Leaving Millions Behind: The Harmful Consequences of Donor Fatigue in the DRC

For decades, armed conflicts have ravaged the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), resulting in massive displacement and critical humanitarian needs. A complex mix of emergencies have plagued the country—from brutal armed violence to interethnic conflict to sweeping Cholera and Ebola epidemics. These emergencies, both acute and protracted, are being exacerbated by high social and political tensions in the lead up to national elections, which are scheduled for December 2018. The elections are two years overdue. Although President Joseph Kabila has announced that he will not run for office again, there are growing concerns that the elections may not be fair and that the transfer of power will not be peaceful.

The national elections are of critical importance to the stability and future of the DRC. However, they have overshadowed a devastating humanitarian crisis, which has degenerated into one of the world’s worst humanitarian emergencies over the last two years. During this period, a new surge in conflict and bloodshed has swept across several DRC provinces, killing thousands. The potential for further deterioration continues to rise. Currently, over 13.1 million Congolese require humanitarian assistance—about the same number of people in need as those within Syria. An estimated 5 million Congolese have been displaced—internally and into neighboring countries, including 2 million people in 2017 alone, making the DRC’s displacement crisis the most severe in Africa. Millions of Congolese are not receiving the life-saving aid they require. To make matters worse, international funding is at its lowest in a decade. In the worst-affected provinces—Tanganyika, North and South Kivu, Ituri, and the Kasais—aid is present but is spotty and often slow.

In June 2018, Refugees International (RI) traveled to northeastern DRC to conduct a field mission to Bunia and the Djugu territory of Ituri province and to Beni city in North Kivu. The situations in these locations exemplify the challenging cycle in which new and acute crises erupt onto a humanitarian landscape already riddled with protracted suffering. This dynamic, when coupled with insufficient funding and poor coordination, force humanitarian organizations to divert resources to new crises—often having to close offices and leave behind populations in dire need.

The obstacles faced by humanitarians in North Kivu and Ituri are alarming. Unfortunately, they are also representative of the challenges across the massive country. Many organizations have been ill prepared to respond to the violence and displacement that has surged since late 2016. This was apparent during the unexpected outbreak of acute crises in the Kasais and in Ituri, where limited funding, little contingency planning, and a minimal staff presence delayed the response. In North Kivu, where conflict and displacement have been constant for years, aid delivery is slowing down and is increasingly diverted with each new outbreak.

In early August 2018, cases of Ebola were detected in North Kivu and then in Ituri. While organizations have rushed to provide much-needed support to contain the epidemic, the high levels of internal displacement in these provinces and significant shortages in funds and staff will continue to be an obstacle. While the Ebola response is being funded by separate resources, the diversion of staff could impact responses to other key humanitarian challenges.

RI appreciates the importance of ensuring that free and fair elections take place in December as planned. This is vital for the long-term stability of the country and the region more broadly. It is clear that governance and peacebuilding efforts must improve. Nonetheless, it is also vital for donors, UN agencies, and other humanitarians to make a concerted effort to immediately alleviate the suffering of the millions of Congolese before the situation further deteriorates. Humanitarian actors must be resourced to assess needs, coordinate efforts, and respond effectively without being forced to abandon people in need. The bottom line is that insufficient funding threatens to unravel decades of investment and push the DRC deeper into chaos.


For the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

  • Acknowledge the severity of the crisis and provide for its citizens—The DRC government must end its refusal to recognize the scale of country’s displacement crisis and declare its intention to assist all those in need to the best of its ability. The government must also cooperate with humanitarian organizations in collecting and disseminating statistics on the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and in assessing their needs.

For the United Nations and Humanitarian Organizations

  • Engage donors to fulfill outstanding pledges—To ensure that humanitarian organizations are not forced to divert funds and staff from areas in need when each new crisis erupts in the DRC, UN leaders—both in country and at the headquarters level—must call upon governments to fulfill their pledges made at the Geneva donor conference on the DRC held in April 2018.
  • Strengthen the efficiency of the UN’s Cluster system in the DRC—Across the DRC, the field-level response coordinators, known as Sub-Cluster leads, must fill positions on a full-time basis and should impartially represent the Cluster and its members. This is vital to give them the capacity to carry out thorough analyses and establish incident-tracking mechanisms to be used by the humanitarian community at large.
  • The UN Refugee Agency (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR) must reestablish its protection presence—UNHCR must reestablish its presence in areas of need, especially Bunia and Beni city, to monitor protection trends. It must resume its role as the co-lead of the Protection Cluster and Sub-Cluster in these locations and spearhead improved coordination.
  • Implement proven cash intervention models in under-resourced areas—Given that access, funds, and human resources are limited throughout the country, humanitarian organizations must facilitate the implementation of cash interventions, with due regard to their feasibility and risk.
  • Fill critical information gaps in the displaced and host communities—There are significant gaps in understanding the numbers of displaced persons, the nature and scope of their needs, and the needs of the communities that host them. With donor support, organizations should make data collection and survey work a high priority in all these areas. This should be done in conjunction with local organizations and committees for IDPs that have established relations with the displaced persons.
  • Increase awareness in the displaced community of the services available to them—Because many displaced persons are unaware of the services available to them, it is important for humanitarians to share this information more widely throughout the displaced community to increase awareness of the services provided.
  • Establish information sharing guidelines between the humanitarian sector and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO)—The humanitarian sector’s Protection Cluster and MONUSCO’s Senior Management Group on Protection must develop information sharing procedures that respect humanitarian principles and civilian-military guidelines. The terms of their cooperation should be included in the UN Humanitarian Country Team’s Protection Strategy.

For International Donors

  • Increase funding—Funding shortfalls threaten to unravel decades of investment that helped to end conflict and to begin transitioning to rehabilitation. The provision of more funding—including core, unearmarked monies—will allow organizations to alleviate the growing needs. Donors should fully fund the 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan request from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and should meet this year’s appeal for $1.68 billion.
  • Provide flexible and shorter-term funding for emergencies—Given the frequent and sudden onset of acute crises in the DRC, donors should provide more flexible funding. This should include an increase in funding for cash interventions and the Rapid Response to Population Movements (RRPM), a key joint UN humanitarian tool that pools funding to enable rapid responses to new crises.
  • Provide funding for regions in protracted crises to transition to recovery—More dedicated funding is needed for regions of the DRC that are in protracted crises to help facilitate the transition to recovery, such as the model used by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations’ (ECHO) with its Bekou Trust Fund in the Central African Republic.


The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has long been marred by prolonged conflicts and displacement. Between 1998 and 2003, the DRC was the epicenter of one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent history. UN peacekeepers were brought in to oversee the country’s return to stability. But even after the war, the country continued to be riddled with low-intensity conflict. The peacekeeping mission’s role has grown from monitoring the cease-fire to becoming the UN’s largest blue helmeted force – one tasked with building government capacity and preventing further backsliding into violence.

Since 2016, this fragile peace has been jeopardized by President Joseph Kabila’s postponement of elections, which has led to deadly spikes in violence across the country. This widespread political turmoil—coupled with a severe lack of governance, a corrupt economy, and unaddressed interethnic tensions—has created the conditions for hundreds of overlapping armed groups to wreak havoc across the country. At present, over 5 million people have been displaced—the largest number of people uprooted from their homes on the African continent. Over 2 million of them having been displaced since early 2017. More than 13.1 million Congolese are in need of assistance—about the same number of people in need as in Syria. Thousands of lives have been lost to cycles of brutal violence. And an alarming 7.7 million people are food insecure, including 2 million children.

“Many donors have responded to the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation over the last two years by decreasing their contributions”

In the midst of this crisis, millions of Congolese are not receiving the assistance they require. In a striking turn of events, many donors have responded to the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation over the last two years by decreasing their contributions. During the UN’s April pledging conference in Geneva, donor governments failed to commit even half of the $1.68 billion in aid required for 2018, and many of these pledges are still outstanding. As of July 2018, humanitarian funding is the lowest it has been in a decade.

As a result, a worrying dynamic within the DRC—one in which humanitarians are forced to rob Peter to pay Paul—has taken shape since 2016, with new conflicts in the Kasais and Tanganyika, and the renewed conflict in Ituri. These areas had previously been assumed to be stable. In all three crises, the humanitarian community was caught off guard. The response was further slowed by a dearth of new donor funding. To respond, humanitarians were forced to divert resources and staff from other populations they were actively serving to address the sudden onset of acute need.

“…a worrying dynamic within the DRC—one in which humanitarians are forced to rob Peter to pay Paul—has taken shape since 2016.”

For example, in October, the UN declared a Level 3 Emergency; the highest in the UN system and usually designated for entire countries. In the DRC, however, the designation was only for the Kasai, Tanganyika, and South Kivu provinces. This localized designation resulted in funds and staff being diverted to these provinces from other vulnerable areas. UN agencies and other humanitarians were forced to close many of their field offices in the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu. The shortage of aid in most of these two provinces was further exacerbated by the outbreak of conflict in the Djugu territory of Ituri. This outbreak forced humanitarians to once again pull resources from other parts of Ituri or projects in North Kivu in order to respond.

There is little reason to think that the security situation across the DRC is likely to stabilize in the near term. Tensions in the lead up to national elections, which are slated for December 2018, are extremely high. Elections are two years overdue, and President Joseph Kabila will not run for office again. However, there are growing concerns that the elections may not be fair or transparent and that Kabila’s departure from office will not be peaceful. International attention is understandably focused on these elections, but this has come at the cost of addressing the country’s vast humanitarian needs.

Indeed, it is critical for the DRC’s long-term stability that President Kabila lead a peaceful transfer of power. The Congolese deserve no less. However, donors and humanitarians alike must move proactively to alleviate need in what has become one of the most neglected humanitarian crises of our time. The DRC is quickly coming to a breaking point, and there is no more time to waste.