By Emma Batha
LONDON, Dec 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — With an Ebola epidemic raging and millions caught in a forgotten "catastrophe" of conflict and hunger, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was the most neglected crisis of 2018, according to an annual Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of aid agencies.
This year's survey was unusual for the high number of "most forgotten crises", with experts also listing the Central African Republic, Lake Chad Basin, Yemen, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Burundi, Nigeria and, for the first time, Venezuela.
But Congo's "mega-crisis" barely made headlines, they said, even as the country gears up for landmark elections on Sunday which some fear could stoke further unrest.
"The brutality of the conflict is shocking, the national and international neglect outrageous," said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
"I visited Congo this year and have seldom witnessed such a gap between needs and assistance."
Congo, where 13 million people in a population of 82 million need help, also topped the annual Thomson Reuters Foundation poll in 2017, but agencies said the situation had deteriorated.
Six of 21 agencies polled named Congo as the most neglected crisis, including WFP, Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam, ActionAid, International Rescue Committee, and Christian Aid.
ActionAid's humanitarian advisor Rachid Boumnijel urged the international community to redouble efforts to end years of conflict characterised by sexual brutality.
"It's been a catastrophe for the country, and for women and girls particularly," Boumnijel said.
Christian Aid's head of humanitarian programmes Maurice Onyango said the violence had caused "large-scale trauma", with children witnessing parents and siblings being murdered.
An upsurge of fighting in the east of the mineral-rich country has also exacerbated the spread of the world's second largest Ebola outbreak, agencies said.
The Central African Republic, where armed groups control much of the country and 60% of the population needs assistance, came a close second in the poll.
Listed as the most neglected by OCHA, UNICEF, Mercy Corps, Plan International, and Caritas, the country has been racked by violence since mainly Muslim rebels ousted the president in 2013, provoking a backlash from Christian militias.
Armed groups are increasingly targeting schools, hospitals, mosques and churches, while attacks on aid workers have impacted a "chronically underfunded" humanitarian response, they said.
UN children's agency UNICEF said thousands of children had been trapped in armed groups or subjected to sexual violence.
"The crisis is growing increasingly desperate and resources are at breaking point," added UNICEF emergencies director Manuel Fontaine.
UN appeals for both DRC and CAR are less than 50% funded.
"Central African Republic is in a death spiral," said Caritas Secretary General Michel Roy. "While governments and the world's media have turned their backs, we must not. It's the only hope CAR has left."
Plan International said the media neglected complex crises like CAR and DRC because they lacked the shock factor of a sudden disaster like Indonesia's huge earthquake in September.
Yemen, at risk of the world's worst famine in 100 years, was highlighted by Muslim Hands and World Vision.
"With three quarters of the population needing assistance, I can't see how Yemen isn't at the top of everyone's list," said World Vision emergencies chief Mark Smith.
International Medical Corps warned the disaster in Lake Chad basin, where climate change and a prolonged insurgency by Boko Haram and Islamic State have left 11 million needing help, was also set to worsen next year.
Action Against Hunger said millions caught up in the "almost invisible" crisis — affecting Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon - faced poverty, hunger, sexual violence and child kidnapping.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the world's biggest relief network, said hunger and disease following major flooding across Nigeria threatened to create a second protracted crisis in the country.
"I'm shocked by how little attention (this) has received. The figures are staggering," said IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy, adding that nearly 2 million people were impacted, more than 200,000 uprooted and swathes of cropland destroyed.
"This massive disaster has gone largely unnoticed by many donors and journalists," he added.
This year was the first time Venezuela featured in the poll.
About 3.3 million people have fled political turmoil and economic meltdown in the Latin American country — many driven by hunger or violence — and another 2 million could follow next year, according to UN estimates.
The United Nations has launched a $738 million appeal to help nearby countries cope with what one UN official called a "humanitarian earthquake".
CARE said evidence on the ground suggested the real number fleeing was far higher than the UN figure.
"Given its scale, it's incredible how neglected the situation in Venezuela is," said CARE humanitarian expert Tom Newby. "The world needs to wake up to this crisis."
Afghanistan was ranked the most neglected crisis by Islamic Relief Worldwide, and South Sudan by Save the Children. The UNHCR named Burundi while mixed migration was highlighted by the Danish Refugee Council.
(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha. Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)