And it isn't just health. Education rates are climbing by leaps and bounds. Thirteen million Congolese students were enrolled in school in 2007, and the percentage of primary-age kids in school went from 64 to 84 percent between 2006 and 2008 alone. There is now a considerably higher percentage of children in school in the Congo than there was two decades ago -- or, for that matter, in Kuwait and Honduras as recently as 1980.
Given the state of the economy, these achievements have been managed on a pittance. In 2009, according to the World Bank, the Congo's government budget accounted for about 20 percent of GDP -- about $50 per year per citizen. Health and education together accounted for around $9 per year per person -- less than 0.3 percent of what the U.S. government spends per citizen on health care alone. That meager expenditure, augmented by aid and the limited private resources available to individual citizens, was enough to provide a level of health and schooling considerably better than would be expected by far richer countries only a few years ago.
Part of that success story is explained by the advent of new technologies. For example, the Congo is about to benefit from a new vaccine against pneumonia developed with the support of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. But it's also a human success story, one that involves health workers turning up to vaccinate kids and provide health services and teachers showing up to class, even amid some of the worst social conditions on Earth -- people like Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist who founded a hospital in the city of Bukavu to provide care for victims of the Congo's epidemic of sexual violence. (Mukwege, ironically, has just been awarded Belgium's King Baudouin International Development Prize for his work -- named after a direct descendent of Leopold II.) Parents across the country, meanwhile, are prioritizing education for their sons and daughters over the help they could provide in the fields or household, and turning up to get their kids vaccinated.
In short, the signs of hope in the Congo are the result of the country's citizens' own belief that things should be better than they are -- and that they can be. It's a remarkable contrast to the cynicism that has defined the country's colonial overlords, native kleptocrats, and odious warlords for more than a century. And thankfully, the people of the Congo seem to be right. It is all a sign that development can occur even in the absence of well-functioning institutions of governance -- and even during a civil war. That, in turn, is a refutation of the idea that we should wait to improve lives, or focus on sustainable development, until bureaucracies function with clockwork efficiency and the rule of law is universally applied. Poor governance is no reason to deny support to some of the people who need it most.