JOHANNESBURG - As donors prepare to gather Friday in Geneva for a major aid conference to raise $1.7 billion for humanitarian needs in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the government of the central African nation is standing firm on its refusal to attend or cooperate.
The United Nations says more than 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in the sprawling Central African nation, which is full of mineral wealth, but substantially lacking in critical infrastructure and basic government services.
Aid agencies said it is crucial to intervene to alleviate crises in parts of the country the United Nations has put on par with Syria and Yemen.
The United Nations has declared three conflict-ridden regions in Congo, the Kasai, Tanganyika and South Kivu, as Level 3 emergencies, the most severe category. The United Nations says more than two million children are at risk of dying from severe acute malnutrition.
The Congolese government pushed back, saying the emergency classification was "based on facts that are not real."Presidential adviser Patrick Nkanga told VOA the government disagrees with how the conference was organized and must safeguard national sovereignty.
"The government takes issue with how organizers have characterized the situation in the country in such a way that deliberately tarnishes the country's image," he said from Kinshasa. "The government's conditions were not met, and the entire basis for the conference, as it has been presented by the organizers, is not conducive to clear collaboration."
Crisis behind the crisis
But analyst Stephanie Wolters of the Institute for Security Studies said there is more to this situation than meets the eye. Congo has delayed elections for two years after President Joseph Kabila failed to step down in time for a scheduled 2016 poll. That act has been met with increasingly violent protests against his administration.
"It has not only said it's not participating in this conference, but it has in fact sent what really amounts to threatening letters to donor countries that do want to participate, and basically saying, 'Look, you're having a donor conference without our even being involved. We're a sovereign country. What is this?'" she said.
"The context for this," she added, "is of course the ongoing electoral crisis and the increasingly difficult relationship between the Kabila government and the international community about the electoral delays, about the crackdowns on political freedoms, about the strong security service's responses to protests, about the ban on political marches, and the entire repressive political context in which the country now finds itself."
The electoral delay has been met with protests organized by the powerful Catholic Church, which is demanding Kabila's resignation.Last week, the church voiced its opinion of the aid-conference boycott, with Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya of Kinshasa saying to his congregation, "We can't refuse help when we have empty hands."
A silly move
Wolters says the government's move is self-defeating if it wants to win over the population in time for promised December elections.
"What you've really done is you've just put yourself out there and said, 'We don't want international support to help our population,'" she said, "It's a silly move, and I don't think it's going to win the government any points."
She said that doesn't mean donors will stop giving aid to the DRC, "but if you have a hostile government ... they can then make it very difficult for those organizations to operate in the Congo."
And that, aid officials say, would be a tragedy.
"The stakes are incredibly high in DR Congo," Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council said this week. "Continued inaction would be measured in loss of civilian lives … There are 13 million reasons to care about DR Congo.Those lives are just as important and just as worthy as the lives anywhere else in the world."
VOA visited the troubled Kasai region last month with the World Food Program and the U.N. Children's Emergency Fund. The impoverished community has for decades been living on a razor-thin edge, where half the children were malnourished before the beginning of the 2016 conflict that forced one million residents to flee their homes, leave their crops behind, and to hide in the jungle where food is scarce.
Nurse Marie Louise Misenga worked at a UNICEF-supported clinic in Kasai that was filled with dozens of desperate mothers and their severely malnourished babies. She was asked what one message she would want to give to the world.
"If the international community brings us some support," she said, "it would make us happy and be a good help."