Aid agencies should take note of how displaced people in Nigeria survive

Refugees from the Boko Haram insurgency in Northeast Nigeria are rebuilding their lives one stitch at a time. Author

Seun Kolade, De Montfort University

The unpaved road is badly damaged, full of pot holes. At some point along the road, you find an open refuse dump, where a few young children can be found openly defecating. The rest of the path is bounded by thick bushes on both sides. We soon arrive at the settlement. There are between 150 and 200 people living here. They have constructed makeshift shelters from tree trunks, used planks and old clothes for covering. Needless to say these roofs cannot stand a drizzle, let alone a full downpour of rain. For good measure, mosquitoes are an ever-present threat.

In short, these settlers are not thriving. Nevertheless, they are not wallowing in self pity. They are mobilising all the resources they can muster, first to survive and then regain their livelihoods. It is an uphill task, but they are giving it a good go.

These households are survivors of terrorist insurgency in northeast Nigeria. They have lost loved ones, suffered physical injuries, and lost their properties and livelihoods in tragic circumstances. Ultimately, they had to flee for their lives, travelling hundreds of miles to this camp in outskirts of Abuja, where a private individual provided the land.

The Boko Haram terrorist insurgency in Nigeria has precipitated humanitarian tragedy on a scale comparable only to the Nigerian civil war (1967- 1970) and arguably the worst in Nigeria’s history. At one point, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimated that up to 3.3 million people were internally displaced due to the insurgency. This is one of the largest displacements of people within one country in the world.

Forced displacement is a pressing, and worsening, global problem. The United Nations High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) reports that there are 25.4 million refugees and 68.5 million forcibly displaced people.

Displaced people are desperately in need of help. However, what sort of help is best suited to achieve more effective, long term outcomes? This is the question at the heart of our current research in northern Nigeria.

Social and human capital

Musa (not his real name) arrived the camp on the outskirts of Abuja with his family a little over a year ago from Maiduguri, the biggest and capital city of Borno, the largest state in Northeastern Nigerian. Maiduguri is the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency.

In time, Musa was able to establish a new contact with a farming community in Nasarawa, about 40 miles from Abuja. With this new network he was able to get a parcel of land loaned to him for farming. They also provided him with a start-up capital of 20 000 naira (about US$55) to support his farming. His repayment is in the form of a proportion of the harvest.

This form of traditional lending is used in many communities, mainly rural, across Nigeria. Usually it takes the form of host communities and traditional chiefs providing lands for visitors from other areas and regions to settle among them, farm the land and pay the rent annually in kind. The payment is often modest, but in other places the so-called “settlers” are charged more. Oftentimes these “settlers” go on to become landowners.

The arrangement, like every arrangement driven by social networks, works on the basis of norms of reciprocity and mutual trust. It is by no means perfect, but it does work for many households like Musa’s. Indeed for many, this social capital makes the big difference between starvation and survival, between hopeless destitution and recovery.

Musa’s story is just one of many we came across during our recent study in northern Nigeria.

We also found that entrepreneurship training is more effective in helping otherwise unemployed youth to provide for themselves, generate income and support their families. This underlines the important role of human capital, complimenting the contribution of social capital in the recovery strategy of displaced households.

Traditional approaches

Traditional approach to humanitarian action is rooted in top-down interventions characterised mainly by supply of relief materials and provision of funds to meet urgent existential needs such as medical treatment, food and shelter. These are definitely needed. However, can, and should, humanitarian action be designed to do more, especially in the long term?

One big downside to top down interventions is that they can have the unintended impact of creating a pattern of dependence on the part of affected people. This can undermine their own agency, especially in the long term. But, given that displaced people are naturally driven by the sheer force of necessity to find ways by which they can help themselves cope and recover, there is a scope for humanitarian action to do more to, in effect, help people to help themselves.

What next

Forced displacement can be quite a traumatic experience for affected households. Nevertheless, as in Musa’s case, it can also present new opportunities to generate new stocks of social capital that can be critical for long term recovery and re-settlement. This is especially the case when it comes to bridging social capital, defined as ties between individuals across social divides or between social groups.

Of course, it also helps when affected people have certain skills – such as vocational or technical – they can use to create value and generate income. This combination of social capital and human capital can make a big difference in the design and implementation of more effective interventions in humanitarian crises.

Therefore, rather than going to communities with a prescriptive, and often paternalistic, top-down approach that effectively set out to solve problems for the communities, development agencies can co-opt affected peoples as co-creators of solutions, and as principal agents of implementation. They can, among others, facilitate capacity building, encourage community-based psycho-social support systems, support the expansion of existing entrepreneurial ecosystems. They can also link micro and small enterprises with bigger markets. This approach can more effectively set affected peoples off the course of aid dependency, and on the way to full livelihood recovery and long term settlement.

Seun Kolade, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Management, De Montfort University

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