A consortium of 19 aid agencies operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo has issued a last-minute appeal to the UK Foreign Office to suspend planned aid cuts to the country, where a third of the population faces acute food insecurity.
The Foreign Office, the second largest provider of aid to the war-torn country, has told aid agencies that cuts are very likely. Although the size of them is not yet agreed, one report has suggested a 60% reduction in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office budget for the country. The FCDO’s aid programme for Congo was worth £180m in 2019.
In a joint statement, the aid agencies said they “implore the British government to rethink this disastrous decision”.
The agencies warned the human cost of a 60% cut would be devastating and said: “The humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is dire – 27.3 million people are experiencing acute food insecurity, one in three of the population, and 7 million people are now just one step away from catastrophe. The DRC is now home to the highest number of people facing food insecurity anywhere on the planet.
“As the second largest provider of aid to the DRC, any cut would be a hammer blow to a country facing multiple crises. If Global Britain is to be a force for good in the world, it must not turn its back on the DRC.”
Agencies on the ground said aid programmes were in the balance as they waited for final word from London on the scale of the cuts.
Benjamin Viénot, country director for Action Against Hunger, one of the agencies that signed the appeal, said: “I have worked in Liberia, Yemen, Ethiopia and I have never seen such malnutrition need as here. We are treating children with complications such as diarrhoea, malaria or eye disease. They cannot eat by themselves so they need therapeutic milk or sometimes a tube from their mouth to their stomach. It is very clear what will happen if these cuts happen. We will only have 80 of the planned 210 health centres. That is 50,000 children’s lives not saved. I have a very great respect for the Foreign Office, but I am not playing games about the consequences of these cuts.”
Niamh Murnaghan from the Norwegian Refugee Council said: “UK aid helps by providing emergency cash vouchers to those fleeing for their lives from conflict with only what they wear and can put on their back. In the last 18 months we have provided assistance to more than 200,000 people.”
She showed a recent film in which one displaced woman, Kahambu Grace, said: “We came here because of the violence. My mother and father have been killed. They are killing people and burning houses where we come from. We did not know what to do so we fled to Bulongo, but not long after Bulongo was attacked. We really do not know what to do or how to survive.”
The film and the aid programme is funded by the Foreign Office.
Pascale Barnich, country director for Marie Stopes International which is delivering the Foreign Office flagship programme on reproductive health, said she was waiting to hear whether an 18-month extension would be allowed. She said between October 2018 and March 2020 MSI had, with its partners, provided services to 453,000 family-planning users, meaning 2,560 maternal deaths had been averted and 643,000 unintended pregnancies avoided.
Whitney Elmer, country director at Mercy Corps, an agency that specialises in rapid response to displacement and hunger, said: “We have just been told to expect significant cuts. When you look at the DRC’s needs, the numbers displaced, the second highest number of displaced people in the world, this seems a strange place to choose for large cuts. Britain has built such a reputation over aid in recent years. This is an area in greater need with the effect of Covid only starting. It is unlikely a country this size will be vaccinated even in two years’ time.”
The UK Foreign Office is cutting its aid budget by nearly a third over two years due to a reduction in the size of the economy, and a decision to reduce the size of the aid budget from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%. It has already announced a 60% cut in its humanitarian aid to Yemen, a decision that is to be investigated by the international development select committee next week.