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How to reduce tensions between host communities and refugees: Lessons learned from Niger

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DME for Peace
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Author, Copyright Holder: Maud Bakirdjian

In April 2014 violent attacks by the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria forced 30000 Niger nationals and 8000 Nigerians to flee into the relative safety of Niger’s Diffa region.

The displaced peoples share a common language and culture with the host communities, which promoted their peaceful reception. However, host communities were already struggling to meet their own needs. As displaced people continued to arrive, government and international organizations aid focusing on displaced populations unwittingly fed tensions. Hosts in Niger began to ask, how is it that these newcomers are helped while we, struggling for years in our daily lives to meet our basic needs, are not?

To prevent these tensions from escalating to violence, Search for Common Ground Niger, supported by UNHCR, sought to respond quickly by : (1) Creating credible and reliable information channels to reduce rumors about humanitarian aid; (2) Supporting community initiatives to promote mutual assistance and understanding.

In December 2014, eight months later, at the end of the project, several important effects were observed, revealing the positive role of SFCG in this crisis situation.

How did SFCG programming reduce tensions and promote mutual understanding?

SFCG adopted a multi-layered and participatory approach, both in terms of targeted individuals and activities. Radio programs were used to teach the public about the humanitarian aid process - but data collected by the Niger SFCG team revealed that the radio programs could at best reach 59% of the target population, and SFCG radio was only regularly reaching 42%. This lesson was quickly incorporated into programming with the addition of an awareness caravan and participatory theater.

Both of the added activities included deep engagement from communities and community leaders. Participatory theater actors are people from the community who have been trained by SFCG, the actors make theatre interactive through asking the audience questions and bringing the audience into role playing scenes. This enables communities to be directly active. Without their understanding, their support and involvement, these activities would not have existed.

What were the results of the program?

  1. Communities choosing to expand activities.

SFCG committed to supporting the implementation of 8 community activities. But the excitement and enthusiasm of communities and their leaders led communities to develop an additional 11 community events (including soccer games and community, etc.) which gathered together host, displaced, and returned populations.

SFCG aimed to put on 32 participatory theater performances, but in the end 60 shows were performed, doubling the initial goal!

  1. Changed attitudes and behaviors around solidarity and mutual assistance

Through a multi-layered and highly participatory approach, change is possible. Disseminating reliable and credible information through radio programs and community outreach activities helps people understand the purpose of humanitarian aid and its targets. This is the first step, a change in knowledge. A change in knowledge may directly result in an attitude change; once the aid process is made more transparent and understandable, resentment and jealousy fade.

"I used to think that humanitarian aid was for the village but was only given to these supposedly returned and displaced. We thought by chasing them from our homes, aid would be distributed to us. But with the SFCG sensitizations, especially through participatory theater, I understood how aid is allocated and since then, I am committed to help these people. Currently, I share my house with one of them and four of her children. " - A woman from the host population, from data collected during the final evaluation in December 2014.

This change can be built to be even stronger if the host population, returnees and displaced persons share in discussion of experiences, making each group more aware of the others’ situation. SFCG encouraged this type of sharing and relationship building through community activities, providing new opportunities for people to meet and work towards a same goal - to improve the quality of life for everyone in the community.

"Thanks to my participation in a clean-up meeting, gathering all the village women, displaced, returned as host population, I made some friends and since then I no longer feel like a stranger. I do not even want to think of going back to Nigeria. " – From data collected during the final evaluation in December 2014.

What’s next?

The changes captured are remarkable - however, they are only the beginning.

In December 2014, Diffa authorities recorded a sharp decrease in the number of complaints from the host population about the aid distributed to displaced persons. However, 42% of the surveyed host population still reported they were worried by the presence of returned and displaced peoples in their communities; 63% of them believed the presence of displaced people was likely to lead to conflicts and 22% said they were already a source of conflict. Fear and worry are not defeated. Humanitarian aid was also still cited as the primary source of tensions related to the arrival of displaced and returned people in the community. As displaced people continue to come, hard work to ease community relationships must continue.

In August 2015, Diffa region had 94,152 Nigerian displaced and 44,169 returnees (Niger nationals living in Nigeria for years – then fleeing back to their country), the majority are women and children. Results show that people can change their attitude and behavior to reduce tensions and conflicts, and improve the situation of all. We must continue to support the people in that direction. Today SFCG, supported by UNHCR, continues this work.

How did SFCG capture these results?

The above mentioned results are from an evaluation using a mixed methodology of qualitative and quantitative. The results are drawn from a quantitative questionnaire administered to 709 people (displaced, returned, and host population), 13 individual interviews with the authorities, humanitarian actors, project staff and staff of partner radio stations, 6 focus groups with a total of 72 people in host communities, returnees and displaced persons, and a literature review of the various reports produced throughout the implementation of the project.

The value of using a mixed methodology is to get different but complementary data on the same subject in order to increase our understanding of different aspects of a context and increase the reliability of results through triangulation of data. Combining the advantages of qualitative methods (more details, depth) and quantitative (sample size, trends, generalization) reduces the weaknesses of each and corroboration of the results on a same aspect studied reinforces the validity of an evaluation.

For example, thanks to a group discussion where returnees and IDPs had gathered to exchange experience while feeling at ease, the above quotes were collected. It is likely that these testimonies would not have been collected through the closed questions of a quantitative questionnaire. However, without the questionnaire, we would not have had data to extrapolate the results from qualitative data collected from a few people.

Mixed methodology is advised when relevant to the topic (in particular the level of sensitivity,) when the appropriate budget is available and when the security and logistical conditions allow.