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Democratic Republic of the Congo Faces Hunger Crisis Despite Mineral Wealth

“The crisis is beyond belief,” says Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council Jan Egeland.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is seeing a dramatic deterioration of infrastructure and displacement of citizens as a result of armed violence, flooding and the world’s largest hunger crisis. In recent months, rampant violence of armed groups has forced more than half a million people to flee their homes, while the United Nations says some 3,000 families also lost their homes after recent intense flooding and mudslides in the eastern part of the country. Twenty-five million people are facing starvation as displaced citizens are unable to access their land to grow their own food, and the humanitarian response has so far failed to address the crisis. “The crisis is beyond belief,” says Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council Jan Egeland, who just visited the DRC and reports that the international community still looks for the country’s resources while ignoring its plight. “The Congo is not ignored by those who want to extract the riches of that place. It’s ignored by the rest of the world who would want to come to the relief of the children and families of the Congo.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the dramatic deterioration in the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where rampant violence of armed groups has displaced more than half a million people in recent months. Overall, more than 1.7 million people have been forced to flee their homes.

AMY GOODMAN: The Democratic Republic of the Congo is also experiencing the largest hunger crisis in the world, with 25 million people facing starvation. The humanitarian response has so far failed to address the crisis.

For more, we’re joined by Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, just back from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Can you lay out the crisis as you see it in DRC and what the world needs to know, Jan?

JAN EGELAND: The crisis is beyond belief, really. It’s the worst hunger catastrophe on Earth. Nowhere else in the world is there more than 25 million people experiencing violence, hunger, disease, neglect. And nowhere in the world is there such a small international response to help, to aid, to end all of this suffering. We are governed by humanitarian principles, and one of them is that needs alone should govern where we go and what we prioritize. And I would say, as humanity, we’re really, really failing the Congo now, because it’s not Ukraine, it’s not the Middle East; it is that part of Central Africa where most children’s lives are at risk at the moment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jan Egeland, if you could explain what led up to this crisis reaching these proportions? Why are 25 million people at the risk of hunger or facing extreme hunger, in fact, in the DRC?

JAN EGELAND: Because such a large portion of this vast continent, which is the Democratic Republic of Congo, is now engulfed in violence. You mentioned some of the displacement figures in the intro to this conversation. That’s from one province only. It’s called Ituri. It’s in the north of eastern DRC, where I just visited. I was also in northern Kivu. In those two provinces, there are 150 armed groups. They are fighting against each other. They are fighting for territory. They’re fighting against the regular army. And the civilian population is in the crossfire.

So, people are crammed together in abject misery in hundreds of smaller camps. I visited several of those. We are able to give some shelter, some food, some assistance, but only to a minority, really, because the small humanitarian appeal, you know, humanitarian plan for assistance, compared to the vastness of the problem, is one-third funded. The United States is giving half of the funding. Too much of the world is giving nothing. And now there is a question of perhaps even reducing that aid assistance further. It’s terrible, really.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Jan Egeland, it is not as if the world is ignoring the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In fact, the DRC produces nearly three-quarters of the world’s cobalt, an essential component of rechargeable batteries powering laptops, smartphones and electric vehicles. The reason I bring this up, we just interviewed Siddharth Kara, who wrote the book Cobalt Red. He said, “The public health catastrophe on top of the human rights violence on top of the environmental destruction is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the modern context. The fact that it is linked to companies worth trillions and that our lives depend on this enormous violence has to be dealt with.” Did you see evidence of this and how it links to the hunger we’re talking about, children age 5 and 10, working in these places, all of the corporations that are making their profits, yet the worst hunger crisis in the world?

JAN EGELAND: Well, I didn’t see these companies and their extraction and their vast bank accounts. What I saw was the families, the children, the women, abused women, who are suffering from the conflicts that are fueled by this black economy, by these economic forces, that, again, lead to 150 armed groups not lacking arms, not lacking fuel. The neighboring countries are also, several of them, involved in all of this.

So, when I say — I agree with you: The Congo is not ignored by those who want to extract the riches of that place. It’s ignored by the rest of the world who would want to come to the relief of the children and families of the Congo, because we have — we’ve mapped this. Nowhere in the world is there so little aid, so little media attention and so few effective diplomatic initiatives to resolve the crisis.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Jan, explain where exactly you went in the DRC — you mentioned Ituri province — and the people whom you spoke to, a large number of whom, women you spoke to, had survived sexual violence. If you could talk about that, what they told you?

JAN EGELAND: Yeah, I came via the most important town in eastern Congo. It’s called Goma. It’s next to one of the largest active volcanoes on Earth. I saw camps north of Goma in North Kivu, where thousands of people are crammed together on this volcanic earth. It looks like a moonscape, really. There is no water there. So why do people flock together there in subhuman conditions? Because it’s safe from the armed groups who drive them from their land. One of these groups are called M23. It has roots from foreign interests. And they have been on the rampage of late. Women talked about tremendous sexual abuse, mass gang rape when they go out of the camps to collect firewood or do any other necessary business. I met a schoolmaster who had had 40 pupils in each class until the latest influx of people. Now there were 80 schoolchildren in a small classroom every day, seven teachers on many, many hundreds of pupils. We helped extend that school. We built latrines. That has led to less cholera. But we’re really overstretched completely.

Then I went up to Ituri, which is, in many ways, ground zero now for much of the conflict. That’s next to Uganda. What really shook me this time was to see people who had walked on their feet back from Uganda to where they fled violence two, three, four, five years ago, coming back to Ituri and saying, “We were starving to death now in Uganda because no one’s feeding us there anymore as refugees. We came back here. It’s better to die in our ancestral land than to starve to death in a foreign land.” And they, these women, had all stories of sexual abuse on the way because there were so many of these armed men on the road.

AMY GOODMAN: Jan Egeland, we just reported in the headlines about the massive hunger crisis in Afghanistan, as well. And we’ve spoken to you in Afghanistan. The World Food Programme is saying it will further slash the amount of humanitarian assistance it provides there, where more than 15 million people face severe food insecurity, blaming a lack of funding on the latest cuts, which will see the U.N. agency provide emergency food aid to just 3 million people. So you have Afghanistan, the massive hunger, and, as you describe, DRC, the worst hunger in the world. And yet our first segment was about the West pouring billions into the war in Ukraine. Can you talk about what needs to be done on a global perspective right now?

JAN EGELAND: What we need are summit meetings to deal with this exploding hunger crisis. We cannot call ourselves an international civilization or a European civilization or an American civilization unless we do something to avert this chronicle of an announced famine that is going to grip from Afghanistan to the Congo to Somalia to Yemen to the Sahel and beyond.

The United States has been the most generous donor over the last two years. The United States is cutting 20% of its humanitarian assistance now, from last fiscal year to this one, and next year it will be a further cut, in a situation where needs are exploding because of conflict and climate crisis. The Europeans are not stepping up as they should be. And where are the Gulf countries, really, or the large Asian economies? I think we have — India, you put on, you know, spaceships on the backside of the moon. Could you also help feed children in the Congo? There has to be summit meetings here, where leaders of the bigger economies have to say, “We cannot let children massively die from hunger and neglect in 2023.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Jan Egeland, just before we end, if you could talk about — you also looked at the number of children — in addition, of course, to the hunger crisis, the number of children in the Congo who are being prevented from receiving an education.

JAN EGELAND: Yes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Over one out of three. If you could — of every child in the Congo. If you could talk about that?

JAN EGELAND: Yeah, and that’s very important. I mean, why do we do education in a situation where people cannot really feed themselves? Because education is hope, hope to get out of the misery. So, even starving parents and grandparents say, “Please, educate our children, because that could mean that our community gets out of this dependence. We cannot live under dependence forever.”

So, hundreds of schools have been destroyed or closed because of the violence, but hundreds of schools are also lacking the basic equipment to be running. We, in the Norwegian Refugee Council, are able now to provide, as of September, thousands of children sort of catch-up classes. And these are, you know, children, youth. I met 14-, 15-year-old people who have never been to school because they’ve been fleeing all their life.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 20 seconds.

JAN EGELAND: And they are able to go back to school now, because we got some funding from the U.S. and from Europe. If we got more funding, we could give to many more. There is hope.

AMY GOODMAN: Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, speaking to us from Oslo, Norway, just back from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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