The HC Interview: Democratic Republic of the Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) faces multiple crises including attacks by armed groups, massive displacement, food insecurity and disease outbreaks.
Approximately 1.8 million people remain displaced, mostly in eastern DRC, due to conflict. Last year, measles and cholera epidemics claimed more than 2,400 lives, mostly children’s.
Conflict and insecurity severely affect the humanitarian response in DRC. In 2011, there were 177 attacks against aid workers in the Kivus. A serious decline in funding and resources also affects the ability to help thousands of people in desperate need. The humanitarian appeal for 2011 was only 62 per cent funded, and this year’s appeal has so far received only 4 per cent of the required US$718 million.
Fidèle Sarassoro has been the Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in DRC since 2010. He talks in depth about the humanitarian challenges facing the vast central African country.
Q: What are some of biggest humanitarian challenges facing DRC today?
A: DRC has many humanitarian issues and challenges. In the east of the country, armed conflict is severely affecting the civilian population and creating huge humanitarian needs. In the western provinces, there are very high levels of malnutrition and food insecurity.
Recently, we have seen a decline in funding and resources. Sometimes I feel helpless because there are acute and persistent needs, and yet we do not have enough resources to help even the most vulnerable people. In 2008, the humanitarian appeal for the country was funded at 77 per cent, but last year we only received about 62 per cent of the required funding.
In 2012, we need $718 million to help hundreds of thousands of people facing conflicts, epidemics, natural disasters and limited access to basic social services across the country.
Q: What is the impact of the lack of funding?
A: Several essential programmes are affected, such as projects focusing on the protection of women who have been subjected to sexual violence. When you have an armed conflict, women and children are the most affected. Our ability to access them and provide them with the necessary support is definitely affected due to the lack of funding.
Q: The World Health Organization has confirmed there have been more than 26,000 cases of cholera across the country since early 2011. How is the aid community responding to this?
A: Humanitarian organizations are responding with urgent medical treatment for those infected by cholera. They are also addressing the underlying problem: lack of clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). The epidemic is persisting because clean drinking water is a luxury for the vast majority of Congolese. Many families do not have access to proper sanitation, and facilities handling waste often do not function properly. These factors and others have contributed to the spread of the disease to nine out of the 11 provinces in DRC.
In January 2012, Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos allocated $9.1 million from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to help with the cholera response. WHO and UNICEF are already implementing treatment, prevention and WASH projects with the funding.
Q: According to the World Food Programme, despite fertile soil DRC has a food deficit estimated at between 30 and 40 per cent. How do you address food insecurity in the country?
A: This is a country that could have enough natural resources to feed the whole of Africa, and yet it finds itself in a situation where malnutrition is rampant: 28 per cent of children under the age of 5 are malnourished. Conflict, mismanagement of resources, and the lack of investment and good policies have contributed to this paradox. If we want to address food insecurity in DRC, we need to make a strong link between humanitarian response and development work. Clearly, we need to focus on agriculture. I have been talking to colleagues in the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on how we can best support the country in terms of agricultural policy advice, resources and investment.
Q: Millions of people remain displaced in DRC due to conflict. What is being done to help them?
A: There are about 1.8 million displaced people in the DRC now. The UN and its partners are providing health care, shelter, education, water and sanitation to these people.
Despite our efforts, it is hard to access some of the affected population because of insecurity. It is unacceptable that a number of aid workers were attacked this year. They need safe and unrestricted access, and this has been the subject of my ongoing discussion with the Congolese authorities.
Q: As the Humanitarian Coordinator, you have travelled around the country assessing the humanitarian conditions. Tell us what you saw, and how can the humanitarian response be improved?
A: When I visited Province Oriental in north-eastern DRC, I met a woman who had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but somehow managed to escape. Her arms and lips were cut off, and her own community refused to accept her when she returned. Unable to fend for herself, she was begging in the streets for food. I also remember this little girl who had been raped and left completely traumatized. Aid workers in these places meet victims of such atrocities every day. They often find themselves in a difficult situation—seeing the human tragedy and not being able to respond as much as they can because of the lack of resources.
It is painful to know that we could be sitting 5 kilometres away from a little girl in the middle of the jungle crying out for help, but we cannot reach her because of the lack of logistical support, security and resources. I know that with a little bit more money and coordination, we can save more lives. When I appeal to donors, I urge them to see the human tragedy of the people living in these places.