CAR

Central African Republic: Q&A Muriel Cornelis

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It is the Central African Republic's (CAR) troubled neighbours such as Sudan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo which normally make the headlines in the volatile centre of Africa, but CAR's recent history has made it one of the world's humanitarian hotspots. Muriel Cornelis is the head of office in the Central African capital, Bangui, for the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO), one of the largest donors in the country.

Question: Why is there a humanitarian crisis in CAR?

Muriel Cornelis: At first glance, the humanitarian situation in CAR is not as striking as the problems faced in Sudan, DRC and Chad which have experienced years of conflict and huge displacements of people. However, in 2009, CAR has experienced a deepening humanitarian crisis. The peace process between the government and rebel forces has faltered, rebellions have continued and new ones have emerged. Humanitarian agencies have found it increasingly difficult to access people affected by the fighting and the recent kidnapping of two aid workers in the east of the country will further restrict the areas where humanitarian workers can or are prepared to work.

Q: Is the humanitarian crisis conflict driven?

MC: In the north and east of the country the crisis has been driven by various conflicts and since 2005 there have been around 200,000 people who have been displaced. In 2009, new incursions by the Uganda-based Lords Resistance Army, has led to displacement in the south-east of the country. All these people need humanitarian assistance. In the south-west of the country, there is a wholly different problem, malnutrition. I was shocked to visit villages in the region to find an extremely high number of people, mainly children, in need of treatment for malnutrition. This is one of the most fertile parts of the country, but most people are just eating cassava which has a low nutritional value.

Q: Why aren't these people eating more nutritional food?

MC: It's partly a question of culture. The staple food is cassava. People don't eat foods like avocado, beans and tropical fruits even though they are nutritious and available. Farming has been in decline in this part of CAR for at least two generations, mainly because of the diamond trade. This area is rich in diamonds and many people gave up farming to go and work in the mines where they could earn more money. So a lot of farming knowledge has been lost. A recent 33% drop in the diamond price on the world market and the introduction of new industry regulations by the government have meant that many of those people who gave up farming can't make a living and don't have money to pay for food, which has contributed to the high malnutrition rates.

Q: Does CAR need humanitarian or development assistance?

MC: The crisis in CAR is a structural one. The lack of basic services has reached such a level that it has led to humanitarian crisis. It's a complicated situation as we have to look at a humanitarian situation from a development and early recovery perspective. ECHO is responding to humanitarian needs while liaising with the European Union delegation in CAR which carries out development work. So ECHO has funded therapeutic feeding centres in the south-west of the country to treat children suffering from malnutrition. In the conflict-affected north, we have supported bush schools, which aim to get displaced children back into school, primary health care and water and sanitation projects as well as livelihood interventions which will get farmers back into their fields.

It is clear that CAR will also need huge development as opposed to life-saving humanitarian assistance to rebuild education, infrastructure, the farming sector and thereby ensure greater stability which is ultimately needed for long-term development.

Q: How big is the challenge facing CAR?

MC: In 2009 CAR ranked 178 out of 179 countries in the UNDP's Human Development Index with 80% of the population living on less than $2 a day. Only 26% of the population has access to safe drinking water and the education and health systems in CAR are amongst the weakest in the world. There are pockets of severe malnutrition amongst children under five. So CAR faces huge challenges. It also lies in the shadow of its more volatile neighbours and sometimes experiences the effects of those crises, for example the incursion of LRA rebels and the recent kidnapping of two aid workers close to the border with Chad.