The Lake Chad Basin of West Africa has long suffered from the mutually reinforcing effects of economic poverty, underdevelopment and climate change. These challenges have been exacerbated by an unprecedented security situation since February 2015 — continuous cross-border raids by Boko Haram insurgents have created terror, mass displacement and precarious living conditions for millions of people. Last week’s Oslo Humanitarian Conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region (February 23-24) was a big step in the right direction in terms of raising awareness and funds for the devastating and under-reported humanitarian crisis in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.
Niger is a microcosm of the impact of the Lake Chad crisis on the desperately poor zones affected by it. The landlocked West African country ranks 188th of 188 countries on the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index. People in its remote southeastern Diffa Region, which is in the Lake Chad Basin, borders Nigeria and Chad. Even in the best of times, people there have the lowest access in the country to health, education and other basic social services. Diffa is also highly food and nutrition insecure and prone to drought and other natural disasters, such as floods. The Boko Haram insurgency has created waves of displaced persons and refugees there, putting increased pressure on services that were already inadequate before the current crisis. The United Nations-led Niger Humanitarian Country Team reports that schools and health centers are closing and teachers and health personnel are leaving.
Approximately 17 million people live in the affected areas of the four Lake Chad Basin countries. The number of displaced people has tripled over the last two years. Most displaced by the conflict — disproportionately women and children — are being sheltered and cared for by communities that are themselves extremely poor and vulnerable. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and NGOs report that food insecurity and malnutrition have reached critical levels, with 7.1 million people in the zone being classified as “severely food insecure”. In Diffa Region, diagnosed cases of malnutrition have jumped 39 percent in early 2017 compared to the same period in the previous year, according to regional health authorities.
The mobilization of aid for the Lake Chad Crisis countries is particularly timely now, as the next planting season will start in several months. Agricultural communities will require seeds, tools and other inputs in order to have a successful farming season and become self-reliant.
Given the daunting challenges, non-governmental organizations working in the region signed an advocacy statement addressed to Oslo Conference participants, prioritizing the following steps to save lives:
- Put protection of civilians at the center of response.
- Scale up the food and nutrition response in Nigeria and the region.
- Increase access to more, better and safe quality education.
- Safeguard humanitarian space: Safe movement to reach more people in need.
- Strengthen leadership of the response and improve humanitarian coordination.
- Ensure all refugee or displaced returns are safe, voluntary and dignified.
- Build resilience and increase local capacity.
First impressions of the outcomes of the Oslo Humanitarian Conference are promising. The host country, Norway, demonstrated leadership by pledging $192 million of the $672 million pledged by fourteen donors for the next three years. Further contributions are expected from other donors in coming months. Participants in the conference, including high-level government officials from the affected countries, expressed a sense of urgency in order to avert famine, stabilize health indicators, and get children back to school. Humanitarian leaders also highlighted the importance of improving humanitarian coordination and access to affected communities.
Summits like the one just held in Oslo are necessary but not sufficient to respond to humanitarian crises and give affected populations the tools they need to recover their lives and livelihoods. The international attention surrounding Oslo, and the funding commitments made, are an encouraging step toward giving humanitarian organizations the wherewithal to meet the needs of the displaced host communities and all of those affected by the Boko Haram insurgency and the resulting conflict. Now is the time for humanitarians to seize upon this momentum to help affected communities rebuild their lives.
What Helen Keller International is Doing in the Lake Chad Basin
Helen Keller International has been combating malnutrition in Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria for decades, and has long been a leader in preventing malnutrition in vulnerable communities while also ensuring treatment of those who are malnourished. Key activities include awareness raising and culinary demonstrations focused on proper infant and young child feeding, community screening and referrals for cases of malnutrition, mobile clinics to screen and treat children in outlying communities, building skills with respect to sanitation and hygiene, support for government vaccination campaigns, and building the skills of government health agents.
Over the course of the crisis, Helen Keller has modified its activities in order to respond to increased humanitarian need. We work closely with an array of committed community members and structures. Local networks of community health workers, traditional healers, midwives and model mothers (exemplars of exclusive breastfeeding and other Essential Nutrition Actions) carry our message. Health workers, “Husband Schools” and “Hygiene Brigades” teach community groups nutrition and hygiene practices. This integrated, community-centric approach is key to sustainably improving nutritional status and reducing vulnerability.