DR of Congo: As the country moves boldly towards historic vote, humanitarian concerns continue to demand attention [Archives:2007/1017/Last Page]

January 18 2007

As the world is applauding the determination of the Congolese people and leadership to take a crucial step in the country's transition from a bloody civil war to peace and democracy, the steep humanitarian challenges facing the devastated nation must not be forgotten.

The story

This is a year like no other in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After 45 years of dictatorship and intermittent wars that have claimed roughly 4 million victims in the last five years alone, the DRC is bravely preparing for its first multiparty poll, scheduled for July. Thanks, in part, to the efforts of MONUC, the UN Mission in the country, large swathes of the nation are now at peace, while the registration of 26 million Congolese voters has testified to their commitment to change and the hope they place in the elections.

But while the country is on the verge of changing the course of its destiny, peace is fragile and the infrastructure is sorely inadequate, with many of the hospitals, schools, factories and railroads in a state of ruin. Today and every day, 1,200 people die from largely preventable causes ) the equivalent of a tsunami toll every six months. Yet, the immense human suffering implicit in these numbers all too often remains outside the glare of sustained media attention. Funding for humanitarian aid in the DRC also falls short of the country's staggering needs. Warning about the risks of neglecting this situation, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs points out recent UN funding appeals for the DRC have received only slightly more than half of the amount necessary to meet the most minimal requirements.

The Context

– The DRC is Africa's third largest country, comparable in size to Western Europe. It is five times larger than Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone combined, with more than twice their population – nearly 56 million.

– The UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC) is the largest peacekeeping operation ever fielded by the world body. It has an authorized strength of some 17,000 uniformed personnel, as well as civilian specialists in such areas as human rights, humanitarian affairs, child protection, political affairs and medical support.

– Preparations for the scheduled July vote, which is aimed at cementing the DRC's transition from a six-year civil war to political stability, constitutes the biggest and most complex electoral-assistance mission the UN has ever undertaken.

– About half of the 56 million Congolese are under the age of 18 and children are particularly affected by the crisis. Some 20 per cent of children do not live until the age of 5, while 38 per cent suffer from malnutrition ) 20 per cent severely. Half of those between 6 and 11 years old do not attend school and nearly 10 per cent are believed to have lost one or both parents to the AIDS pandemic. An estimated 20,000 have been child soldiers.

– At 1,300 deaths per 100,000 live births, DRC has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in Africa.

– With nearly 80 per cent of the population trapped in extreme poverty and more than 70 per cent undernourished, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has appealed for $50 million to support the agricultural rehabilitation of the vast country.