Learning from Niger and looking toward the future

There’s a funny aspect of global development, where the more remote parts of the world you see, the more it seems to be connected. Last week, watching the board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) approve a $425 million investment in Niger, I felt a real sense of many things coming together.

MCC is a U.S. foreign assistance agency that makes large, economic growth-focused investments in the world’s poorest – but well governed – countries. I work with the private sector side of MCC’s board now, but I spent nine years there on the staff side of the table in board meetings before joining InterAction as the vice president for global development this past May. For most of my time with MCC, I watched Niger navigate a complicated path towards this compact investment. I saw MCC and Nigerien government staff shed both tears of sorrow and of joy over the course of that long road. There was also an awful lot of learning about the meaning of resilience.

The MCC’s work in Niger will invest nearly half a billion dollars in raising rural incomes through improvements in agricultural irrigation and market infrastructure. That sounds like a lot, and when you hear the context, its value becomes even greater.

Niger is a land-locked country in the Sahel, where an average woman has seven children, there is a “hungry season” every year without fail, and literacy levels hover in the single digits in some areas. It is always at the bottom of the Human Development Index. As a state, its neighborhood includes Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and a whole series of illicit networks that crisscross the ungoverned spaces of the Sahel. In the past 10 years, Niger has dealt with a food crisis, a coup, returning mercenary fighters from Libya, and a substantial influx of refugees.

In a country where the bulk of foreign assistance resources go to crisis relief, the MCC investment represents a half billion dollars for sustainable development. The last time the U.S. did this was when it built the first Niamey bridge across the river Niger, a piece of capital-city infrastructure that still stands and was fondly referred to as “the JFK bridge” by every Nigerian who gave me directions or drove over it with me in 2007.

And that juxtaposition feels like a convergence. If you look up Niger on InterAction’s NGO AidMap, you’ll find that InterAction members conduct some 33 current programs there. This ranges from Mercy Corp’s education program in Zinder and Maradi, to Save the Children’s food aid program, and Islamic Relief USA’s water and sanitation program in Tilaberri. The work is diverse and reflects not only a variety of beneficiaries, but the real strength that U.S. NGOs can bring to bear.

The diversity in ongoing work is exactly why the formal approval of MCC’s investment in Niger pushed me to think about how things come together. Niger throws into relief the complexity of supporting both sustainable economic and human development outcomes on one hand, while periodically providing humanitarian support for a variety of crises. Today, long term development partners have remained active in Niger, even as their humanitarian counterparts supported the country over the past decade though a food crisis, internal displacements, and refugees from both Nigeria and Mali.

Consequently, there is learning in Niger about the nexus of development and humanitarian work. If we are interested in looking at fragile environments and understanding how to avoid constant transition back and forth between human crisis and stability, there are lessons Niger can teach us. And if we are contending with the reality that large displaced populations increasingly stay for a generation in their new locations, and asking how to blend sustainable development with rapid humanitarian response, there are lessons in Niger.

Now that I am in a new seat at InterAction, I feel like Niger is, in some ways, sending me on my way. A country I worked with for years as it made progress toward an MCC investment is now pointing me on my way to learning from new colleagues, and from InterAction’s members about the most current, complex challenges that we have to contend with as a community.

So, thank you, Niger. And I wish you the best of all MCC investment implementation!