The Humanitarian Community Is Counting on the Oslo Conference to Raise Awareness and Funds for the Neglected Lake Chad Crisis

HKI Niger

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 miserable, precarious living conditions for millions of people. This week’s Oslo Humanitarian Conference (February 23-24) is an opportunity to raise awareness and funds for the devastating and under-reported humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad Basin. In spite of the fact that one of the affected countries – Nigeria – dwarfs the others (Cameroon, Chad, and Niger) in population, it is important that the deliberations in Oslo take into account the needs of all countries that are suffering from the effects of the crisis.

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. Niger’s remote southeastern Diffa Region, which is in the Lake Chad Basin, borders Nigeria and Chad. 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, due to the security situation, schools and health centers are being closed down 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, to over 2.6 million, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It is also important to note that most of those 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”.

This week, a long-awaited humanitarian conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin countries will take place in Oslo, Norway. It is being hosted by the Government of Norway in collaboration with the Governments of Nigeria and Germany. The conference aims to raise awareness and political engagement, as well as material support for the humanitarian response in the zone. Those of us who work in that beleaguered part of Africa have high hopes for mounting a more substantial, broad-based international response to the crisis.

As the United Nations system, humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), donors, diplomats and national governments of the affected countries prepare for the Oslo Humanitarian Conference, we must be clear about the objectives in order to ensure that it lives up to high expectations. Some of the key priorities being raised by humanitarian NGOs and U.N. agencies in the zone include the following (drawn from “Key Messages” for the Conference from the Niger Humanitarian Country Team and “Seven Steps to Saving Lives and Assisting People in Nigeria and Lake Chad Basin”, a statement by NGOs in Nigeria):

  • Ensure that protection of civilians has a central place in the humanitarian response.
  • Increase funding for the humanitarian response, using appropriate, nimble funding mechanisms.
  • Promote programs which bridge emergency and development, emphasizing building resilience and long-term solutions.
  • Scale up the food and nutrition response, given the massive need.
  • Increase access to more, better and safe education without losing focus on quality.
  • Safeguard humanitarian space and access to people in need.
  • Strengthen leadership of the response and improve humanitarian coordination, especially given the fact that the crisis straddles the borders of four sovereign states.
  • Ensure that all returns of refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) are safe, voluntary and dignified.

The Lake Chad crisis caused by the Boko Haram insurgency continues to exact a daunting humanitarian toll on the countries of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. Thus far, international awareness of the crisis and funding to mitigate its effects have both been extremely inadequate. The Oslo Humanitarian Conference offers an unprecedented opportunity to rectify both of these gaps and take major steps in the direction of reducing suffering and putting bereft women, men, and children on the road to rebuilding their lives.