New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is writing again about the Democratic Republic of Congo, based on his brief trip there.

In his column titled “Orphaned, Raped and Ignored,” he wrote, “Sometimes I wish eastern Congo could suffer an earthquake or a tsunami, so that it might finally get the attention it needs. The barbaric civil war being waged here is the most lethal conflict since World War II and has claimed at least 30 times as many lives as the Haiti earthquake.”

He said, “Yet no humanitarian crisis generates so little attention per million corpses, or such a pathetic international response.”

The story continues as a discussion of a 9-year-old rape victim’s experiences. It’s a horrific story about a little girl whose name means “luck.” I pray she will find some. No one should have to endure what she has survived.

But Kristof is wrong in a key assertion that he’s made in column after column. The claim that the DRC is an ignored or underreported crisis is belied by the evidence. And the idea that the international response has been pathetic isn’t supported by the numbers.

The Congo story is extremely well-covered. A quick, nonscientific Google News search yielded 1,857 stories that at least mention “Democratic Republic of Congo.” These stories come from news sources as varied as and the Washington Post. When I narrow the search to include “conflict,” there are 444 hits from the last two weeks alone. When I narrow it further to search for both terms from January 2002 to December 2010, there are 17,800 stories. Even Oprah covers the DRC, with specific attention to the rape crisis.

This, friends, is not evidence of an underreported story, and I’m certain that a more scientific data analysis would yield similar results.

Reporting the story is one thing, but is it true that, as Kristof argues, the tragedy is mostly ignored? Let’s look at one reliable indicator that could answer such a question: international financial and humanitarian assistance.

Lucky for me, Jason Stearns already figured all of this out on Congo Siasa.

Congo’s government is budgeted to receive about $1.2 billion in donor assistance this year. That’s money that goes to support governing institutions, pay soldiers’ salaries and other official government functions. It includes some but not all humanitarian assistance; the rest of that added up to $646 million in 2008.

United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s budget is about $1.35 billion for 2009-10.

All told, the Democratic Republic of Congo gets about $4 billion per year in foreign aid.

How exactly does $4 billion per annum constitute “ignored”?

The simple fact is that the Congo crisis is neither ignored nor underreported. Insisting otherwise directs focus away from the real problem: that donor policy solutions, regional politics and an overarching focus on the wrong issues are prolonging rather than mitigating the conflict and its effects.

What are some of these mistakes?

  • An obsession with the 2006 presidential elections. Donors (mostly the United States) spent $500 million to hold an election that would legitimate the new regime in Kinshasa. They did so despite clear signals that the fighting in the east wasn’t over and that the country wasn’t even close to “democratic.” The election also prematurely raised the population’s hopes for real change in their lives. Those hopes have been almost completely unrealized, and many Congolese are disillusioned with the idea of democracy.
  • A failure to address local land conflicts and citizenship issues in the peace settlements. Severine Autesserre’s observations on this issue are key to understanding why the fighting drags on.
  • A failure to acknowledge and address Rwanda’s role in the conflicts until very recently.
  • Misguided military strategies that assume the FARDC (the DRC’s armed forces) is a credible partner.
  • Financing a government that is rife with corruption.

All the news accounts and money in the world won’t protect the Congolese if the international community responds based on flawed premises. The problem is not – and has never been – underreporting or a lack of compassion on the part of donors. The problem is the approach. The DRC receives a huge amount of attention. But that attention is too often misdirected.

Until that changes, we will continue to read one horror story after another. And I fear that in the meantime, there’s little that most of us can do to prevent brutality and despair.

Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta. This column was adapted from her blog, Texas in Africa. She did fieldwork from 2005-07 related to the Congo for her doctoral dissertation: Authority at “Twilight:” Civil Society, Social Services and the State in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

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