26 March 2015

Boko Haram won’t stop us working


‘The market’s open? That’s great!’

The UN guy sitting next to me in a hotel lobby in northeastern Nigeria last week could hardly contain his delight at the news that people in a town recently liberated from Boko Haram had started trading again.

When a major disaster hits – whether it’s terrorist attack, natural disaster or political collapse – every humanitarian worker knows that one of the first things to go is the formal economy. There’ll always be black markets, and it often isn’t money which is the currency. Women and children are particularly vulnerable, as sex becomes the stock in trade. So people go hungry, tensions mount as people start to fight over scarce resources, and many families move away from their homes and businesses – and therefore their livelihoods – in search of safety and survival. Without capital, people are desperate. And they know it.

Speaking to people in makeshift camps in the grounds of churches and in school halls last week, I heard time after time the same request:

‘We want schools for our children, and jobs for ourselves.’

People are longing to be economically active again, and to bring up their children to a better future. Understandable. But all the more admirable when you consider that these are people who often go a day or more without food, or who have to defecate on open ground because there aren’t enough latrines. They are prioritising their productivity over their physical comfort.

Work is the only way for people to retain their dignity and provide for their families. And they’re desperate to avoid being caught up in the sex trade, corruption or the illicit activities which everyone knows are rife in Nigeria, as in many places. So proper trading, even as small-scale as local smallholder street markets, is rightly seen as one of the benchmarks of recovery. It’s the same on a larger scale too. In disaster zones, restoring economic systems, both big and small, becomes an urgent priority. In Haiti, when the earthquake hit in 2010, the banks literally collapsed. NGOs struggled to get supplies in or to source kit locally because the whole trading system was in chaos.

That’s why, in some emergencies where it’s safe to do so, NGOs administer cash assistance either in the form of hard cash or vouchers to boost local economies and help displaced people retain spending power. And it’s why it’s so important to help people get jobs, start businesses and sell their skills.

If you can’t trade, you can’t move on. And in a disaster, moving on is exactly what everyone wants to do.

Katie Harrison works for Tearfund.