‘You’re out of your mind’ my long-time supervisor at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said in early 2013 as we mulled over the possibility, previously discussed with the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative in Niger, of sending a focal point to the Diffa region, an 18-hour drive from the Nigerien capital Niamey. The idea was to monitor increasing violence by Boko Haram in neighbouring north-eastern Nigeria, and its potential spill-over into Niger. Despite initial concerns over security, we quickly decided that the situation required urgent action. By the end of 2013 we had established a network of focal points to help the IRC team track population movements and respond more quickly to emerging needs among Nigerien returnees and Nigerian refugees fleeing Boko Haram. The influx had stretched already scarce resources in a region that has long faced chronic food insecurity, poor access to basic services and recurrent droughts and floods. Displaced people were spread across remote host communities, with a very small proportion (approximately 3%) residing in camps. Humanitarian actors struggled to reach communities in need due to limited infrastructure, a volatile security situation and fluid population movements across a large geographical area.
The informant network started small and grew quickly. The project, which began in October 2013, was implemented in partnership with a local NGO, the Niger Association for the Defense of Human Rights (ANDDH). We recruited seven monitors to cover 81 sites, but within a few months the number of sites hosting displaced people had grown to nearly 200. To accommodate this growth, the response team changed tack, recruiting a ‘focal point’ for every site where displaced people were present or were likely to arrive. Each focal point was provided with a phone that allowed them to make free calls to the IRC and ANDDH. As the programme expanded, we also set up village protection committees to help identify and address protection concerns. These committees included the IRC/ANDDH focal points, host community representatives, internally displaced people (IDPs), returnees and refugees of different ethnic backgrounds, ages and gender. The network also increased the response team’s security awareness; when armed conflict restricted access, the committees continued to carry out programme activities and provide information about services in their areas.
In January 2014, the network identified some 700 people who had fled from Nigeria to Niger. The following March, community focal points informed IRC that large numbers of people were moving towards 17 islands in Lake Chad. Based on this information the IRC conducted a rapid assessment, which showed that more than 10,000 people who had fled Boko Haram in Nigeria were living on the islands. There were huge unmet health and water needs, but no international NGOs were working on the islands.
The IRC received the assessment information on a Friday, and over the weekend secured funding and the support of local authorities, enabling us to activate a mobile boat clinic which began providing access to clean water and medical supplies to health clinics early in the week. The assessment and intervention alerted other agencies to needs on the islands, and demonstrated how mobile clinics could be used in this context. The IRC’s ability to provide credible and timely information allowed donors to make more rapid and flexible funding decisions.
The experience marked a turning-point in the IRC’s Diffa response in three ways: it expanded the number of sectors in which the IRC worked; it was our first rapid emergency response; and it demonstrated the potential of information sharing as an advocacy tool to increase the responsiveness of the wider humanitarian community. It was also the beginning of what was to become the rapid response mechanism (RMM) of the Niger Humanitarian Country Team (HCT).
The rapid response mechanism and multi-sector assessments
Given the very rapid increase in the number of returnees and refugees entering Niger from Nigeria, averaging some 30,000 people a month during the last quarter of 2014, we decided that it was essential to take a step back and carry out context analysis and scenario planning to better prepare and respond to humanitarian needs in Diffa. The day-long session in January 2015 brought together team members from across several IRC offices in the region to examine different ways the situation in north-eastern Nigeria and Diffa might develop. Factors like the joint Nigerien, Chadian and Nigerian military operation, Boko Haram’s response and possible expansion into other areas and the potential for increased displacement were all considered in the development of four scenarios, three of which actually occurred in subsequent months.+Scenarios which took place (1–3): Scenario 1: Fighting between Boko Haram and joint forces results in an increase in refugees/returnees; Scenario 2: Joint operations (temporarily) disband and disperse Boko Haram; Scenario 3: Significant Boko Haram relocation to Diffa region. Scenario 4, which did not take place: Maiduguri falls to Boko Haram – massive displacement in northeastern Nigeria and to Niger. Just a few weeks later, in February 2015, Boko Haram attacked and took temporary control of Diffa, resulting in the redisplacement of Nigerian refugees as well as the start of internal displacement within Niger.
The week after the planning exercise, the team sent proposals to emergency funders to support the creation of a rapid response mechanism. Once established, this dedicated funding allowed the IRC to hire staff who could act on the information provided through the focal points and protection committees, triggering multi-sector assessments (MSAs). A scoring system flags critical issues and prioritises hard-to-reach and highly vulnerable areas. These assessments have enabled the rapid provision of food, non-food items (NFIs) such as soap and blankets and water and sanitation (WASH) activities.
Context analysis and scenario planning was crucial in deciding how best to support displaced people in a rapidly changing emergency environment. Sharing weekly situation reports and MSAs with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who then shared them with the wider humanitarian community (UN agencies, NGOs, donors, clusters), enabled others to respond to needs more quickly and appropriately. During the peak of displacement in Diffa, the IRC produced and shared reports on a daily basis, including during weekends. This helped keep everyone informed of the situation, and provided an opportunity to highlight the need for fast and flexible decision-making in relation to responses. Donors and other key decision-makers responded in turn by quickly approving projects based on the MSAs and issuing calls for proposals utilising the data collected by the RRM team, as well as the strategic advice and context analyses we provided. Interest in and support for the rapid response mechanism also increased as the benefits of this agile programmatic approach in an uncertain and volatile environment like Diffa became evident.
As the humanitarian situation became ever more critical in 2015 and 2016, the number of UN agencies and NGOs in Diffa increased to about 60, and the displaced population to more than 300,000 in a region of some 600,000 inhabitants. OCHA increased its presence and stepped up its coordination efforts, as did the government, and the rapid response mechanism was further developed and adapted. Each cluster in Niger participated in identifying, reviewing and approving the data collected through the MSAs. Triggered by IRC-verified reports from focal points, MSAs provided a snapshot of humanitarian needs at a specific point in time. Quantitative and qualitative data was obtained through community group discussions, interviews with key informants and surveys of around 100 households, ensuring representation of host communities, IDPs, refugees and returnees. OCHA staff and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) technical experts helped ensure a more inclusive, coordinated and robust approach. The realtime, accurate information from the MSAs allows agencies to adapt programming to current needs and achieve better geographical and sectoral coverage across Diffa.
Examples of rapid and adaptive responses include the use of trucks and water bladders to provide water to people in spontaneous displacement sites, which are often near main roads. At one site we provided three million litres of water a month, while simultaneously working on longer-term solutions such as the construction of wells. Another example involved creating a ‘mobile e-voucher’ programme to serve remote displacement sites, building on and adapting the electronic food voucher (e-voucher) programme in Diffa town. The IRC trained retailers on the use of tablets (on which people can be shown pictures and prices of available food items), card readers and the purchasing system. Agreements with retailers stipulated that they were to provide trucks to transport food to displacement areas.
There were of course no shortage of challenges. One of the main difficulties was lengthy procurement procedures, which are designed to manage financial risk yet undermined one of the IRC’s strategic objectives of increasing the speed and timeliness of our support. Staff burnout was also a serious concern. Another major challenge was the government’s unofficial prohibition on data-sharing in 2015, which reduced the contextual information available and inhibited adaptive management.
Humanitarian needs in Diffa region continue to outstrip the resources available. More than 408,000 people are now in need of humanitarian assistance. As of early July 2017, more than 30 people have died from Hepatitis E, most of them pregnant women, while hundreds of others are infected. Meanwhile, according to OCHA 540 people have been killed, injured or abducted in attacks by Boko Haram. Since the attacks began in February 2015, a state of emergency has been in place, including restrictions on key economic activities. With these restrictions in place, and continued Boko Haram attacks in Niger and in areas of potential return in Nigeria, a durable solution to the crisis in Diffa remains elusive.
The experience of using an adaptive programme approach to build systems to collect credible and actionable information has changed the way the IRC works in Diffa. We have expanded the number of sectors in which we work, increased the speed and flexibility of emergency response efforts and demonstrated how information-sharing can be used to enhance the responsiveness of the wider humanitarian community. Taking the time to conduct good contextual analysis and scenario planning was a crucial part of this, as was the support of the local population and the authorities. The informant networks of focal points and protection committees the IRC established led to the creation of the rapid response mechanism, which has enhanced the timeliness, quality and appropriateness, not only of the IRC’s response, but of the humanitarian response overall. Having dedicated funding and staff has been key to the RRM’s success. Being part of the Humanitarian Country Team, and sharing credible weekly reports, multi-sector assessments and other information, has also enabled more rapid and flexible donor decision-making, further facilitating adaptation. Even so, the IRC’s efforts were still sometimes hampered by cumbersome procurement procedures, government data sharing restrictions and staff burnout.
Matias Meier is Country Director, International Rescue Committee – Niger.