Donors meet in Geneva on Friday in a bid to stump up nearly $1.7 billion (1.38 billion euros) for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), facing a crisis that experts say could become a tragedy.
The conference comes amid mounting strife in the DRC, where a legacy of ethnic conflict, corruption and instability are combining with political tensions to spark fears of a bloodbath.
But — in a position that has deepened the country’s political divisions — the DRC is boycotting the talks.
In January, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) described the humanitarian crisis as being at “breaking point” and identified needs of $1.68 billion.
At least 13.1 million Congolese are in need of aid, including 7.7 million who are severely food insecure, according to UN estimates.
“I was shocked by the scale of the suffering. Five million people have fled for their lives really from violence,” Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told AFP on Thursday.
“The Congo has been forgotten and neglected for too long. A widow with children in desperate need in the Congo needs as much help as if she was in Syria or in Iraq or anywhere else.”
The DRC angrily contests the figures as an exaggeration and says it will refuse to attend the conference, accusing the organisers of snubbing it.
Aid bodies and NGOs are propagating a “bad image of the Democratic Republic of Congo throughout the world,” Prime Minister Jose Makila charged on March 23.
The minister of humanitarian affairs, Bernard Biango, put the number of internally-displaced people at 231,241 — just a fraction of the UN estimate of 4.5 million.
The government has promised $100 million “to ease humanitarian distress” and earmark $10 million to help refugees or those internally displaced to return home.
Felix Tshisekedi, the leader of the main opposition party, the UDPS, has called on the conference to drum up as much aid as possible.
“The irresponsible attitude of the Kinshasa government reflects its indifference to the suffering of the Congolese people,” he said.
Dark clouds hang over the DRC’s political future.
President Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001, is under mounting pressure to quit.
He should have stepped down at the end of 2016 when his two-term limit expired, and is staying on under a constitutional clause that says the head of state can remain in office until his successor is elected.
Elections are now scheduled for December 23, but there is much uncertainty about whether they will take place, be fair or credible — and whether Kabila will run or not. Dozens have died in anti-Kabila protests.
A country four times the size of France, the DRC has been chronically unstable since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Two wars took place from 1996-97 and 1998-2003, sucking in other African countries and causing millions of deaths in violence, disease and starvation.
In eastern DRC, the humanitarian crisis is rooted in years of violence between rival ethnic groups and militias. More recently, conflict has escalated in the diamond-rich central region of Kasai, after soldiers killed a local traditional leader known as the Kamwina Nsapu.
Fighting between security forces and Kamwina Nsapu loyalists has since killed more than 3,000 people and displaced 1.4 million, according to the Roman Catholic church.
Hunger stalks the region, as a result of successive harvests that have been destroyed. According to the UN Children’s Fund, Unicef, 400,000 severely malnourished children are in danger of dying.
The pledging conference will be co-hosted by the European Commission, the United Nations and the Dutch government.
In 2017, OCHA had requested $812.5 million for the DRC, but received only $427.8 million — a shortfall of 47 percent.