Iveta Ouvry, Country Director of Mercy Corps, an international Non-Governmental Organisation, NGO, that provides assistance to Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, in the Northeast, has worked in volatile regions like Sudan and Sri Lanka before. She observes, in this interview with Samuel Malik, that humanitarian work in Nigeria throws up many peculiar challenges.
From Mercy Corps’ experience in other countries, is there a difference in the situation in the Northeast of Nigeria?
The one thing that we have observed in Nigeria is that it is very difficult for us to get access into the areas that are under control of Boko Haram because in other places like … for example, I personally worked in Sri Lanka and also in South Sudan many years ago when there was a conflict between the South Sudanese and the North Sudanese, you always were able to access the areas controlled by the other party through negotiations. So, you always knew who to talk to and how to be able to access and provide assistance, even to the population that is out of the control of either party.
But, here with Boko Haram, nobody seems to be able to do that. For us, there is a big kind of border between the areas where we operate and access to population still controlled by Boko Haram.
Does the government not help in that regard?
It couldn’t because government is in conflict with Boko Haram. So, we can (only) access areas controlled by the government but not areas controlled by Boko Haram.
The other difference is that usually in this kind of situation, most of the internally displaced people are in camps. But here, the situation we see is that about 90 per cent of people, depending on what statistics you use, are actually in the host communities (and) it is unusual. So, it is harder to reach people if they are in host communities. It is also harder to explain that there are many IDPs and what their needs are because it is not so visible. You know, like in DRC where you had massive camps and the crisis was more visible. Here, the crisis seems to be less visible because of this situation.
The fact that IDPs survive for so long is because of support of host communities and charitable (organisations), which is really positive for Nigeria. Nigerian society is built in a way that people accept visitors, host and support them as much as they can, even though they are so poor themselves, and this is different to other crises we have worked on.
What inspired the electronic voucher system and how successful would you say it has worked in Nigeria?
The e-voucher, as you might have noticed, was successfully brought to Nigeria for humanitarian services by Mercy Corps and we find it very successful, especially because it is being replicated and used by different actors right now.
The reason behind why we decided to do it, our primary reason was mainly the focus on ensuring that beneficiaries have a choice themselves to be able to access their needs in terms of getting the food requirements. Instead of handing them pre-packaged kits saying, “This is what you should be eating,” it is more about giving them the voucher and saying, “Here is a choice and you can use it to decide what is best for you and your family.” That was our primary reason for the decision behind using the e-vouchers.
Obviously, there come also different factors such as being able to scale up. It is easier to scale up when you have electronic vouchers, especially when you have reduced access management. E-voucher is the right way to go because it allows you to manage from a distance, it allows you to scale up fast and efficiently.
The e-voucher helps us to engage the local community and market. So, it is a boost to the local economy. It also helps vendors to avoid the use of cash, which puts them at risk in the market.
We are also obviously able to monitor trends and prices in the market and that helps to avoid monopoly. It also helps to be able to adjust the voucher value based on the market prices. So, if there is inflation, we can adjust the price because we are able to monitor it.
The system was piloted in other countries like the DRC and Nepal but in Nigeria, this is the first time it was actually built into programme design, and with 4, 100 household beneficiaries, we have been talking to donors to enable us scale up the number.
Can a beneficiary ask a vendor for cash instead of food items using the voucher?
That possibility can exist in any type of programme and, to be honest, this is something that we take into consideration in our planning. The way we do it, whenever distribution happens and we do top up of the vouchers or when beneficiaries get the money into their vouchers and go to the market, we obviously have our team at the market who do the monitoring post-distribution.
A very big part of our agreements with the vendors, we have about 34 in Gombe State, is highlighting this part, that exchanging food items for money using the voucher is not allowed and food items cannot be given on credit.
We have a constant sensitisation of the vendors and have regular meetings. It is not a one-off thing, like we met you six months ago and that is it. If they are getting requests like these from beneficiaries, we expect them to report to us for solution, but so far they have not reported anything of such. We do not promote it, as it is against the rule and it is in our contract with the vendors but I think sometimes, we haven’t seen it, but based on our experience around the world, it probably happens. If we knew about it, we would take action against the offender, so feel free to report to us what you find.
However, we also recognise that we cannot control 4, 100 people and we recognise people are in desperate needs, they need to buy medicine because a child a sick and they will do whatever possible to get a little bit of money to buy the medicine. That is the reality of being an IDP.
Could the IDPs situation in the country have been managed differently, especially with allegations of diversion of relief materials by camp officials?
As you know, in Nigeria Mercy Corps does not work in the camps, even when there was this one camp in Gombe state. We made the decision to work in the host communities. So, we really are not in a position to comment on diversion of items from the camp. The only thing that we can say is that we wish there was more support for IDPs from everybody, including Mercy Corps. We would like to do more.
What is the livelihood support programme all about and how do you go about it, knowing that the IDPs are in their present locations temporarily? Do you take cognizance of the fact that they will have to relocate someday?
Our livelihood programme is an important component of the activity that we are implementing within Gombe state and basically, the purpose of it is to allow people to restore their livelihood and to gain a source of income and not be solely dependent on receiving vouchers or assistance from different sources.
So, the livelihood grant is a modality that we put in place and we basically identify beneficiaries who will fit certain criteria and based on the criteria they will be submitting business plans to us. The plans deal with how you start a business, what type of business are you going into, what is your prior experience in the business, what sort of assets are you bringing into the business, how do you ensure its sustainability, etc. So, it is a basic business plan that fits the primary needs to set up new business, not a plan for opening a company.
On that basis we have a full process of identifying beneficiaries, registering them, approving their application and then it is followed by training. The training they receive is on basic accounting, how you maintain basic accounting book to manage your finance, basic hygiene practices for people who will be undertaking activities that relate to culinary practices, and business sustainability approach. Right after that they receive their grants and we go into our post-monitoring activities to ascertain what the grants are used for. We then follow up on the business itself in three months to see where it stands vis-à-vis how much has been generated and whether there has been expansion, etc.
We take into consideration that we are targeting the IDPs who at some point will be going back home and the purpose of the grant is to provide them with a source of income to be able to restore their livelihood. So, whether they are in Gombe or going back home, they still need the income to be able to sustain their families and their lives.
When we talk about livelihood grants and businesses, they are really small business like a small catering. So the assets they get on the ground are 99 per cent movable. If one day they decide to leave because the condition is right for them to return, it is easy for them to pack and continue the businesses in their next homes.
We have already distributed 794 grants with an average sum of N20, 000 per grant. Our overall target is 3, 000 and in the coming couple of weeks, we are going to be reaching half of the remaining target.
With all these activities happening in Gombe state, are there plans to extend them to other north-eastern states?
We have plans but we do not have funding yet. We work based on donation and grants, so we have applied to donors for funding to enable us move to Adamawa state. We are going to soon conduct assessment in Maiduguri to see what Mercy Corps can do there but we need to get funding before we can actually start a programme. We believe we have capacity and experience to execute programmes but it is a question of funding.
Do you think the Gombe IDPs camp should have been closed, especially with the crisis in the northeast not over and a lot of IDPs still in the state?
Mercy Corps’ position has always been that IDPs should have a choice, you know. If they feel more comfortable in a camp setting, there should be a camp for them where they can access services but if they feel more comfortable in the host communities setting, they should be supported in the host communities.
What other programmes is Mercy Corps executing in Nigeria?
Mercy Corps has four what we call programme portfolios in Nigeria. Our first programme, which is how we came to Nigeria, was actually conflict mitigation programme in the middle-belt. So, we had four different projects that worked with host farmers and pastoralists and we are looking into the conflict between them, what the root causes of this conflict are, because it is not a religious crisis but that of resources and access to the resources.
So, we are working with both sides and working on different skills like negotiation and mediation but we are also looking at specific communities and what the economic roots of conflict exist between them and helping them to address them. We do this in Benue, Nasarawa, Plateau and Kaduna states.
Our second programme is working with 6, 000 adolescent girls in Lagos in the areas of education and economic empowerment. We work with girls in secondary schools and those who have left schools for different reasons, ranging from poverty to marriage. For in-school girls, we work to improve their academic performances while also supporting them with different life skills. For the ones out of school, it is about life skills and economic opportunities. We are working very closely with Coca-Cola and Delight and we are connecting girls into the micro-franchise with these companies, if they want.
The third programme is working with vulnerable families on income generation and this we do in Kaduna, Bauchi, Sokoto and Kebbi states.
The fourth programme is the humanitarian programmes we are executing presently in the northeast.
What has the experience been like for Mercy Corps in Nigeria so far?
Mercy Corps came to Nigeria quite late, in 2012, and we came with development programmes. It is only a year ago that we started our humanitarian programme in response to what is happening in the northeast.
So far, for Mercy Corps, it has been good. We found government supportive in general, we have also found our team members here very dedicated and committed. We have also found that there is a lot of work to be done. Nigeria is not a poor country but it is a country with a lot of poverty. So, we are trying to focus on those poverty issues.