Conflict doesn’t respect borders. No one knows this better than the people in Africa’s Great Lakes region where instability has been fueled in part by a lack of economic opportunity.
For the Great Lakes Region, where I will visit next week, the cost of conflict has been extraordinary. Among the 11.5 million people in the Eastern Congo, are 2 million children who don’t get an education because their schools have been destroyed; over 3.5 million people have died since 1998 as a direct consequence of conflict. The 2013 peace framework signed by 11 nations ushered in a new era for peace and reconstruction. But pockets of violence persist.
The wider region remains host to over five million people who have fled their homes due to ongoing insecurity.
The Great Lakes countries share similar challenges such as communal violence, lack of access to land, limited social cohesion and competition over resources. These challenges must be tackled by individual countries, but more often than not, they require collective action. Regional approaches are critical to leverage national efforts.
Borders can be both a factor and a feature of conflict. I firmly believe that they can also be part of the solution. They provide security and facilitate trade between countries. To borrow the words of Mexican-American poet Gina Valdés: “For every border, there is also a bridge.”
In this region, as elsewhere, regional integration is the key to lasting peace and to a more prosperous future. Peace accords are critical. They end conflict but they don’t always bring lasting peace. It takes livelihoods, jobs, and trust in the future to bring countries closer together and make it worthwhile to invest in peace. We all know that there won’t be development without peace, nor can there be peace without development.
The pay offs of cooperation and integration are significant. Take for example the East African Community. Since 1993, it has been the second-fastest growing economic bloc in the world, after ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It has doubled its GDP to US$ 79 billion, and intra-community trade is now more important than trade with Europe or the rest of Africa.
In my previous capacity as Finance Minister of Indonesia, a country where the transition toward democracy and a unified society took more than a decade —and a founding member of ASEAN—, I have experienced firsthand the positive impact of regional integration on creating sound and predictable economic policies, resulting in high economic growth, job creation and poverty reduction. ASEAN and East Asia are now the world’s most vibrant region with low barriers to trade and investment, allowing goods and people to move relatively freely.
The World Bank Group, one of the Great Lakes region’s most important development partners, has an important role to play in supporting regional peace and stability through programs that improve livelihoods in border areas, facilitate cross-border trade and strengthen economic interdependence through connective infrastructure.
For many communities, key markets are situated across the border and informal cross-border trade plays a huge role in linking small producers to markets. Consider this: between 2012 and 2014, informal exports from Rwanda to neighboring countries including Burundi, DRC, Tanzania and Uganda, totaled nearly US$100 million.
Making trade more user-friendly and safe is essential. A study looking at cross-border trade between the DRC and Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda showed that women, who represent the majority of small informal traders, are often victims of harassment and physical violence and are forced to pay bribes. For the millions of women and their families whose livelihoods depend on cross-border trade, regional integration shouldn’t be an abstract concept, nor a dangerous undertaking. Women are the key to boosting trade and prosperity, and their ability to do so safely is paramount.
The prospects for international trade to drive growth and fight poverty are enormous and go far beyond DRC and its neighbors. In Eastern DRC rehabilitating the Goma Airport will create a vital transport hub to reconnect the people of the region to the rest of the country, stimulate private sector development, and enable trade to resume. Evidence also suggests that insecurity is decreasing in areas where roads have been rehabilitated. This is why all countries should have a common interest in developing regional infrastructure.
The World Bank launched the Great Lakes Initiative in 2013 together with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. We are providing about $1.3 billion for regional initiatives that expand hydropower; transport and information technology; trade; health services; and address sexual and gender-based violence and forced displacement.
We are also supporting investments in energy which will significantly increase access to electricity Rwanda, DRC, and Burundi.
Through the Great Lakes initiative we have refocused our work around prevention and response not just in one country, but among neighbors. We hope to deliver a major contribution to the lasting peace and development of this region that has suffered so much from conflict and has so much to gain from peace.