NAIROBI — The Democratic Republic of the Congo has the highest number of people displaced from conflict in the world. But many of those who have fled their homes don’t have access to humanitarian support. This is not because of issues linked to insecurity, but rather due to a lack of funding, humanitarian actors told Devex.
While the country has suffered from insecurity for decades, heightened political instability hit DRC in 2016, after President Joseph Kabila refused to step down after a second term. Localized conflicts involving government soldiers and militia groups, as well as interethnic clashes, have also flared up in pockets across the country.
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Some 4.1 million people are currently displaced in DRC, according to the United Nations. Conflict in the provinces of South Kivu, Tanganyika, and the Kasai is estimated to have accounted for 2.5 million of those displacements, with an average of over 44,000 people displaced each month.
“The violence has not only been widespread, it has been unimaginably brutal. Razed villages, attacked schools, and children recruited as soldiers are the hallmarks of this conflict,” according to a recent press release from the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The U.N. declared a level three emergency in DRC in October, which is the agency’s highest ranked level of emergency. Syria, Yemen, and Iraq are also in this category.
But despite the scale and brutality of the crisis, DRC has not been able to attract the needed funding, leaving the humanitarian sector to pick and choose communities to serve. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, DRC is the second lowest funded of the world’s largest crises, with less than half of the $812 million aid appeal for 2017 funded. Some humanitarians speculate that funding has not been raised because of ‘donor fatigue’ associated with DRC, as well as the contained nature of the crisis, which doesn’t draw as much attention as a refugee crisis that spills across borders.
“Interventions and humanitarian programming is sort of trickling in at an incredibly slow rate and certainly not providing sufficient protection and assistance to the incredible numbers of people who are living in terrible conditions,” Alexandra Bilak, director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, told Devex.
The high cost of insecurity
The operating environment in DRC has become increasingly tense. Earlier this month, 14 U.N. peacekeepers were killed and over 40 were wounded in what the agency has called its worst attack in recent history. In March, two U.N. investigators were killed. As the humanitarian sector continues to operate in this environment, it must work around these security challenges in order to keep workers safe.
In DRC, when people flee conflict zones, they only go a few miles away to neighboring villages, Jose Barahona, country director for DRC for Oxfam.
“That means in order to reach them we often have to get very close to the conflict areas,” he said.
Ongoing clashes have also rendered land transport in many areas inaccessible, in a country where roads are already scarce. The displaced are also spread throughout a huge area. To access these people, aid workers often take planes, said Barahona.
These challenges do not make displaced communities impossible to reach, but they are expensive to access and that means many aren’t being reached because of limited funds, he said.
“We can access most of the places. The problem, for most of the people that are not reached, is lack of resources,” said Barahona. “If the money is not there, you can’t have access.”
Despite an escalating crisis, where the number of displaced people more than doubled, funds in the country have roughly remained stable over the past few years, he said.
Because of this, maybe around half of displaced people are receiving some kind of relief effort, Francis Horton, regional director for West Africa for Samaritan’s Purse, told Devex.
“Reduced funding has also led to reduction in the number of U.N. peacekeeping troops in the country and the closure of five displacement camps,” according to a recent report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Norwegian Refugee Council.
A difficult message
DRC has been plagued by varying degrees of conflict for over two decades. Because of the long-term funding that has poured into the country in humanitarian and development efforts, some humanitarian actors speculate that ‘donor fatigue’ might be causing the funding shortfalls.
“It’s a very difficult message. When people hear ‘Congo,’ they say, ‘oh yeah, Congo. Again,’” said Barahona. “But this is not business as usual.”
Many donors do not see the crisis in DRC as a big problem, because it’s been a crisis for a long time, said Horton. And there are other emergencies around the world, such as the Rohingya refugee issue that are consuming a lot of international attention.
“If you look at the number of crises that the U.N. is having to deal with right now, it’s unprecedented, almost,” said Bilak.
Another reason could be that the DRC is an internal displacement situation and not a cross-border refugee emergency, said Horton.
“There is not a huge population of refugees coming in from somewhere else, which gets more international attention,” he said. “And there are not really security issues from outside groups. It’s all internal. I think all of that combines to lessen the awareness that people have of the DRC.”
Read more Devex coverage on the Democratic Republic of Congo.