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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: When was the last time you voted? Well in Africa this weekend, the Democratic Republic of Congo is holding its first elections in 40 years. This is a major event for a nation where civil war destroyed any semblance of security. So, the UN is pitching in. In fact, it's lending more support to Congo's election than any other election in history. Suzanne Marmion says that support is both on the ground and in the air.
SUZANNE MARMION: At the regional headquarters for the UN peacekeepers here, cargo planes and helicopters take off at all hours.
The UN's helicopters and planes constitute the largest air fleet in Africa. Air travel is essential here. Not a single road or rail link crosses the length of Congo and its jungles.
Making it that much harder to get around are thousands of rebels left over from years of war. They're still hiding out here in the east.
Nevertheless, UN election officials working with blue-helmeted peacekeepers have successfully distributed nearly 2,000 tons of ballot materials. Their combined effort cost more than $1.5 billion.
Jeffrey Fischer is a consultant for the United Nations who just wrote a new study. It shows that the big price tag on elections such as Congo's may be worth it.
JEFFREY FISCHER:"What we found in the study is that when the investment is made early, costs can be reduced over time."
Fischer says that, for instance, you might need to start out with a metal ballot box with locks and special seals for a troubled emerging democracy. But once the population grows reassured and has faith in the process, a cardboard box will do.
Fischer says it's all about spending the money to do it right the first time.
FISCHER:"Cambodia is the most striking example of all. For the 1993 elections, the average cost was almost $46 per voter."
That was the investment for a stable election just after Cambodia's genocide under the Khmer Rouge. Nowadays Cambodia spends just $2 per voter.
On the streets of Goma, the siren call of just one of the thousands of candidates campaigning in Congo. Some of the candidates have been doing a little investing of their own in the elections.
Pastor Wembo Juygerman says they've been offering his parishioners bribes.
PASTOR WEMBO JUYGERMAN:"They give some small small things, beer, T-shirts, in terms of money $5, $10, and this the way they are buying now people."
Juygerman has been telling his congregation to do the right thing.
JUYGERMAN:"If the Lord put a candidate in your heart thinking that he's going to help the country, then you vote for him."
As well as the bribery, there's another troubling trend: In recent weeks, some election rallies here have turned violent.
UN peacekeepers are trying to keep things under control before the crucial vote. Lt. Col. Harinda Jaggi is with the Indian contingent serving here.
HARINDA JAGGI:"It's a big job. But at least the people will be able to decide their own destiny."
After years of uncertainty, maybe this time — with the help of 17,000 international peacekeepers — that hope can be made real.
In Goma, Congo, I'm Suzanne Marmion for Marketplace.