Geneva (AFP) - Donors gathered in Geneva Friday were expected to cough up pledges of $530 million (430 million euros) towards addressing a towering humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN said.
The amount was less than a quarter of the some $2.2 billion the UN has estimated is required this year to provide desperately needed aid inside DRC and to Congolese refugees in neighbouring countries.
But UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock stressed that the expectation had never been to raise the entire amount in one conference.
"I am pleased with the progress," he told reporters, highlighting that a number of countries which had not yet made pledges had indicated they planned to do so soon.
Around 100 delegations were taking part in Friday's conference.
- DRC boycotting conference -
But the DRC itself was conspicuously missing. The government has accused the UN of exaggerating the crisis and is boycotting the event.
That move has deepened political divisions in a country facing mounting strife, while its legacy of ethnic conflict, corruption and instability are combining with political tensions to spark fears of a bloodbath.
The growing violence has worsened an already dire humanitarian situation in several areas, with underfunded aid agencies struggling to keep up with the needs.
In a video address to Friday's conference, UN chief Antonio Guterres warned that the DRC was "experiencing one of the world's largest humanitarian crises."
"Millions of people are suffering," he said, warning that "the single biggest obstacle is the lack of funding."
In January, the UN and Kinshasa said $1.68 billion was needed in 2018 to provide urgently needed assistance to some 10.5 million people inside the country.
The UN refugee agency has meanwhile said another $508 million is needed to support more than 800,000 Congolese refugees in surrounding countries, as well as the some 540,000 refugees from the Central African Republic, South Sudan and other countries who have fled into DRC.
Lowcock acknowledged that the total of $2.2 billion was "a lot of money".
But, he stressed, "it amounts to less than 50 cents a day for each of the people whose lives we are trying to save and protect."
- 'Unbelievable pain, horror' -
Friday's conference got off to a strong start, with co-host Christos Stylianides, the European Commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management, pledging 77 million euros ($95 million) of EU aid inside the DRC this year.
Stylianides, who recently visited DRC, told reporters he had seen "with my own eyes the massive humanitarian needs on the ground, (and heard) stories of unbelievable pain and horror. Stories that cannot be forgotten."
DRC's former colonial power Belgium meanwhile announced that it would give 25 million euros this year, up from 17 million in 2017.
Lowcock said at least 15 donor countries had "significantly" increased their pledged amounts this year.
"It is obvious that we will get a better financed response for the DRC this year than we got last year," he said.
Last year, humanitarian actors requested $813 million for DRC, but received just over half that amount.
In a statement, a coalition of humanitarian organisations warned Friday that the dire underfunding had forced them to cut back on essential aid, including providing food, water and safety to people fleeing violence.
- Impossible choices -
"The lack of funding forces us to make choices we shouldn't have to make," Jose Barahona, Oxfam's Country Director in DRC, said in the statement.
In all, the UN estimates that 13 million Congolese need aid, including 7.7 million who are food insecure, and 4.5 million internally displaced people.
The DRC has angrily contests the UN figures, with humanitarian affairs minister Bernard Biango putting the number of IDPs at just 231,241.
Aid bodies and NGOs are propagating a "bad image of the Democratic Republic of Congo throughout the world," Prime Minister Jose Makila charged last month.
The government has meanwhile promised $100 million "to ease humanitarian distress" and earmarked $10 million to help refugees or those internally displaced to return home.
Lowcock hailed that pledge and said "the government of the DRC is providing the leadership on this crisis."
Felix Tshisekedi, the leader of the main opposition UDPS party, has urged the conference to drum up as much aid as possible.
"The irresponsible attitude of the Kinshasa government reflects its indifference to the suffering of the Congolese people," he said.