Appeal to support the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo when they need it most


Q&A with Alexis Bonte, FAO’s acting Representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

FAO’s acting Representative in DRC Alexis Bonte (in blue, at the front) walks with colleagues and people displaced by violence at a FAO-supported IDP site in Kalemie, Tanganyika region, DRC. ©FAO/Frank Ribas

Alexis Bonte is FAO’s acting Representative in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He explains what life is like for millions of people affected by conflict and hunger, and what needs to happen to address this dire situation.

Q: DRC has been long hit by violence and political turmoil. What is the situation now? How are people coping?

A: For the last two years we have seen more and more people fleeing their homes, mainly in the rural areas of Tanganyka, Kasaï, South Kivu and Maniema regions, and more recently in Ituri. These people are not fleeing for nothing. They are fleeing because of violence.

Despite the incredible community solidarity, the humanitarian situation has taken a sharp turn for the worse due to a mix of political tensions, economic stress, and an increase in local conflicts.

Thanks to the generosity of the local families hosting those who have been uprooted, we will most likely never get to a famine situation, but the number of hungry people has never been so high. Some 7.7 million people suffer from acute hunger (Aug 2017, latest figures) - a 30 percent increase since the previous year.

All the women I met in Kasaï and Tanganyika have the same story – their husbands have been killed or disappeared, they don’t know where some of their children are, and they lost all their belongings when they fled their villages.

A displaced woman and her children sit next to their hut at a FAO-supported IDP site in Kalemie, Tanganyika (left). A displaced women in Kananga, Kasaï Central region (right). “All the women I met in Kasaï and Tanganyika have the same story – their husbands were killed or disappeared, they don’t know where some of their children are, and they lost all their belongings when fleeing their villages,” says FAO’s acting Representative in DRC Alexis Bonte. ©FAO/Frank Ribas

The host lady I met last week in Miabi (Kasaï Oriental region) explained that she had to work more together with the displaced person so that she can cover now the needs of two families.

When communities are displaced, everyone is suffering. Families told me they weren’t able to eat any source of animal proteins for more than two months.

Some 4.6 million mothers and children need nutritional support.  

Over 4 million people, more than two third of them women and children, struggle to live in displacement – with host families or in camps. This is the highest number of displaced people now on the African continent.

On top of this, there has been a steady flow of refugees from neighboring Burundi, Central African Republic and South Sudan but also from DRC to Uganda and Angola.

Overall, according to the humanitarian community, more than 13 million people urgently need assistance - the equivalent of one in five people in the rural areas.

Q: What needs to happen to improve this situation?

A: I asked a displaced lady the same question. This is what she told me: “nin taka kula na Amani” – “I just want to eat in peace”.

The most important thing is to end violence; it has an impact on millions of people and benefits only a few.

For aid organisations like FAO, funding is the most critical issue. In some areas, access is also an issue.

Most of the Kasaï region is calm now, and we have the opportunity to help the people in need. Our next big objective is to support people during the September planting season.

In the affected areas, agriculture is the only sector that can produce food, generate work and income at the same time, and restore people’s hope.

To date, FAO requires around $100 million to ensure families can resume growing food. We have only 20 percent of what we need for 2018. Underfunding remains a serious concern.

For women displaced by violence, farming is a way to get back on their feet, and face the future again with dignity and hope. Displaced women working in their vegetable garden in Kalemie, Tanganyika region, thanks to support from FAO. ©FAO/Frank Ribas

Q: There are fears that the country could succumb to more conflicts, similar to the ones during 1997-2003 when 5 million people died. Is there still hope despite the continued suffering and deteriorating humanitarian situation?

A: I worked in DRC from 1998 to 2005. More than 10 years later, unfortunately, the situation has not really changed in some areas, such as Kasaï, Tanganyka and Ituri, especially in terms of human rights.

But in other areas like Kindu, Kisangani, we see improvements. The country just needs peace and stability to go forward. The nature and the rural population are so generous that the situation can improve quickly if there is stability.

Despite the complicated situation, there are significant opportunities for early-recovery and longer-term development; the DRC has tremendous natural wealth and human resilience.

In Bulongo (Kasaï region), 800 villagers with the leadership of an agronomist from the Ministry of Agriculture set up a field of 2,500 ha (a square of 5 km x 5 Km). All this by using only hoes. That’s the biggest non-mechanized field I have ever seen. Now they call their village “Bulongo Paris” as they are doing well.

There is always hope, and there are always reasons to keep hoping.

I have just returned from a visit to Kasaï region, to Tshimbulu where people went through unimaginable suffering. I met women who lost their husbands or children in the fighting. Farming, for them, is a way to get back on their feet, and face the future again with dignity and hope.

It is clear that peace, an end to violence are paramount. But so is continued assistance. We must support the people of DRC in their greatest time of need. We cannot abandon a population in the year of their quest for democracy.

Q: How is FAO helping the people of DRC? What would FAO be able to do if its response was fully funded?

A: In conflict-hit areas such as Kasaï and Tanganyika regions where hunger levels are the highest, FAO is providing vegetable seeds and hand tools to boost food production and increase the availability of nutritious foods among displaced and host communities.

Rising needs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

We work side-by-side with the Ministry of Agriculture and other organisations such as WFP and IFAD, complementing each other’s work. A family who receives emergency food assistance from WFP, for example, also receives seeds and tools from FAO. This way they have food to eat and won’t resort to eating the seeds that are meant for planting and growing food for the longer-term. We also have to recognize the work of the NGOs, the national and international ones. They are on the front line.

In regions such as Kivu that have been affected by protracted crises, we are reviving the economy and the agriculture. We provide training and inputs such as seeds, tools, smallholder friendly technologies and processing machineries to develop farmers’ capacity to produce more food, and better store and market their produce. We also link farmers to markets so that they can sell their produce, and have a stable and better income.

In other regions, we provide cash to farmers who are engaged in sustainable agricultural or environmental practices, such as reforestation. This capital strengthens village-based savings and loans (VSLAs) schemes, providing rural communities with access to credit to diversify their sources of income.

We work with partners with expertise in peacebuilding to lay down the basis for durable economic results. These activities include establishing community dialogue and participatory mechanisms for peace and reconciliation.

We focus on helping women. Women and children are always the first targets of the perpetrators, therefore, they are our first priority.

In 2018, funding permitting, FAO aims to support around 3 million people to tackle hunger, restore food production and build more resilient livelihoods. For that, FAO urgently requires $100 million.  

Q: Apart from funding constraints, what are the challenges FAO is facing in DRC?

A: Access constitutes a serious problem in some provinces such as Ituri and Tanganyka, and parts of North Kivu. It is more difficult to have staff in these areas. We rely a lot on the local partners to implement the activities. It’s only through the Congolese NGOs and local staff of the Ministry of Agriculture that we can reach these isolated populations.

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