Fair Observer: We Can’t Turn Our Back on the DRC

This op-ed was originally published in the Fair Observer.

Just weeks away from the end of the year, nearly two-thirds of the funding the UN needs for its humanitarian response in the Democratic Republic of Congo is still not available.

Amid spiking violence and displacement, life in the Democratic Republic of Congo today is nothing short of nightmarish. The numbers may help show the scale: renewed violence in the northeastern part of the country killed more than 1,300 and displaced more than 660,000 Congolese from their homes so far this year. They join a staggering 1.7 million displaced people in that region alone. In July last year, the DRC’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, described the bloodshed in Ituri province as “attempted genocide.”

UN report released earlier this year described some of the violence as potential crimes against humanity. The international community has promised itself to never turn a blind eye to violence and suffering of such scale. And yet when it comes to the DRC, the world is increasingly tuning out. This needs to change.

Just weeks away from the end of the year, some 74% of the funding the UN needs for its humanitarian response in the DRC is still not available. Donors are pulling back. UN officials are disengaging despite increasing political instability. The government has failed to demilitarize and unify a fractured landscape in which hundreds of armed groups operate. Criticism around the failures of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), the world’s largest and longest-running peacekeeping operation, has only increased a sense of hopelessness.

The rising violence comes amidst decades of armed conflict, hunger, political corruption, health crises, climate-induced disasters and long-term development challenges. The DRC is the biggest humanitarian crisis in Africa and is home to the largest number of internally displaced people on the continent. Some 15.6 million people need humanitarian assistance, while 5 million people total are displaced within the country’s borders. The DRC’s crises are overlapping and exacerbating one another. Food insecurity and a lack of development contribute to violence, which makes it more difficult for aid and development actors to operate in areas where people are in desperate need.

Response operations to medical crises like malaria, Ebolameasles, cholera and the plague are now complicated by donors who want to divert funds to the COVID-19 response, with big donor countries like the UK considering cutting their overseas aid budgets. To make matters worse, a recent aid scandal saw nearly $6 million in aid lost because of corrupt aid workers, businesses and community leaders.

The situation is particularly dire for displaced Congolese women and girls living in crowded and insecure conditions. The threat of sexual violence is all too common. In Ituri, armed groups have attacked and raped women and girls during raids on villages. In one incident alone, some 140 women were reportedly raped.

We cannot turn our backs on the enormity of this suffering. Disengagement risks an even further downward spiral. While humanitarian and peacekeeping operations have failed in the past, tuning out now is not the answer. There are tangible ways to make progress. The international community must reengage first and foremost by providing greater funding to the humanitarian response. This includes bolstering funds for the UN humanitarian appeal and the Ebola response as well as raising additional COVID-19 funding that does not take away from existing allocations for clinics and medical programs.

Those involved in the humanitarian response should also push for additional accountability and transparency measures to avoid future aid scandals and to restore confidence in the humanitarian system. The UN and other agencies have already taken positive steps, including internal and operational reviews alongside establishing an anti-fraud task force. But the aid landscape is still far from unified in the DRC, and gaps remain when it comes to coordination and collaboration, making it difficult to ensure that fraud and waste do not continue.

Finally, development actors need to find their footing in the DRC’s humanitarian landscape. Many challenges here are perennial, and development actors have a long history in the country. However, they still operate relatively separately from humanitarian efforts, and thus the gap between emergency relief to longer-term recovery is still wide. Given that displacement is protracted, food insecurity ongoing, climate-related crises are long-term and political instability will take years to overcome, this needs to change. Humanitarian assistance should remain a top priority for international funders, but development actors need to have greater say and ownership earlier on — even now, as the crisis continues to unfold.

The situation is getting worse in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The world has seen this happen before. This time the international community, as fatigued as it might be, needs to lean in and reengage.