USAID ‘Deeply Engaged’ in Boko Haram Crisis Response A conversation with Mission Director Mike Harvey

As his three and-a-half year tour as USAID Mission Director in Nigeria winds down, Michael T. Harvey sat with Nigeria’s Armed Forces Radio to discuss the U.S. government’s response to the displacement and socio-economic impact of the Boko Haram insurgency on the population of the country’s northeast. In a wide-ranging interview with presenter Jude Kankara on a program called “Home Sweet Home,” Harvey provided a frank assessment of the situation and provides an overview of the work of a 15-member USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team in Abuja working round the clock to help alleviate the suffering of more than 8 million people. The 30-minute interview has been edited for space.     

Welcome to Home Sweet Home, Mr. Harvey.  Can you tell us a little about your organization, USAID?

Let’s set the context a little bit.  USAID is the development arm of the U.S. government that provides assistance around the world.  Sometimes it’s development assistance, which is mostly what we’ve been doing in Nigeria for the last 15 years, but we are also the main provider of U.S. humanitarian assistance around the world.  So in the last three years we have been deeply engaged in responding to the crisis in northeast Nigeria.

What’s been your role in relation to what’s happening in the northeast?

A couple of things . . . USAID has been a very direct actor in terms of providing support to United Nations (UN) agencies and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the Government of Nigeria to provide direct assistance to Internally Displaced People (IDPs).  At the outset, we worked in the states around Borno during the worst times when it was difficult to work within the state.  Since the Nigerian military has gotten more control over Borno we have been moving increasingly into Maiduguri and other cities that have been liberated.  Another key role USAID has played has been to rally the international community to get NGOs to bring here their top leadership and staff who have done this before, and encourage the UN to do the same.  So now we have the quality of leadership both technical and otherwise, to lead a humanitarian relief effort of this scale.

What are your major challenges, and how would you describe the plight of the IDPs?

The numbers are huge.  Many people have heard the numbers, but it’s hard to get your head around it.  In Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe alone we are talking about 1.7 million IDPs.  But there are really something between five and eight million who have moved around to every state of the federation.  And the plight of these people is serious.  If they are farmers they have been cut off from their land now for two or three years, if they are traders they watched their businesses are destroyed, and it has been a remarkably challenging problem in terms of scale.  On the good side, Nigerians have been extremely generous in welcoming these people into their homes.  It’s very common that you can talk to somebody who is a civil servant or a taxi driver in Yola who has 13 members of his extended family living on his compound.  That story is told all across northern Nigeria.  But a lot of these people are living on the edges of towns, so if you go to most of the urban areas of the north you’ll see large, informal settlements of people who are just barely getting by. Those folks are really struggling. And the third category is the number of folks living in formal camps that are being run by the military or SEMA or NEMA [State and National Emergency Management Agencies –Ed].   Those camps have also been a challenge if only because of the sheer numbers.  Yes the scale is a problem but we must remember there is also an active war going on in Borno.  Boko Haram is still very much in the field, as I think many of your soldiers who are listening can tell you, and it is difficult to get aid workers, food and other supplies out into the field to rural areas of Borno where an active insurgency is still going on.

The focus now is now on resettlement and rehabilitation.  What’s been the process so far?

Well, let’s be clear, the focus has not shifted.  The focus today is still humanitarian relief.  Most IDPs cannot go home.  Rural Borno is still not a safe place to go back to.  Many IDPs desperately want to go home.  Many have sent one family member back home to see if their communities are safe.  Many of these people have been killed in the attempt or returned and said no, it’s not safe yet.  What is happening is that many IDPs are moving towards home.  They are going back to the capital cities of their LGA or the secondary cities in Adamawa or Borno, but they’re not going back to the rural areas.  Or they will go back to the rural areas in the daylight to tend to their crops but then they come back at night.  But I do want to be clear:  everybody supports getting IDPs home as soon as it is possible.  There is no argument about that.  What we in the international community are saying to our Nigerian counterparts, let’s do it when it is safe, when it is appropriate, and that it be voluntary.  Those IDPs go back when they feel from their knowledge, that it is safe to go back.

What are the international agencies, the nongovernmental organizations, doing to support these IDPs, bearing in mind funding?

With your Minister of Foreign Affairs, I recently attended an international humanitarian assistance conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin in Oslo, which was co-hosted by Nigeria and the UN.  I’m proud of the fact that 16 countries stepped up and pledged almost $700 million for relief and reconstruction efforts for Nigeria and its neighbors.  The challenge is going to  be working closely with the Government of Nigeria at both the state and the federal levels, and with the UN and NGOs, to make sure that money moves quickly and effectively and we know that it gets to people with food, shelter, water, and healthcare.

The basic amenities they need . . .  what kind of direct assistance has been provided to these IDPs?

Generally it falls into two pots, one is health and one is nutrition.  One of the most urgent things we’ve been trying to do is physically get food into people’s hands.  When the Nigerian military re-took control of LGA capitals in rural Borno, we saw a huge movement of rural populations who had been behind Boko Haram lines for one or two years, who came into these militarily-controlled towns and were in terrible shape.  Children were dying in large numbers every day.   That has pretty much stopped as the Nigerian military and international aid agencies including the Red Cross have managed to get them food.  But we still have a long way to go to know that everybody is getting at least getting the minimum necessary.  We are trying to tie the food assistance to a program that will screen those most at risk, primarily children, for malnutrition, get them into nutrition rehab program, and make sure they have health care and clean water.  Then, it’s shelter.  A key point is trying to ensure working with the Nigerian authorities, that these people are safe within the places where they have sought refuge.  Protection, especially of girls and women, is a huge issue, and I know the Nigerian military is struggling to try to figure out how to provide shelter and protection for these people who are in such bad shape, and ensure girls are not engaging in sex for food.  To make sure they get food just because they need it and not having to offer themselves in exchange.

We’ve heard of so many instances where IDPs have been shortchanged and food has been diverted from its rightful destinations.  Are these just rumors, or is this really happening?

I think it was a bigger problem at the start. Having worked in food aid programs for 30 years, I can tell you this is always a problem.  Food is easy to pick up and walk off with.  We are trying get enough relief staff into locations to ensure the food is going to those who need it, and it’s not going out of their hands as soon as they walk away from the distribution line.  This is going to be a challenge for the Nigerian police, the CJTF [Civilian Joint Task Force –Ed.] and for the Nigerian military, which will have to be part of the solution.

I’m sure there have been similar situations with regard to IDPs you’ve seen during the course of your career. Is there a difference in what you’ve seen here and what’s happening in Syria or the smaller countries in Africa?  Are we running behind schedule or are win in good time?

For many of us who have been working in this field for many years, it’s actually very seldom that you have something of this scale in a country where you are working with an ally and with a functioning government.  Unlike, say, South Sudan, Nigeria has the capacity to respond and it’s been rewarding to work with good partners on the other side. It hasn’t been the international community on one side and a hostile government on the other.  I think it has taken a while for the systems of the state to understand what was needed to respond.  I do feel like there is a commitment to get this right, and we’re seeing the government mobilize itself to get not only humanitarian response but also reconstruction moving quickly.

What other measures do you think can be put in place to guarantee a successful return home for these IDPs?

One of the things we still have to bridge is a greater link between the citizens of the northeast and the rest of their countrymen in Nigeria.  The scale of the need makes people question how they could possibly make a difference.  One thing it was very encouraging to see last year was a number of very wealthy Nigerians and Nigerian companies stepped forward with substantial financial contributions, either with cash or in-kind food commodities, which NEMA and SEMA distributed to IDPs in Borno.  I’m impressed what Nigerians have done to organize their communities through their churches and mosques to help the people living on the other side of the wall. I’ve been here three years now and I remember when a flood of people arrived in Abuja.  It was interesting to see how people struggled at first to understand what they were watching and to get them organized.  But now you go to an IDP camp just right beside this barracks here.  There is a class and a clinic.  It was set up by a church that saw a need, organized the nurses and teachers from their congregations, they raised the money and they are running schools and running clinics.  This kind of Nigerian-to-Nigerian response is very heartwarming.

I’m sure these people will need a little psychology, especially the young ones and the women.  Has there been any psychologists talking to them?

That is a very perceptive question.  I’m sure it will be no surprise to your listeners that people have gone through a tremendously violent experience.  There are very few men in these camps.  A lot of the men and boys were killed very deliberately.  A lot of the women were subjected to terrible sexual abuse and the children have watched their parents killed in front of them and have been dragged off into Boko Haram camps.  One of the frustrations for all of us is trying to find the capacity to provide the psychological services these people clearly need to deal with this.  This is a long term need and all of us in the international community are going to be eager to help those individuals who want to step forward to provide this care.

As USAID Mission Director, what have you learned from these experiences?

Early on, we probably needed to focus more deliberately in helping the state emergency management agencies and other elements of the Nigerian government to organize themselves to effectively deal with a crisis of this scale.  I think it caught all of us by surprise.  If we could do it over again, I think all of us would focus on that piece more urgently.  But the government has done well building the car while they are driving it.