DIFFA, Niger — White tarps are lashed to clusters of squat straw huts — improvised roofs in makeshift camps that have grown into permanent villages along the road to Diffa.
Abba Elhadji Jombe has watched this region change spectacularly in the past two years. But not in a good way, the field officer for Nigerien nongovernmental organization DEMI-E told Devex.
“When you used to travel from Zinder to Diffa, you could never see these shelters, no one was living here,” the Diffa-born aid worker said of traveling from the second largest city in Niger to its neighboring region, which hugs Nigeria so tightly that many Nigeriens used to conduct trade across the border without thinking twice.
It’s been years since the land was free of these informal settlements along the main highway, Elhadji Jombe said, gesturing to the straw and tarp shelters clustered along the road.
Diffa, already characterized by its extreme Sahelian climate, has been suffering the effects of violent extremism from Boko Haram since early 2015, when the Nigerien government declared a state of emergency. The far eastern region of the country now finds itself host to more than 200,000 displaced people due to the Islamist militant group’s bombings, assassinations and kidnappings along its borders — a population movement that has disrupted the fragile livelihoods of host communities who were already among some of the poorest in the country and the world.
Although Boko Haram attacks have slowed, security concerns continue to plague an area already suffering from shrinking water sources and where growing tensions among host communities and displaced people complicate humanitarian assistance in the region — despite an INGO presence that has exploded in the past two years.
NGOs count insecurity and lack of international donor attention among the greatest challenges of operating in the area — although balancing survival assistance with long-term recovery tops the list. Many actors are now looking to Friday’s donor conference in Oslo to mobilize more flexible, long-term funding to better address the crisis in Diffa and the greater four-country Lake Chad region that many observers term a “forgotten conflict.”
At the least, aid groups hope the conference — hosted by Germany, Nigeria, Norway and the United Nations — will renew attention for this little reported emergency. But at best, they’ll see a shift in some of the typical institutional donors that usually fund humanitarian aid who will start seeing — and funding — the crisis as a protracted issue.
Experts responding to the ongoing Lake Chad Basin crisis call on the international community for both funding and visibility to prevent the spread of malnutrition, illness and other residuals left behind by Boko Haram fighters. The Lake Chad Basin crisis was listed as the “most underreported crisis of 2016” with experts saying it has been largely forgotten to other global crises.
So far, funding for Diffa has come in the form of short-term emergency relief. But now it is time for the humanitarian community to shift, and for the donors meeting in Oslo to look farther than emergency funding, actors involved in the response tell Devex.
“You’re giving basic materials to build basic shelters, which are falling apart six to 12 months later,” said Petra Suric Jankov, Catholic Relief Services Niger business development specialist. “But these populations have no plans to go anywhere, so every six months you give them a new shelter? How can we think about this is a more resilient way?”
A long-term crisis with long-term needs
The Nigerien government has militarized vast swaths of land on the Nigerian border, declaring “no go” zones for civilians — and for aid. In an effort to crackdown on Boko Haram, the government has also forced families on the Nigerian border to relocate, causing them to leave their land and likely become reliant on humanitarian aid elsewhere — a situation made trickier when it stretches on for years.
Security concerns, meanwhile, continue to hamper program planning, CRS emergency Program Manager Yadiga Abdoul Moumouni told Devex during visits to the spontaneous sites of Kourou Saleri and Boudouri, outside Diffa City.
In June 2016, CRS had to halt the launch of two projects after Boko Haram attacked military targets in the nearby town of Bosso. Shortly after, one of their implementing partners had to close and move its entire team due to an attack just 8 kilometers from their office, he said.
Security has improved in the past few months — and CRS has just opened a sub-office in Diffa as they wrap up $3.5 million in projects and apply for new proposals. But uncertainty remains. “We can spend two months in quiet silence … then two weeks back, there was an attack [on military vehicles] 20 kilometers away from Diffa,” said Abdoul Moumouni. “It’s unpredictable.”
World Vision is also currently working to close humanitarian assistance gaps in insecure areas, such as Ngortogol and Ngangala settlements and in Nguigmi in northern Diffa.
“Some of these communities over two years have barely received support due to the distance and accessibility issues and incursions from armed groups along the [highway],” World Vision Lake Chad Basin Crisis Response Director Kathryn Taetzsch told Devex, adding that communities in the Lake Chad Basin islands, which the government has declared no-go zones, cannot currently be accessed by humanitarian actors at all.
World Vision has submitted concept notes and appeals to the tune of $19 million for response in the Lake Chad region, and while they don’t expect it all be approved, Taetzsch hopes to see 25 to 30 percent of funding “come through fast to meet urgent needs.”
While the NGO is addressing immediate water shortages by drilling and maintaining boreholes, they’re also looking to assist in early recovery by strengthening women’s savings groups and providing opportunities for business-minded livestock owners. It’s this mix of humanitarian aid and development assistance that becomes a question of funding, considering the Oslo Humanitarian Conference will focus mainly on humanitarian appeals for food security, protection and education in emergencies.
Meeting the needs
Although the humanitarian community aims to assist the most vulnerable despite their classification, Nigerien nationals known as “returnees” — who are often returning with nothing after having lived fully assimilated in Nigeria for decades — can fall through the cracks in terms of funding sources.
“They are not a population with clear donors,” Suric Jankov said. It’s one of many reasons CRS Niger Head of Programs Caroline Agalheir hopes to see more flexible funding come out of Friday’s donor conference.
“Specifically, having flexibility to change targets, change activities [and] change geography would allow us as NGOs to adapt to the ever-changing situation as more displacements happen, or hopefully as people return home or move to a more permanent new home,” Agalheir said.
Toby Lanzer, OCHA regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, chats with Devex about the difficulties faced during responses to multi-nation humanitarian crises and trying to change how people think about providing assistance for crises that cross national boundaries.
Being able to do it without going through existing slow, laborious formalities would be a sign that the region’s major bilaterals, such as Canada, Norway and the U.S., are listening, she added.
In the meantime, needs are massive and assistance is complex in a region where the host community was already disadvantaged before welcoming refugees and internally displaced populations. Today, “everybody wants to be a beneficiary,” Abdoul Moumouni told Devex.
Doulo Lana — a resident of Kourou Saleri, a small village 3 kilometers south of Diffa City — had to stop and count on her fingers to tell Devex how many extra people she’s currently housing: seven, after welcoming her brother-in-law’s family when they were forced to flee their village. Food, she said, is their greatest need.
DEMI-I’s Elhadji Jombe, who returned home to Diffa to help with the crisis after finishing his degree in agriculture in Nigeria, is also currently hosting his parents, who fled to Diffa City from a village closer to the Nigerian border: “I take care of them because they don’t have anything to do, so we support them economically, socially … everyone moved from their village because of fear.”
It’s even more complicated when certain host communities “mix with displaced [people] so they can be registered as beneficiaries,” Abdoul Moumouni said, or when a village acting as a host community quickly becomes displaced themselves due to fear or violence.
World Vision in collaborating with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the government of Niger will soon be deploying Last Mile Mobile Solutions, a technology that digitizes beneficiary registration to solve operational issues such as long wait times for aid recipients, fraud or errors in allocations to families, and inaccurate reporting.
The INGO and other humanitarian actors are working to continuously update registration of vulnerable populations, and it is “widely agreed” within the humanitarian community to target assistance based on vulnerability rather than being part of a particular category, which in theory allows aid groups to offer assistance to host communities, displaced, refugees and returnees, according to World Vision’s Taetzsch.
This, again, requires more flexible and faster funding, she added.
The local population are the “first responders in this crisis,” she said. “If we only target displaced and not hosts, that would be very unfair.”
Host communities, Taetzsch confirmed, have been welcoming even if they are not the same ethnic origin as the displaced. But it has now been two years of others’ cattle grazing on their land and displaced people drawing on their scarce water sources — which are 80 to 100 percent overused in the region.
“This is massive generosity,” Taetzsch said. “Sooner or later, if you would allow someone to come into your front yard, and cut your oranges from your fruit tree year after year and you’re not benefitting … how would you react?”
Overall, CRS’ Agalheir hopes the donor conference results in funding for longer term projects — rather than providing for the typical one-year emergency funding — in order to engage in medium-term recovery and build communities’ and households’ resilience to future shocks.
“Donors look at humanitarian aid and development work as two separate worlds, but CRS does not see them that way,” Agalheir said. “The same communities with those urgent humanitarian needs also need longer term development assistance.”
Both Agalheir and Taetzsch are seeing a small shift already, marked by the Agence Française de Développement’s call last year for a nonemergency focused multi-year project, the first major donor effort to edge in that direction.
Now, the NGO community needs the fast funding to effectively bridge the humanitarian, development divide as stated in intentions during the World Humanitarian Summit last year, Taetzsch pointed out.
“We’re called to enter that phase,” Taetzsch said. “There is still displacement happening and you need survival assistance, but we need to be paving the way for early recovery.”
Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.