Current issues and what the World Food Programme is doing
The Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville, or, simply, Congo) extends northwards from Central Africa’s Atlantic seaboard. Two-thirds of its 342,000 km square consists of dense rainforest, with the coastal south concentrating much of the 4.5 million-strong population.
Notwithstanding two civil wars, Congo has experienced strong GDP growth in recent years, largely fuelled by an expanding oil sector. The country is now classified as lower middle income, amid government efforts to diversify the economy.
Congo’s Human Development rating – 136th out of 188 – is high by regional standards, but masks an unequal wealth distribution and high poverty rates. A mere 1.6 percent of the country’s land area is used for arable farming – just 0.2 percent up over a quarter of a century ago. In the same period, by contrast, Congo’s population has nearly doubled. With the country having to import more than 70 percent of the food it consumes, prices are high and subject to volatility. National food production is dominated by tubers and cassava: while calorific, these have limited nutritional value.
Current issues in Congo
An estimated 46.5 percent of the Congolese population lives below the national poverty line. In rural communities, with access to markets limited and transportation of goods expensive, small-scale farming carries few rewards. As a result, successive generations remain locked in poverty. Meanwhile, inequality has been growing between city and country dwellers, and between urban residents and those on the outskirts of cities (often migrants with little formal education).
Poverty, coupled with high dependence on imported food, makes access to nutritious foods and dietary diversification unaffordable for many people. Food insecurity affects 14 percent of households; 30.5 percent of the population is below the minimum level of dietary energy consumption; and 12 percent of women suffer from acute malnutrition, slightly more than two decades ago.
About 14 percent of women of childbearing age suffer from acute malnutrition; most pregnant women have iron and folic acid deficiencies. Breast milk is often supplemented with plain water or solids of little nutrient value. Poor hygiene practices cause diarrhoeal diseases.
In 2015, a quarter of children suffered from wasting and nearly 21.2 percent were stunted.
• Limited access to healthcare
Although some healthcare is free in Congo, costs and poor infrastructure put medical treatment beyond the reach of almost half the population. Indigenous people who have left the forests are developing new conditions for which their traditional medicine has no remedies. Access to western medical care is further limited by discrimination.
Since 2013, the World Bank has been providing funding to improve immunization rates, and treatment for malnutrition and growth monitoring services for children. In rural areas, however, poor access limits take-up.
• Limited access to education
Children are theoretically eligible for free education from the age of six to 19. But the system is inadequately resourced, and families are often too poor to afford all the associated costs. Overall, opportunities to engage deeply in education are extremely limited, especially for rural populations for whom short-term financial imperatives take priority.
• Discrimination against indigenous populations
Congo’s indigenous populations are estimated to number between 1.4 and 10 percent of the total population. Until recently, they were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers living mainly in the rainforests; some still are. In the Likouala department in particular, they have been subjected to systematic discrimination and economic exploitation by the majority Bantu – often in the form of involuntary servitude.
Recent laws to promote and protect the rights of Congo’s indigenous populations are struggling to overcome prejudice. WFP is supporting and promoting the independent ‘Observe, Reflect, Act’ (ORA) schools created by the Spiritan Fathers, which also enjoy EU and UNICEF support; these schools are tailored specifically to the needs and culture of indigenous children.
Vulnerable to climate change, Congo suffers from recurrent flooding, particularly in urban, densely populated settlements, where poor construction and inadequate drainage are the norm. With less economic resilience or access to safety nets than men, women tend to be doubly affected.
Conflict in the Great Lakes region – most recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – and in the Central African Republic has caused a series of mass displacements, with many refugees fleeing to Congo. According to UNHCR figures released in March 2016, the country currently hosts some 53,000 refugees.
What the World Food Programme is doing in Congo
Aside from its tailored Congo Country Programme financed primarily by the Government of Congo (which targets schools, vulnerable households, people living with HIV or tuberculosis and disaster prevention), WFP provides assistance to refugees from the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and works to mitigate the regional impact of mass displacement following conflict and instability in the Central African Republic.
• School feeding
WFP is providing hot meals on school days to primary school children in rural areas. Over the next four years, the programme will reach 132,500 students (of whom 50 percent will be girls, and 12 percent indigenous) and promote home-grown school feeding. WFP is working to build the Government’s capacity to take over the programme at a later stage.
To prevent nutritional deficiencies, the Government is fortifying staple cassava flour with micronutrients. WFP is involved as a technical partner; in the current pilot phase, the plan is to support local producers by procuring up to 20 tons of the enriched flour per year for the school meals programme.
• Social safety net support for vulnerable households
The Government of Congo is developing a social safety net for its most vulnerable citizens that includes training and income-generating opportunities. WFP is supporting this initiative by providing a nutrition safety net to low income households, in which at least one member is a person living with HIV/TB, and/or a pregnant or nursing woman.
The current project phase (2015-2018) aims to reach 117,600 individuals in 19,600 households selected through proxy means-testing targeting. WFP issues each household with a monthly voucher delivered via text message. The electronic funds are then exchanged for nutritious food at selected shops. In return, recipients living with HIV/TB must adhere to treatment (the food helps them withstand the side-effects); and pregnant or nursing women must have pre-natal/post-natal check-ups, and ensure that their children receive vaccinations and monthly growth assessments.
• Nutrition support
People living with HIV/TB who are assisted under the safety net voucher scheme also receive Specialized Nutritious Foods (Super Cereal and oil fortified with vitamins A and D) to help them adhere better to their respective medical treatments (ART and TB-DOTS).
In the Lékoumou department, the chronic malnutrition rate is 38.6 percent. Here, WFP, in coordination with UNICEF, will launch a pilot program providing Specialized Nutritious Foods to 10,000 pregnant or lactating women, and 10,000 children. Women will receive micronutrient supplement tablets for 12 months; children will receive a lipid-based nutrient supplement between the ages of six and 24 months. The impact on chronic malnutrition will be measured and will inform future interventions.
• Strengthening disaster and risk management
WFP is providing the Congolese Government with technical assistance to strengthen national risk management capabilities, reduce vulnerability to natural and anthropogenic disasters, and promote climate change adaptation. We are also providing tools for early warning, contingency planning and risk analysis, through trainings and crisis simulation exercises.
• Food assistance to refugees
Under its second and third operations in Congo, WFP is providing food assistance to the remaining 12,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and to 21,000 refugees from the Central African Republic. These programmes aim to improve food security and enhance resilience to shocks among the refugee populations.
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