The world’s most extensive humanitarian crisis is currently playing out in the Lake Chad region, with some 17 million people affected, and 7 million suffering food insecurity. We spoke with Ambassador Hinrich Thölken, Permanent Representative of Germany to FAO, WFP and IFAD, who travelled to both Nigeria and Chad to gain a better understanding of the different compound pressures.
What are the main challenges for humanitarians in the Lake Chad region?
The crisis in the Lake Chad region is an incredibly complex problem. First, it is a security issue with Boko Haram and other insurgents threating people’s livelihoods. Second, it is a developmental problem – many decades of missed opportunities, mismanagement and poor economic development policies. Third, it is also an issue where millions of people who are internally displaced have settled in small townships and cities. They need to be looked after, they need to be fed, they need to be schooled. This is a huge challenge for the humanitarian community.
And fourth, it is an ecological challenge. It is not only climate change; it’s also the extreme stress on resources in the area, population growth that led to a competition for resources which might be part of the underlying conflict. We are not sure yet, but there are some indications hinting to that and if we do not look at the resource question, we will not be able to settle the political question.
Amidst the manifold immediate needs, what scope is there for addressing root causes of the crisis?
First of all, we must meet humanitarian needs; we need to look after these people. But to go to root causes would mean to look at a very complex security problem. Dealing with the root causes would mean securing the area. This would mean, also, to work in terms of development cooperation.
Most of the areas around the Lake Chad Basin have been desperately poor for the last decades. Authorities, governments, and the people have not looked after social systems. I think a lot needs to be invested in social security, social systems, education, gender training, to get some kind of perspective of stability. But it needs a long breath and patience from the international community.
It is straightforward: in the short term, we need to feed the people; in the long term, we must make sure that they can earn their own livelihoods.
What is the role of women and girls for resilience building?
On my mission, I saw that the roles of men and women are strikingly different from what we perceive as appropriate, or modern or conducive to economic development. We found that most of the work is done by the women in the camp, even in the fields. Men have no proper job, neither a role in securing food for their families or securing education - so they are just idling. A lot of education and training is needed for the men to make sure that they find themselves a role in the resettlement camp or in the IDP camp, but also to find new livelihoods for their families. Men have to be part of the solution.
There is, for example, a project run by FAO and IFAD that looks at creating livelihoods for farmers in terms of dryland-farming. During the mission I learned that there are some crops that only women feel responsible for—those crops that grow close to the soil, like carrots and aubergines—whereas men only take care of crops that grow high and tall, such as maize and wheat. The project ensured that both men and women were catered for: There would be ‘male crops’ and ‘female crops’, so that both could play a role.
How can humanitarians operate without creating quasi-state structures or crowding-out governments?
The humanitarian community is doing a tremendous job in the Lake Chad Basin, as in many other places. I would like to see that the governments of the countries in the area would step up to the responsibility. I think that in some countries governments should take a greater responsibility in meeting the basic needs of the population, instead of focusing solely on military security. Military security cannot be guaranteed if there is no social security and social peace for the people in these countries. And here, the international community, the donors, and the international organisations should perhaps enhance the dialogues with these governments.
In brief, humanitarian organizations come in, do their job, help the people. They try to manage the crisis, but this should always be done in close consultation and in coordination with the government of the respective country. Otherwise, there would be a crowding out-effect if the government pulls back from its responsibility. The only remedy would be close coordination, discussion about the various responsibilities, and always discussing exit strategies—how can we make sure that people in need can create their own livelihoods?
The interview was conducted in Berlin, on 8 June, by Stella Schaller (adelphi). Photography: Paul Müller-Hahl.