• Sunday, May 26, 2024
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‘Leave no one behind’ – The promise the IDP community needs Nigeria to keep

Delta govt opens camp for displaced Okuama residents

For more than ten years, Nigeria has battled insurgency, mainly in its North, leading to a high incidence of displacement. According to the International Refugee Agency, UNHCR, over 2.7 million persons have been internally displaced in the northeast – Borno, Adamawa and Yobe (BAY) states being chief contributors. These figures do not capture the tens of thousands displaced by herdsmen militia and other violent groups in the middle belt and the northwest of the country. A few hundred thousands have fled to other villages and cities across the country, in hope of picking up their lives.

Apart from terror attacks, communities are sacked for a variety of reasons including flooding, communal clash, armed banditry and boundary disputes. As at November 2019, approximately 3.6 million people in the BAY states were estimated to face a food crisis between June and August 2020. So, in March 2020 when the global health crisis hit Lagos, Nigeria, it was only a matter of time before the displaced community began to feel the effect. A month later, Babangida Buba, an aid worker with the French non-profit organization Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), died of Coronavirus at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital in Borno state. Buba had worked in the small rocky town of Pulka, where nearly 100,000 displaced persons live, and was tested positive for the virus after death.

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In a reactionary teleconference, Nigeria’s Northern Governors’ Forum agreed to repatriate all almajiris to their states of origin. Almajiri is a system of Islamic education that involves migration although colloquially the term is used in reference to young street beggars. At least, 15,000 children were said to be affected across nineteen states with Gombe state alone accounting for 11,700. These migrant children joined a good number of newly poor economic migrants who had returned to their home communities having lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 pandemic. These inter and intra-state movements remain a potential contributor to the spread of the disease in the rural communities where government presence is least felt. Five months since that teleconference, displaced people and their host communities, in Nigeria and all over the world, remain at a heightened risk of infection.

One can learn a thing or two from Uganda. Between 2000 and 2012, there were five outbreaks of ebola in Uganda, East Africa. The largest and most complex occurred at the Gulu municipality during the 2000 insurgency. Gulu, like Nigeria’s North currently battling insurgencies, had slum-like camps for the internally displaced persons. The difference between the results in Gulu and Luwero – a rural settlement where only a single case was recorded – was stark. The IDP (internally displaced persons) settlements in Gulu town were financially excluded, lacked social support and community mobilisation, all of which made containment of the disease difficult and heightened its spread and fatality.

During a pandemic, it can be easy to forget about the excluded within the excluded – but it is now that they need help more than ever. Since the outset of Covid-19 in Nigeria, a number of government interventions have been announced but there has been little prioritisation for IDPs. What we have seen is private sector-led initiatives and Non-Governmental Organisations taking the lead in reaching this group of persons. An example is the TY Danjuma-led Victims Support Fund which budgeted one billion naira for medical supplies, food, water and non-food items for IDPs and vulnerable citizens. VSF set up a Covid-19 task force chaired by Toyosi Akerele-Ogunsiji and managed by Sunday Ochoche (Executive Director of Victims Support Fund) who toured the country with their team distributing palliatives to some IDPs and other vulnerable populations.

Another notable one is the Coalition Against Covid-19 (CACOVID) set up by Nigeria’s wealthy private corporations in March to assist the government in the fight. It raised more than US$72 million in donations, some of which were channelled to IDP camps. Our organisation, Sesor Empowerment Foundation, also conducted visits to IDP and refugee groups in Lagos and Benue and mobilised some supplies and funds to our small community of influence. Rather than having the compassion of all, some sponsored palliatives were diverted – palliatives designated for IDPs in Benue state by the private sector Coalition Against Covid (CACOVID) ended up being offered for sale in a market in Kano state.

Millions of forcibly displaced people including refugees and economic migrants have been stripped of their means of livelihood, and left to count on the generosity of society and government for day-to-day existence. Basic needs like food, water and proper shelter are scarce in the overcrowded formal and informal settlements where displaced persons make their new home. More often than not, families are separated and they escape without financial resources. For a pandemic that disrupted even the most-prepared of governments and systems, it is logical to assume that some of the funds that would have been officially earmarked to provide for the welfare and maintenance of formal camps have been diverted to containing Covid-19 in a bid to prevent the economy from a total collapse. How do we ensure that our displaced population is not the trade-off?

Pandemics are tough not only on economies but people, especially the poorest in any society. But there are ways to mitigate the effects among Nigeria’s bottom of the pyramid. In the Philippines, following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, mobile money proved vital in distributing financial aid. Mobile money salary payments to health workers were crucial during the ebola outbreak in Liberia. Digitization of salary payments eliminated strikes by unpaid response workers in Sierra Leone saving an additional 2000 lives at the height of the ebola crisis. This pandemic is an opportunity to include IDPs in the formal financial system by electronically disbursing financial aid via money agents or directly to their mobile phones.

At Sesor, we distributed cash and food assistance to over 280 IDP and vulnerable families during the lockdown and for those we could not reach physically with food assistance, we were able to transfer funds they could withdraw via money agents. The assistance staved off hunger for the first days of the lockdown. Since the easing of the lockdown we have been able to provide microfunds to support 85 IDP women’s micro businesses.

With the Covid-19 crisis, the cost of food has gone up (Composite Food Index rose to 16 percent in August 2020) and inflation is at 13.22 percent (as at August) – its highest since April 2018. Businesses have been disrupted; schools and religious institutions are partially opened as are borders and airports. Curfews are mandated as well as social distancing and the use of face coverings, all in an attempt to flatten the curve. These restrictions have moved communication and transactions to the digital space successfully alienating a good number of these underserved, many whose children cannot access the internet for continued schooling. Of children enrolled in schools, globally, 9.7 million of them are said to not be returning to school this year and 1 to 19 percent of poor versus non-poor children have had access to the internet for distance learning during this pandemic so far, according to Save the Children, an international agency.

For the forcibly displaced persons who can no longer be reached physically by benefactors, the situation is dire because they do not have digital footprints that could be used to remit aid to them. They are having to make difficult choices in their healthcare and nutrition. The suspension of most free immunisation programmes by the government in order to concentrate efforts on combating Covid-19 also means that infant and maternal maternity figures for 2020 are likely to be on the high side.

IDPs have very limited options because they aren’t financially empowered. Designing digital financial services that are uniquely for them can ease that situation. When payments, aids, micro loans are provided via a personal account, the journey to financial inclusion begins as well as a chance to improve the economic lives of poor members of our society. Digital financial services preserve the users’ dignity, privacy and safety unlike conditional cash transfers – an inefficient and slow process that requires face-to-face interactions to take place.

In studying the impact of the ebola pandemic on African countries, one thing is clear: recovering and rebuilding will be a long-term continuous objective that begins with encouraging the independence of livelihood. To attain this, access to financial services including cash in and out platforms, small credit facilities for business, and deliberate employment placement within host communities can make the difference. Building and deepening financial products that come with additional services like technical training and awareness building, microcredit facilities, can encourage IDPs to take ownership, creating better economic and life outcomes.

The United Nations has described the Covid-19 pandemic as a human, economic and social crisis – one that is killing people, spreading human suffering and upending people’s lives. It is imperative that the ethos to “leave no one behind” is not forgotten – and that we include absolutely everyone. While we slowly go back to life pre-Covid, let us remember that IDPs, refugees and migrants are at the very bottom of our financially excluded pyramid, and act urgently to improve their chances for better economic outcomes via financial inclusion.

*Jonathan-Ichaver is co-founder, Sesor Empowerment Foundation.