By Lord Bishop of Wakefield - 5th April 2011
The UK must not overlook the importance of Burundi to an unstable region, the Lord Bishop of Wakefield says.
Six years on from a decade-long civil war, Burundi has experienced an alarming resurgence of violence in the wake of its 2010 electoral cycle. A surge of politicised banditry attacks, and what appears to be a subsequent governmental clampdown on civil liberties, reveal how fragile peace and stability remain in the country.
A recent UN Group of Experts report on the DR Congo notes that Burundian rebels are regrouping and rearming along the border between the two countries. The interwoven and protracted nature of the conflicts across the past decade in the Great Lakes region should call for particular vigilance from the UK and the international community as a whole.
The UK is a major bilateral donor to the region and, following the recent Bilateral Aid Review, the government has broadly decided to maintain this support. But while it will almost double aid to the DRC, and significantly increase contributions to Rwanda and Uganda, the bilateral aid programme to Burundi is set to end in 2012.
DfID has chosen to end bilateral aid to Burundi and replace it with efforts to achieve regional integration, considering this to be crucial to Burundi's economic growth. This will in part be delivered through the TradeMark East Africa initiative that aims to promote trade through enhanced integration in the East African community.
Burundi, however, remains one of the poorest countries in the world, making economic regional integration a daunting task. Beyond the necessity to develop regional trade and foreign investments, Burundi is perhaps first of all faced with the challenges of ensuring food security and the delivery of basic health and sanitation services to its population. These failings not only impede initiatives aimed at economic growth; the Director for Burundi at the UN World Food Programme recently warned that the increased risks of food insecurity for the most deprived might encourage them to more readily join armed groups.
A recent Security Council statement deemed institution-building efforts in the judicial system to be essential to Burundi's stability. Limiting UK support in Burundi to regional integration, while closing programmes in the crucial sectors of health and justice, does not indicate the kind of prioritisation that one might expect, and particularly in light of the government's current focus on women and girls.
A coordinated, comprehensive, and coherent strategy that takes into account the region's complex politics and history is required if long-term stability and development are ever to be achieved. This strategy must include Burundi; economic integration or no, the UK cannot afford to overlook the risks that Burundi's vulnerabilities represent both to the region and to the UK's already significant diplomatic and humanitarian investment.
Stephen Platten has been Bishop of Wakefield since 2003 and entered the House of Lords in 2009.