In-depth: Food and nutrition crisis in Niger and the Western Sahel
MALI: Kidnap threat throws spotlight on local aid staff
DAKAR, 17 September 2010 (IRIN) - A kidnap threat blocking Western aid workers from travelling to parts of Mali is hampering aid operations and underscoring the importance of local NGOs, humanitarian experts say.
Several international aid agencies have stopped all travel by Western aid workers to Mali’s northeastern Gao region since early 2010, aid workers told IRIN. To lower their profile, some international NGOs still working in the area are using local, unmarked vehicles. Gao is the zone currently of most concern but there have been alerts regarding other regions of Mali as well.
The 16 September kidnapping of seven people working for a French company in neighbouring Niger is the latest in a long history of attacks on Western entities across the Sahel, many carried out by the north African branch of al-Qaeda. In recent months several Western governments have warned their nationals not to travel to northeastern Mali because of threats by the group.
The UN office for West Africa said in a June report
the security situation in the Sahel had deteriorated in the previous year, with a surge of kidnappings of foreigners and attacks on national security forces.
While the security constraints are not having a direct impact on beneficiaries, they have curbed monitoring and quality control missions, aid workers in the region told IRIN. The insecurity has also upped costs, as at least one agency is using military escorts when moving around Gao. A number of international aid agencies have operations in the area, where people face severe water scarcity and food and fodder shortages.
“The latest threats limit us in our ability to send needs assessment teams to the Gao area, at a time when the population is affected by drought,” said an international aid worker in Mali who preferred anonymity. He had just cancelled a monitoring mission to Gao, holding meetings in another location on the recommendation of Malian colleagues and Western diplomats.
“We are adapting our operations by handing more responsibility to local staff and relying on Malian NGOs more insofar as they are currently less at risk.”
Donor officials and international aid workers said they are already able to rely on a large pool of local staff with significant humanitarian experience, but said access remained critical as not all operations were currently in the hands of local workers. Aid workers in Mali told IRIN it is also difficult to have a good overall picture of the situation and needs if project managers cannot regularly visit the zone.
Cyprien Fabre, head of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department (ECHO) in West Africa, said: “This is an issue for ECHO, as our strength is our presence, and the ability to see for ourselves and to monitor the quality and impact of a project the European Union is funding.”
ECHO-backed work in the Sahel includes projects to address the causes of malnutrition and to assist pastoralists.
Bolstering local NGOs
For Hervé Ludovic de Lys, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for West and Central Africa, the access situation means greater efforts should be made to strengthen the capacity of local aid workers to carry out humanitarian assistance in accordance with international principles and accountability.
“It seems it’s time for international NGOs to take their local counterparts more as partners with a broader mandate… The performance of international NGOs should perhaps be measured not only by their contribution to the beneficiaries but also by their ability to build capacity in local partners.”
He said “local NGOs are just about indispensable” in some areas of the world all but inaccessible to Westerners.
Most local NGOs in West Africa are development-oriented, and this could be a good time to add humanitarian response to their expertise, de Lys said.
Fabre said ECHO has been supporting the training of local NGOs. “Some of our partners have already been present in Mali or elsewhere for decades in development projects…[When they are properly trained] this facilitates the upscaling of operations into emergency mode and we use this tool a lot; we take that into consideration for funding.”
Guilty by association?
For now, aid workers from Mali or other sub-Saharan African countries have not been targeted for associating with international NGOs. “Our teams are able to work on the ground,” Sidy Diallo with Médecins du Monde Belgique in Mali told IRIN. “They are from the area and integrated into the communities. For the moment they are not being targeted.”
But aid agencies are closely monitoring this, Philippe Conraud, Oxfam-UK’s humanitarian coordinator for West Africa, told IRIN. “It cannot be ruled out.” He noted that local workers are still subject to carjackings and other crime common in the area.
OCHA’s de Lys said national aid staff are on the front line worldwide and often the first victims of violence.