Q&A with OCHA humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel on providing relief in a cross-border crisis

Toby Lanzer, OCHA regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel. Photo by: Loey Felipe / U.N.

The Lake Chad Basin crisis — where more than 7 million people are in need across Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad — has proven to be a daunting task for aid workers as the region battles arid conditions and an ongoing conflict against Islamist radicals.

Issues involving security and a lack of access to remote locations have intensified the hardship felt by those fleeing Boko Haram extremists. The crisis has required specialized and immediate attention with cross-border coordination for responses to illness and malnutrition.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the four country Humanitarian Response Plans are requesting an estimated $1.7 billion in funding for 2017 to assist a targeted 8.2 million people in the region. The magnitude of this disaster is further evidenced by the 515,000 starving children who suffer from severe acute malnutrition.

As response efforts continue to reach increasingly more people in the Lake Chad Basin Basin, Devex spoke with Toby Lanzer, OCHA regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, to understand the challenges of cross-border humanitarian relief responses.

In general terms, what are some obstacles to coordinating solutions across national boundaries?

I think the single biggest issue is changing people’s mindset. Whichever line of work you’re engaged in, most people think of towns, which are part of states, which are part of countries, and it’s difficult to break outside that mold in cross-border situations. I think that UNHCR — the U.N. refugee agency — tends to do this better. They look at situations by looking at more than one particular country, and of course, that’s natural for them because [refugees] have usually crossed a border.

So I think we must address the mindsets of everyone, whether it’s in a donor government, in an aid agency, or a government official on the ground. Of course an official in Maiduguri — the biggest city in the northeast of Nigeria — he/she is thinking of Nigeria, not necessarily what’s happening just down the road across the border in Chad. And overcoming that modus operandi, enlightening people and illustrating to them to reach out to people that may be just five minutes down the road is one issue.

The second issue is that practical matters always get in the way in cross-border crises. In the case of the Lake Chad Basin, if you are in Nigeria and you want to reach out to a community in Niger you’re going to have problems with phone networks, problems with roads, you may have issues with border controls, and you may have language differences. Luckily, in the case of the Lake Chad Basin, the language issue is less apparent.

There are other difficulties. I think donors sometimes struggle to give money for a region. They prefer to give money for a country, and recipient organizations are organized along the lines of countries. So those are logistical and practical issues that we need to remind ourselves of 24/7. Our systems need to be more nimble and the way which we think needs to be more horizontal, instead of thinking from a village to a town to a state to the capital of a country.

It’s a work in progress and changing people’s mindset is never an instantaneous thing.

How do relief efforts differ for cross-border crises versus single country crises?

There are different mechanisms and processes at play, and I’ve already mentioned one of them: convincing donors to give for a region. What does that mean? Let’s say a donor is planning to give to UNICEF. Give UNICEF money for the Lake Chad crisis and allow UNICEF to apportion that money. That would be a more nimble way of giving resources and, of course, that money will be tracked and reported on, but I think that would help UNICEF.

When it comes to the actual mechanics of providing assistance, making sure that this assistance is tracked and monitored and that the colleagues that are managing the assistance reports back to where the aid originated presents another step that has to be taken. Technically, it shouldn’t be different than delivering assistance up the road within the same country, but it is and we have some learning that needs to take place. But as I said, breaking out of this mindset of aid being solely country based is one of the most important steps.

What is needed from the international community to prevent the Lake Chad Basin crisis from worsening?

We all have a role to play. If you are a senior manager at aid agency X — whether you sit in London, or Washington, or Brussels, wherever your headquarters is — of course, you will be consumed by the two, or three, big [humanitarian crises] wherever they are. However, my plea to senior managers within all aid agencies: make sure you are paying attention to some of the crises which are overlooked or sometimes misunderstood. And the Lake Chad crisis was certainly misunderstood.

A lot of people last year kept saying to me, “But this is Nigeria. Nigeria is rich. They can handle this.” Well, first of all, Nigeria’s oil production had plummeted over 60 percent at the same time that Nigeria’s price it was getting for the oil had also plummeted by 50 percent. So you had two factors [that] contributed to the Nigerian treasury collecting much less income that had been hoped for, or budgeted.

It’s simply too easy to say this is something Nigerians can handle. I pushed back and said, “Look I don’t think there’s any country on earth that could handle a crisis of this magnitude. I don’t think my own country would find it straight forward or simple, and I think they would be reaching out to others to help if there were 10 million people in need.” So it’s incumbent on all of us to recognize when people are starving. We need to question our assumptions about engaging and we need to step up to the plate and make sure whoever is starving, wherever they are, are getting the food they require and if they’re not, it’s incumbent on us to step in.  

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.

About the author

  • Christin roby

    Christin Roby

    Christin Roby is the West Africa Correspondent for Devex. Based in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, she covers global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her Master of Science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.