Assistant Professor Raul Sanchez de la Sierra

At the heart of Congo Calling, a documentary featuring Assistant Professor Raúl Sánchez de la Sierra, is a simple motivation: Does Western development aid in sub-Saharan Africa truly help? The answer, it turns out, is not so clear.

“The documentary leads you to ask a million more questions,” Sánchez de la Sierra said ahead of the North American premiere of Congo Calling at the Harris Keller Center. “You understand it's more complicated than you initially thought.”

“What does it even mean to be helpful?” he added. “Who are these people that go there? We have a mythical vision of a group of volunteers, for instance, going and building a school, which seems like a great thing on the surface. But it is complicated, and it requires much more effort to understand if this support is indeed beneficial. And, even then, we may truly never be confident that we fully understand it.” 

Screened April 1 at an event sponsored by The Pearson Institute and the Harris International Development Policy AssociationCongo Calling opens a window onto strife and life in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where more than 120 armed groups are active. DRC, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa (it’s about the size of Western Europe), is rich in natural resources, including the cobalt essential to the lithium-ion batteries that power cell phones, laptops, and electric vehicles. But the nation — rocked by war and political upheaval — is one of Africa’s poorest. “It is a society where the state is broken, at least as we understand it in the West,” Sánchez de la Sierra said.

DRC, according to Mercy Corps, is also one of the most dangerous countries for aid workers, many of whom are young, white Europeans or Americans living in gated and guarded expat communities. Those gates are part of the fabric of the Goma city scenes that energize Congo Calling and illustrate the contrast between life inside and the chaos and poverty — including the many street children — outside. 

To tell his story, Director Stephan Hilpert follows three Westerners in Goma, a capital city on the border with Rwanda. 

The protagonists include Sánchez de la Sierra, Hilpert’s friend and collaborator, who is in DRC to study rebel groups for his research on economics of development, political economy, and conflict. Also featured is Anne-Laure Van der Wielen, who as the documentary begins, has quit her NGO job to organize the Amani Festival in Goma. Her Congolese boyfriend is a political activist and will spend three years in jail. Rounding out the trio is Peter Merten, a German aid worker who at 65 has aged out of his work contract and must leave the DRC, where he has lived for decades, raising a family that considers Goma its home. Conflict, love, aging, temptation, choice, and risk percolate throughout the 90-minute film. 

Sánchez de la Sierra, who is Spanish and French, said he landed in DRC, and thus Congo Calling, largely by accident. While working on his economics PhD at Columbia he took a course on political economy of development. “I really liked the name of the course, and I worked so hard in it that at the end of the class, the professor came to me and said, ‘Do you speak French?’ (he does) and ‘Do you want to go to the Congo?’ " Since 2009, he has gone each year. 

The spark for the documentary, Sánchez de la Sierra said, came when he was telling Hilpert about the research, but Hilpert “was focused on the human side of things.” 

“It's very natural to say, ‘Oh look, here's all these white people. They go and they enjoy this extremely privileged position in Africa, and they want to feel good about themselves because they do something that they think is good, but they remain in this bubble.’ But he wasn't interested in that,” Sánchez de la Sierra said. “He was interested in the process of these people struggling with these challenges, how they navigated them, how they dealt with guilt, how they engaged with a society that, ultimately, they did not know very well but where they had power and privilege.”

In DRC, Sánchez de la Sierra studies rebel groups, including one of eastern DRC’s most powerful militias. His goal is understanding how armed groups operate in the villages and, in the face of a failed national government, take on state-building roles including protection, tax collection, and even setting up judicial systems.

That work is largely in the background of Congo Calling, but the documentary includes a tense scene as Sánchez de la Sierra secretly meets with rebel commanders he wants to study. 

“If a white person comes with good intentions, it’s not a problem,” one commander tells Sánchez de la Sierra. “You come to help, or for research, no problem. But if you come to do politics, we’ll slaughter you.”

 Was he worried at that moment? The meeting, Sánchez de la Sierra said, was held outside of rebel territory, which meant “it would not have been in their interest to harm me.” 

The scene, however, shows the kind of trust-building necessary for work in a place where, he said, “everything is based on relationships rather than on the law.”

To build trust when he first met the rebels, Sánchez de la Sierra agreed to answer their impromptu questions including, he said, “Well, if you're really an economist create a syllabus for the first year of economics.”

He did it. And did a second-year syllabus.

They also asked why, if he was a “scientist,” he could not help them assemble Kalashnikov rifles or an atomic bomb.

Explaining that he was a social scientist, Sánchez de la Sierra told them he would not provide any support — equipment or money. “They said ‘OK, OK, what do you want to study?’  And so, every month since April, 2015, I receive 100 pages of their administrative records. I know how many bullets they have, the wages, the taxes they have collected in each village, how much they spent on medical supplies, and how much they have in their bank account.”


“Stephan Hilpert examines not only their connections with the local people but also the broader relationship between so-called developed nations and countries whose precariousness is a direct result of imperial exploitation.” – Phuong Le, The Guardian

Sánchez de la Sierra, though, does have to fund his research, a source of conflict that’s explored in Congo Calling. In one scene he describes as “painful,” he must confront a friend and colleague over misuse of research cash. “I put my friends in a position of a huge amount of temptation,” he said in the film. “I bring these bags of cash in this ocean of poverty and let them see what happens.”

After the Keller Center screening, Sánchez de la Sierra and Hilpert (who called in from Germany) answered questions before a reception, where students, alumni, and guests at the event had cocktails and hors d’oeuvres while waiting to chat with Sánchez de la Sierra.

Several of those attending, including Pearson Fellow Ana Camila Vasquez, MPP Class of 2022, had previously done NGO work and spent time in African nations — in Vasquez’s case Sierra Leone.

“I loved it,” she said of the film. “It portrays real
dilemmas – with its strong perspective of foreigners working in development-- and real humans.”

Before enrolling at Harris, Zack Crahen, MPP Class of 2022, was an Army officer and while deployed to Jordan ran support operations for the then-largest refugee camp in Syria. It housed thousands of internally displaced people due to the war against ISIS. He, too, noted the “intimate portrayal” of the protagonists and said he thought the cinematography “took” viewers to DRC. The film, he said, “puts a face to a problem.”

Congo Calling, which was released first in Germany in 2019, has been shown in European cinemas and on television, with plans for more showings in the United States. Another DRC-themed documentary, teaming Sánchez de la Sierra and Hilpert, about the aforementioned rebels is in the works.

“The Congo for me was like a stone that you remove, and there's like a completely different universe with new ideas that keep coming up,” Sánchez de la Sierra said. “So personally, intellectually, and professionally, it is just unstoppable.”