Norwegian Refugee Council chief: attention on Ukraine war reveals ‘discrimination’ against African crises

Displaced communities living in church buildings after having fled the Ituri conflict in DRC. Picture taken on 28 April 2022. (Credit: Hugh Kinsella Cunningham/NRC)

Humanitarian aid and funding have been pouring in to assist the victims of the war in Ukraine. Years of crises in the African continent have gone largely neglected in comparison, according to an assessment by the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Each year, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) publishes a list of the 10 most neglected displacement crises in the world. The purpose is to focus on the plight of people whose suffering rarely makes international headlines, who receive no or inadequate assistance, and who never become the centre of attention for international diplomacy efforts.

For the first time, the top 10 list is composed entirely of African countries –  Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, South Sudan, Chad, Mali, Sudan, Nigeria, Burundi and Ethiopia.

Jan Egeland, NRC’s secretary general, answers Geneva Solutions’ questions.

GS News: This year’s 10 most neglected crises are in Africa. Doesn’t it show the failure of decision makers?

Jan Egeland: Indeed, this first time points to the chronic failure of not only decision makers but also donors and the media to address conflict and human suffering. That's a sign of the deepening of the crises of the continent but also of the neglect of the rest of the world. With Ukraine, I fear African crises will be pushed further in the shadows.

Some countries, such as DRC, have been on the list for decades. How come?

It is a disastrous combination of conflict, displacement and recurring climate-induced disasters which makes its humanitarian needs more severe.

Why is the DRC crisis marked by such total indifference?

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has become a textbook example of neglect, featuring in this list six times in a row. It is one of the worst humanitarian crises of this century. At the end of 2021, the country was home to more than 5.5 million internally displaced people, the third highest figure in the world. Also, 27 million people, a third of the country’s population, went hungry. But it seems that we don't care if the child dies in DR Congo as we would if the same thing happened in Europe.

This indifference is also perceptible at the level of financial aid…

The aid provided to DRC last year equaled less than $1 a week, per person in need. Only 44 per cent of the $2bn required to meet the humanitarian needs inside the country was received last year, and the refugee response remains severely underfunded. In comparison, the Ukraine humanitarian appeal launched 1 March was almost fully funded the same day! There is discrimination here. Humanitarian assistance should be provided according to the needs of people affected by crises, and not according to geopolitical interests.

There is also a clear absence of strong international political engagement to solve the crises of the African continent.

Political efforts, at both national and international level, and humanitarian diplomacy are essential to encourage parties to join, or return, to the negotiating table. For DRC there were no high-level political discussions, such as senior officials’ meetings, donor conferences or summits. That’s injustice. We know that only an end to conflicts will bring longer-term stability.

The war in Ukraine shows the power of the media. Is the lack of coverage of these 10 crises partly due to media fatigue?

The strict restrictions on freedom of the press in several of the countries on the list is part of the answer. For Ukraine, an average of around 85,000 articles, in English, per day, were written during the first three months of war. As a comparison, there were a total of 27,000 English articles written about displacement in Burkina Faso during the whole of 2021. Yet, last year more than half a million people were forced to flee their homes, bringing the total number of internally displaced to 1.75 million. One of our recommendations is to engage in the protection of press freedom and the safety of journalists to ensure journalists working in crisis-affected countries can continue to report.

It is interesting to note that some of the most affected countries are also the ones that have a large amount of natural resources.

In some of these places, where there is horrific conflict, we are witnessing the search for, or the exploitation of raw materials. We should have diplomatic, political initiatives, sanctions against warlords, against those who act, extract, and exploit… It's not happening because there is now a fatigue of these chronic conflicts and disasters. We shouldn't let these crises go on like that forever.

According to Forbes, 18 of  2022 world’s billionaires are African. Shouldn’t something be done to encourage them to contribute to funding?

Social injustice is everywhere in the world, but we need to expose the astronomic one within these places. Africa is the poorest of all the continents. Now it has all these neglected crises with no funding and no attention. That's the injustice.

Ukraine is getting more attention from donors such as the northern countries of Europe. How do you see the future?

The list of the 10 most neglected displacement crises in the world is showing the discrimination against one continent. I fear it's going to be worse. The Ukraine war made food and fuel and fertilizer much more expensive for the poorest and for these places. Even the best of donors is doing the horrific mistake of redirecting funds from Africa to receiving Ukrainian refugees in Europe –Sweden, Norway, and many other countries. NRC is fighting it.

Who focuses on Africa?

Asian economies, Middle East, Gulf economies, and even the surplus African economies should be able to share more with people living in the countries on the list.