Editor's Note: This op-ed originally appeared on AllAfrica.com – Witney Schneidman is Senior International Advisor on Africa at Covington & Burling LLP, a Nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs. Sasha Lezhnev is Senior Policy Advisor at the Enough Project and author of Crafting Peace: Strategies to Deal with Warlords in Collapsing States.
The clashes in the eastern Congo over the past week have once again brought into sharp focus the enduring conflict between the M23 rebels and the Congolese military as well as the role of the recently-deployed United Nations intervention brigade. As the new United States special envoy for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Senator Russ Feingold, embarks on his first trip to the region, it is imperative that he takes steps now to engage in the economic and commercial issues that are at the heart of the conflict.
To be successful in the herculean task of helping end the world's deadliest war since World War II, Feingold would do well to learn from one of the most effective U.S. special envoy missions of our time, George Mitchell, during his tenure as President Bill Clinton's envoy to Northern Ireland. While many people remember Mitchell as having brokered peace in Northern Ireland, few recall his strategic approach: to focus on economics first, in order to build trust and lay the foundation for tackling the tough security issues.
A decade after his tenure, Mitchell described the key to achieving sustainable peace in Northern Ireland: "I stress the economy… These and other conflict situations… all have an important economic underpinning. I've come to believe that you have to deal with political and security measures, but you have to include economics right at the very top. You need economic growth, you need job creation, you need opportunity for people… if you want to reduce the likelihood of conflict. That isn't guaranteed stability… but without it, it's very difficult to obtain."
A critical part of Clinton and Mitchell's strategic vision for the Northern Ireland peace process was economics, and they stuck by it patiently until it bore fruit. It was predicated on creating jobs, revenue and commercial opportunities in order to reduce violent tension between the two sides and incentives for peace and alternatives to conflict. Despite the violence at the time, Mitchell organized a White House investment conference on Northern Ireland in 1995, building on the recommendations of business leaders from Northern Ireland, Ireland, and the U.S., who believed there was far greater economic potential from peace than from war. The conference sparked the first meeting between Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and Northern Ireland Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew, senior leaders from the opposing sides of the conflict.
The U.S. then contributed $100 million to a development fund for Northern Ireland and businesses set up cooperative bodies to facilitate cross-border trade, job creation, and infrastructure improvements.
There is a similar major opportunity with the war in eastern Congo today, and Special Envoy Feingold should follow the Clinton-Mitchell playbook.
Photo: Soldiers in eastern Congo. (AP)