DR Congo

DR Congo: As the country moves boldly towards historic vote, humanitarian concerns continue to demand attention

After 45 years of dictatorship and intermittent wars that have claimed roughly 4 million victims in the last five years alone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is bravely preparing for its first multiparty poll, scheduled for July 2006. Thanks to the efforts of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), large swathes of the nation are now at peace, while the registration of 26 million Congolese voters has testified to their commitment to change and the hope they place in the elections.

But while the country is on the verge of changing the course of its destiny, peace is fragile and the infrastructure is sorely inadequate, with many hospitals, schools, factories and railroads in a state of ruin. Some 1,200 people die every day, largely from preventable causes. Yet, all too often the immense human suffering implicit in these numbers remains outside the glare of sustained media attention. Funding for humanitarian aid in the country also falls short of its staggering needs. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, warning about the risk of neglecting the situation, points out that recent UN appeals for the Democratic Republic of the Congo have received only slightly more than half of the amount necessary to meet the most minimal requirements.

- The Democratic Republic of the Congo is Africa's third largest country, comparable in size to Western Europe, and is five times larger than Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone combined, with more than twice their population, nearly 56 million.

- MONUC is the largest peacekeeping operation ever fielded by the United Nations, with an authorized strength of some 17,000 uniformed personnel, as well as civilian specialists in such areas as human rights, humanitarian affairs, child protection, political affairs and medical support.

- Preparations for the scheduled July 2006 election, which is aimed at cementing the country's transition from a six-year civil war to political stability, constitutes the biggest and most complex electoral assistance mission the United Nations has ever undertaken.

- About half of the almost 56 million Congolese are under the age of 18. Children are particularly affected by the crisis: some 20 per cent do not live beyond the age of five, while 38 per cent suffer from malnutrition-20 per cent severely; half of those between the ages of 6 and 11 do not attend school; and nearly 10 per cent are believed to have lost one or both parents to AIDS. An estimated 20,000 have been child soldiers.

- At 1,300 deaths per 100,000 live births, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios in Africa.

- With nearly 80 per cent of the population trapped in extreme poverty and more than 70 per cent undernourished, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has appealed for $50 million to support the agricultural rehabilitation of this vast country.