Ellen Berends-Vergunst, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Democratic Republic of the Congo told The African Bulletin (TAB) in this interview that, although DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet its minerals and forests make it so potentially rich.
Berends-Vergunst who was posted to Kinshasa in 2007 said being a female diplomat in the DRC is an advantage rather than a disadvantage as the Congolese tend to be ladies' men. She told TAB that The Netherlands is leading the way in the provision of humanitarian aid in the DRC and that in 2008 alone, her country provided €25.8 million for this purpose with efficiently organisation to respond very rapidly with other donors in a joint fund.
The African Bulletin: How did you become a diplomat?
Ambassador Ellen Berends-Vergunst: I became interested in foreign policy at a very young age. I don't know exactly what sparked this interest – the subject just fascinated me for some reason. When I studied history, I specialised in what was then the Soviet Union; I even studied in Moscow for a while. So working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seemed like a logical career choice.
I have been fortunate in that my work has always involved interesting issues, like the transition of South Africa from apartheid to democracy, and the reconstruction of Bosnia. I have also always been posted to very interesting places, like Moscow, Hanoi, Cape Town, Kiev and now Kinshasa. As a diplomat, you always get a seat on the front row of history, and sometimes you even get to help shape its course.
*Ambassador Ellen Berends-Vergunst
TAB: How long have you been an Ambassador in the DRC and what are your specific duties?
Ambassador: I was appointed in August 2007. At the time, Bert Koenders, the Minister for Development Cooperation, was finalising his new policy on fragile states. This meant that he came over for a substantial visit within a month of my arrival in the DRC. He decided to make the DRC a partner country, and that meant stepping up bilateral relations quite considerably. The Netherlands is now a large donor in the DRC, with projects that contribute to peace and security, army reforms and the curbing of sexual violence. We also provide a great deal of humanitarian aid, for instance to the many war victims in the east. In the political arena, the Netherlands is in dialogue with Congolese counterparts regarding the situation in the eastern DRC and the relationship with neighbouring countries, as well as issues like human rights, democratisation and corruption. We are not alone in pursuing this dialogue; we often act with other countries, for instance within an EU framework.
TAB: How many Dutch businesses are there in the DRC? How much emphasis does the Netherlands place on foreign investment and trade in the DRC?
Ambassador: Heineken (under the name Bralima) is the largest Dutch company in the DRC. It has branches in Kinshasa and other provinces, and has recently established a brewery in Lubumbashi, Katanga. There are very few other Dutch businesses in the DRC, mainly because, unlike Belgium, the Netherlands has no historical ties with the country. Moreover, the business climate in the DRC is far from favourable. For many years it has ranked at the bottom of the 'Doing Business' index, a World Bank project that measures business regulations and their enforcement around the world. Together with other countries and business partners, we have entered into dialogue on this issue with the Congolese government, parliament, employers' organisations and trades unions. Unfortunately, we haven't yet made much progress in this field. Businesses can come to us with any questions or problems.
TAB: How many Dutch citizens are there in the DRC?
Ambassador: We are not exactly sure, but we think around 200. Most live and work in the capital Kinshasa: businesspeople, employees of international organisations or NGOs, and of course diplomats. The other Dutch citizens are spread over this enormous country, which is as large as Western Europe. As an embassy, our job is to try to maintain contact with everyone. I have enormous admiration for some of these people, working in incredibly difficult conditions in refugee camps or in the midst of the war in the east. I have met Dutch missionaries who have lived here for over forty years and who do wonderful work.
TAB: What are some of your major challenges as the number one Dutch citizen in the DRC?
*Ambassador Ellen Berends-Vergunst relaxing at home
Ambassador: The DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet its minerals and forests make it so potentially rich. We all know its history, the dictatorship under President Mobutu, the wars, the corruption, the fledgling democracy, the weak state, etc. The main challenge for the Netherlands (and indeed for the rest of the international community) is to contribute to peace, security and stability, to help combat poverty and to promote the sustainable use of the country's many natural resources. My team and I work every day to promote these efforts.
TAB: What are some of the good things about living and working in the DRC?
Ambassador: It's very easy to get to know people here, to have an open discussion and to make friends. The Congolese are delightful people. I admire their sense of humour, as well as their ability to survive under difficult circumstances.
There's huge potential in Congolese society. In recent years, for instance, prestigious Prince Claus Awards have been given to two DRC nationals. In 2007 the choreographer Faustin Linyekula won the Principal Prince Claus Award and in 2005 the painter Chéri Samba was a Prince Claus laureate. And last December another Congolese citizen, Justine Masika Bihamba, received the Human Rights Defenders Tulip 2008 from our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Verhagen. Justine's NGO, Synergie des Femmes, is doing excellent work in East Congo.
TAB: Please tell us about the Dutch-DRC bilateral relations and how it all started. How would you describe the relationship between the Netherlands and the DRC?
Ambassador: The Netherlands and the DRC established diplomatic ties since the sixties. Relations between the two countries have always been good. The nature of the work has of course changed, in response to demand.
A few weeks ago, the DRC announced that cutbacks were forcing it to close its embassy in The Hague. This is regrettable, but we understand the decision: the country is too poor to maintain this mission. It now seeks to open an embassy in Kigali. From now on, the DRC will promote its interests from Brussels. Our relations will not suffer as a result - they are good and will remain so.
TAB: How many female ambassadors are in the DRC, and do you have certain impediments as opposed to male ambassadors?
Ambassador: There are only two female ambassadors in Kinshasa: the Canadian ambassador and myself. Funny enough, we look rather alike, so that my Canadian colleague is regularly complimented on new projects funded by the Netherlands!
Being a female diplomat in the DRC is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. The Congolese tend to be ladies' men, and very much enjoy working with women. And there are certain topics that are easier to raise if you are a woman. Sometimes you want to bring up sensitive issues, like sexual violence against women, which is an enormous problem in the DRC.
TAB: How bad is the current crisis in the DRC and what are the international consequences if the country slides into another protracted war? What is the root cause of the crisis and what, in your opinion, is a lasting solution?
Ambassador: In 2008, the DRC emerged from a tough year that in many respects ended worse than it began. East Congo is often front-page news, and not without reason. Time and again we see fresh images of refugees and victims of violence. The impact of the economic and financial crisis on the DRC is also becoming clearer. In the relatively prosperous province of Katanga, thousands have lost their jobs due to mine closures. And the DRC is also affected by other problems: the rise in food prices, late payment of salaries and limited financial reserves.
Yet the country is in a better position now than it was some years ago. We must not allow the daily problems to obscure the big picture. There is still a long way to go; that is clear, but a great deal has already been achieved.
The origins of the problems are extremely complex, which means that there is no easy solution. In the current situation, many parties benefit more from instability than peace, and more from a lack of transparency than from a properly-functioning state, etc. Tackling this situation will mean a long-haul effort both by the Congolese and the international community.
TAB: How is the Dutch government helping the DRC with the ongoing humanitarian crisis?
Ambassador: The Netherlands is leading the way in the provision of humanitarian aid. In 2008 alone we provided €25.8 million for this purpose. We organise this type of aid efficiently, can respond very rapidly and usually work together with other donors in a joint fund.
TAB: What are your hobbies?
Ambassador: Believe it or not, this metropolis of millions is a wonderful place for horse riding, so I ride regularly. My husband Nicolaas loves to cycle, and even takes part in races as the only non-Congolese member of the national cyclists' federation. We both love traditional tribal art and fortunately there is still plenty to admire. But actually I don't have a lot of time for hobbies – I've got too much work to do!
TAB: Your Excellency, do you have any special message or advice for DRC citizens living in the Diaspora, especially the Netherlands?
Ambassador: There is a large Congolese Diaspora, and the members of this community are often very highly educated. The Netherlands alone is home to some 8,000 people of Congolese origin. A few months ago I discussed with some of them what contribution they might make to the development of the DRC. There are plenty of opportunities, because the country has need of everything: knowledge, experience and financial resources. The Congolese Diaspora has a great responsibility towards the development of the DRC, and I trust that it will contribute to the future of this country. It is a wonderful, potentially rich country. Its people deserve to live in peace and prosperity.