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International aid groups ‘utterly failing’ conflict victims in Burkina Faso: Egeland

‘The aid has gone down while needs have grown.’

This is a portrait of a woman called Mariam. She is pictured resting her head on her left hand. She looks directly at the camera. Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC
Mariam, a displaced person in the town of Kongoussi, said she cannot return to her village because it is occupied by armed groups. More than two million people have been uprooted by the conflict in Burkina Faso.

International aid organisations are “utterly failing” people affected by jihadist conflict in Burkina Faso, said Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Secretary General Jan Egeland, answering questions put to him by Burkinabè community leaders from some of the most conflict-affected parts of the country.

In its annual rundown of places starved of humanitarian funding, media attention, and international diplomatic efforts, NRC last week named Burkina Faso the world’s most neglected displacement crisis.

Offered an interview with Egeland, who recently visited Burkina Faso, The New Humanitarian approached four community leaders in the cities of Djibo, Dori, Diapaga, and Ouahigouya for questions.

They wanted to know why aid has been reduced in their communities, and what the current relationship is between humanitarian agencies and the government, which has placed various restrictions on relief efforts.

“If I were in your shoes, I would be utterly outraged by the lack of international – and for that matter regional – solidarity,” Egeland said. “It is true that we are utterly failing some of the poorest, most neglected, and hardest-suffering communities on Earth.”

More than two million people have been displaced by the conflict in Burkina Faso, with the violence leading to tens of thousands of deaths and back-to-back military coups in 2022.

The country’s current leader, army Captain Ibrahim Traoré, has ramped up military operations and enrolled tens of thousands of civilians into a nationwide anti-jihadist volunteer force. In response the jihadists have enforced blockades on dozens of towns and villages around the country.

Egeland said aid groups face numerous government-imposed obstacles as they try to meet increasing needs: they are not allowed to distribute cash assistance (which the junta says is creating “dependencies” and can be diverted by jihadists); they lack permission to engage in humanitarian diplomacy with armed groups; and they are prevented from accessing areas that are not controlled by the government.

Egeland said “suspicion” has been cast on international aid groups, which isn’t helped by the “tense relationship” between the junta and the largely Western donors that NRC and others rely on.

Egeland’s full answers – after minor edits for length and clarity – can be found below. They will be shared back in full with the community leaders, whose names are being withheld due to security concerns. The first and last questions were asked by the journalist writing this piece, whose name is also not being used due to security concerns.

How big are the needs on the ground? 

Egeland: I saw catastrophic needs. I saw widows, their husbands killed. They told me how they had fled when their villages were burnt and their livestock was robbed. They had come to Dori [capital of the northeastern Sahel region], and they were now in places with very little assistance. The humanitarian appeal [for people in need across the country] is 15% covered for this year, and we are mid-year. So it is catastrophically under-funded. But I also saw hope. We have been able to provide education to thousands of kids, and they want to be doctors, nurses, engineers, farmers, and aid workers. They have very dedicated teachers, who were even doing trauma care that we taught them to do for children who have been deeply traumatised by what they have seen. I was very impressed with what NGOs can do with very limited resources. 95% of our staff are Burkinabè local people, recruited and trained by us to work for their brothers and sisters. They are all doing fantastic work. I saw that for myself in Dori.

Why have aid groups considerably reduced their assistance at a time when the security situation is worsening? How can a few kilograms of rice or millet feed a household with 10 children?

Egeland: If I were in your shoes, I would be utterly outraged by the lack of international – and for that matter regional – solidarity, with these communities in their hour of greatest need. It is true that we are utterly failing some of the poorest, most neglected, and hardest-suffering communities on Earth. Why? Well, the aid has gone down while needs have grown. And that is in part because of the general lack of attention to the Sahel and because of the aid cuts to places beyond Ukraine and the Middle East. And then, on top of that, there is the extreme cost hike of doing operations in Burkina Faso, especially in the 40 blockaded towns and urban communities. A blockaded town is a place that you can only reach at great cost by helicopter, or with heavy military escorts, which we are not able and willing to take given that we are independent of any parties to the conflict. NGOs did a survey that confirmed that in half of the 40 blockaded localities, only 1% of the civilians received aid from international NGOs last year. And most of that aid went to a couple of the most populous towns, such as Djibo, where NRC is operational among others. Finally, we are not allowed to go out of the areas controlled by government forces, which means that in the countryside there are countless people suffering alone, without our access.

We've heard that regional governors have forbidden NGOs to give us cash, yet we need money to buy clothes, kitchen items, things for cooking, and to educate our children. Is this true? We don't know. The government has not told us.

Egeland: Cash assistance is the best way of empowering people to make their own choices. We did cash assistance, and then some governors banned its use, and then it became a national ban. The authorities have argued that it is creating dependency and that there is not enough accountability and control. They say how can we be sure that it is not being diverted, and they also say that cash has not been well enough coordinated, so some people might get cash twice and some get nothing. We disagree with that and we have argued that we should be able to resume cash assistance. And perhaps we will at least have a breakthrough on the use of vouchers, which are often the second best option. People can use vouchers in certain shops and outlets and convert them into the things that they need. Our argument is that if cash assistance has been badly coordinated, allow us to resume and coordinate better. The transparency, accountability, and control is also as good for cash as it is for any other modality. The in-kind assistance that we are now forced to employ is more expensive, often less tailor-made to local needs, and is indeed quite difficult to get into blockaded areas. You either go with extremely expensive helicopter transport or by armed escort on trucks.

I feel like aid groups are plotting with the government to make our lives even more difficult. I am saying this because NGOs used to help us a lot. But now, since they've started bowing to the state's decisions, it's us, the displaced people and the citizens of the blockaded areas, who are suffering, and it's unbearable.

Egeland: We do a lot to maintain our independence and maintain our neutrality, but if we are not allowed to do cash, then we can’t do cash. If we are not allowed to go in non-state controlled areas, then we cannot go there. And we have to coordinate with the local authorities. The state is in charge and we cannot violate the rules set by the government, because we would be thrown out in an instance. In some cases, there has actually been productive cooperation with the line ministries. Many of the community leaders will have seen that hundreds of schools have reopened, and there are many more children in education than the worst period last year, when I think there were 6,000 schools closed in the spring of 2023. And that has been an excellent cooperation between the ministry of education and the aid groups.

I travelled to Burkina Faso recently to argue for our humanitarian principles and our operational independence, and there are other INGOs (international NGOs) that have done that. I also met with humanitarian partners, within the UN and INGOs and donors, both in Ouagadougou and in Dakar. I argued that we need to have a common, energetic effort to increase our access to all areas of Burkina Faso, including all of the blockaded towns and areas. I argued that we need to get agreements with the authorities – and any other actor within Burkina Faso – so that we can meet the needs of the local population in accordance with humanitarian principles. We need UN leadership on this, but the lack of a UN resident and humanitarian coordinator (Ed. note: the person in this role, which is the most senior UN position in the country, was expelled by the government in December 2022) for a long time has not helped us. It is also not helping us that Western donors have withdrawn development aid, representatives, and engaged less with the existing governments than they did before military rule in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. We feel too alone, too often.

Are aid agencies aware that those in charge of distributing aid often misappropriate it? Are humanitarians choosing the beneficiaries or are you giving that task to the Burkinabè authorities?

Egeland: Each and every allegation of aid diversion must be fully, totally, and independently investigated. The aid that I saw being distributed by my organisation and sister organisations is very well monitored and followed-up on. My impression was that there is too little aid really – it is only a fraction of the people in need that get aid. I was in several camps in Dori and saw that for shelter, food, sanitation, and education, many more people are not reached at all than the people who have gotten aid.

What are the specific challenges that aid groups are facing under the current military government? Since the military came to power, it seems that some aid groups, especially those working with crisis-affected communities, are suspected of having connections with armed groups.

Egeland: I would say that there has been suspicion cast on international aid groups, and that is very unfair. The suspicion is that we created dependency, that we are not following government coordination and directives, and certainly it doesn’t help that many of our donors have a tense relationship to these [Sahelian] countries. It is important for us to explain ourselves better – who we are, what we do, and how our rules and regulations, donor compliance, and humanitarian principles are practised. And that could create more trust with the government. But then we also have to make clear that we are independent of the government. We are independent of the Norwegian government here in Norway, independent of the Burkinabè government in Burkina Faso, and independent in any other place. I'm not taking orders from any donor or anyone. We are independent, neutral, and impartial. Our one boss is the people in need: Those are the ones we will take orders from, and they need to tell us what they need and how we can help them.

What can be done to boost aid access to blockaded towns?

Egeland: There are two million people living in blockaded towns. There is no other way to get aid there than for us to get the permission and capacity to negotiate access locally with the authorities and with all of the armed actors, as we do in countless other places, including in Mali. The lack of permission to do humanitarian diplomacy, to speak to armed groups, and to do civil-military acceptance-building is a real shortcoming in Burkina Faso. The answer is not military escorts, the answer is agreements that we can work according to humanitarian principles, and with acceptance of all who see that we do help all without discrimination.

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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