
The project teams can now breath a bit easier as they travel from site to site...and unexpected silver lining from this unexpected economic crisis.