UN calls for £400m to end Congo's 'forgotten crisis'

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The Independent Online

Britain will pledge £60m in humanitarian aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) today in response to an appeal by the United Nations for £400m to end the "forgotten crisis" in the central African country before it holds elections.

With 216,000 lives lost to conflict and poverty in the past six months, Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, said the money was crucial to alleviate hunger and disease, and for long-term development in the country where fighting continues in the north and east despite a peace deal.

A UN donors' conference in Brussels today will call for international donors to provide $681m (£400m) for an "action plan" for the DRC, three times the size of the UN appeal for the DRC in preceding years. More than 1,000 people a day die from violence in the country and since 1998 four million people have fallen victim to conflict, hunger and disease.

Last year about 40,000 people a month were forced to flee their homes, most of them women and children.

The UN also wants the European Union to provide troops to reinforce the embattled UN peacekeeping force of 16,000 men based in eastern Congo.

Mr Benn said: "The UN's appeal helps to shed light on a forgotten crisis in the DRC. In such a crisis, the international community must respond - whatever the cause."

In a country where 8 per cent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, about half of the UK pledge will provide emergency food and shelter over two years to people made homeless by conflict. The money will help provide medical equipment, vaccinations and clean water and to rebuild destroyed schools. The remainder will be spent on the longer-term development of a country the size of western Europe where years of conflict have shattered infrastructure and caused the health system to collapse.

Britain is also providing more than £22m to assist preparations for parliamentary elections, for which £258m has already been raised by donors. The polls are scheduled for the end of April, having been delayed from the original date of June last year.

In a report released today to coincide with the conference, Gordon Kihuguru of Oxfam said donor countries must first provide immediate humanitarian aid. "The democratic process is vital in the long-term," he said. "But providing millions of people with enough food and water to survive each day and working to bring peace has to be the immediate priority, as dead people cannot vote."

Mr Kihuguru said that last year some countries failed to donate their "fair share" to the DRC, including the United States, Japan, Germany, France and Italy. He compared the response to the crisis there to the huge commitments made following the Asian tsunami, when more than $1bn was pledged - 85 per cent of what was required. Congo received just 62 per cent of what it needed last year.

Mr Benn said the fund launched today would "help the United Nations to respond more flexibly, quickly and effectively to humanitarian needs".

He added: "I hope that the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo will remember 2006 not only as the year they elected a new government, but also as the beginning of the end to the suffering that has been a part of their lives for too long."