The head of the United Nations refugee agency has accused the rich world of failing to respond adequately to the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, even as its multinationals “systematically loot” the country of its resources.
In an interview with the FT shortly after his return from the DRC, António Guterres, UN high commissioner for refugees, said western assistance came nowhere near meeting people’s needs in a vast country where continuing instability and widespread poverty had created one of the worst humanitarian situations in the world.
Mr Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, attributed this neglect in part to the fact that, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan or even Somalia, misery in the DRC involved no perceived threat to western governments.
“Even if we face a humanitarian disaster, as in North Kivu where there has been a dramatic increase in violence, nobody in the outside world feels threatened and so the international community is not really paying attention to DRC.”
Aid groups say 3m-4m people in the DRC, a country with a population of about 60m, have died in recent years as a result of conflict, poverty and disease. While most of the country is now stable – the civil war ended in 2003 and UN-supervised elections were held in 2006 – 400,000 people have been uprooted in the past 12 months by a resurgence of violence in the eastern province of North Kivu.
The UN estimates that 800,000 people have been displaced in North Kivu, which has also seen violence against women, including rape and mutilation, reach terrifying proportions.
Although international agencies and donor governments are providing some assistance, and the UN has mounted its biggest-ever force of some 16,500 peacekeepers, this is small in comparison with needs, Mr Guterres says. He points to the sheer size of the DRC – about four times that of France – and the high cost of operating there, given a lack of infrastructure that requires everything to be transported by aircraft.
Failure to improve living conditions would put at risk the democratic process and could threaten regional stability, he warned.
“One of the most frustrating things is to see a country in which you had [successful] elections but then you have to say to people: nothing can be improved in the next few months, even in the next few years, in infrastructure, in water, in sanitation, in health, in education, in jobs. And so the population starts to ask itself whether democracy has any value.“Think about the amount of resources that have been taken out of this country. Lots of companies operate in DRC, taking out its resources, in many circumstances, without a minimum respect for any rules. The international community has systematically looted DRC and we should not forget that"