Benue’s floods and the case for better disaster giving infrastructure

In this post, Titilope F. Ajayi from the University of Ghana discusses the well-intended response by Nigerians to alleviate the suffering caused by flooding in Nigeria’s Benue State. She echoes the point raised a few weeks ago by Edwin Adjei that Africans—perhaps despite a lack of international media coverage—are helping each other in humanitarian disaster situations as much as, if not more than, international aid organizations. Nonetheless, Ajayi highlights the need for better coordination of the distribution of relief items and argues there is a clear need to extend the conversation beyond the current philanthropic heavyweights to understand the manifold ways in which Africans give and to contextualise the discourse to specific situations. Doing so, she suggests, would help to forge a more effective disaster giving infrastructure in Nigeria.

Benue’s floods and the case for better disaster giving infrastructure

Guest post by: Titilope F. Ajayi, University of Ghana – Legon

News platforms were ablaze the week of 27 August with reports of flooding caused by heavy rains in Makurdi, the capital city of Nigeria’s Benue State. An estimated 2,000 houses were destroyed, rendering some 110,000 people homeless and killing at least three people.

In the ensuing chaos, clamours for help echoed around the country. By all indications, Nigerians responded en masse. Alongside large high-profile donations from celebrities like TuFace and Ghanaian Juliet Ibrahim sprouted a raft of lone and joint efforts by diverse civil societies: BENGONET, reportedly the ‘first and major responders’, SESOR, Community Links/Lead Benue, The Omojuwa and Tonto Dikeh foundations, and uberCommunity—to mention a few. In myriad ways, these groups made donations, facilitated and coordinated giving, provided information on how to give, and offered situation updates on the flooding and how gifts were being used—or misused. Guaranty Trust Bank ran its own campaign (Hearts for Benue) while Zenith and Sterling banks’ ill-advised donations for retweets backfired. The government’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) donated a range of relief items. Independent efforts continue with TuFace said to be planning a charity concert and a pending sports fundraiser by two local football clubs.

What (appears to have) worked is the sheer scale of compassion and advocacy and the speed of responses. Equally remarkable is that most, if not all responders were indigenous or at least Nigerian—testament that Ubuntu, the legendary African sense of interconnectedness, is alive and well. What was not so great about the Benue giving campaign was the apparent lack of coordination within and between different sectors of all these efforts—despite the very real zeal to help. In one example, NEMA raw food donations could not initially be used to feed the displaced in one camp because there was no cooking gas to power donated cookstoves. In another instance, an official of the Benue State NEMA was said to have asked a would-be donor to hold her gift until after the Eid holiday and then write a letter for approval concerning her donation for incomprehensible reasons. On the whole, it was not clear, amid all the busy-ness, who was making sure that donations matched identified needs, that gifts were reaching those who needed them, that efforts were not being duplicated, that accurate records were being kept in the interests of accountability, and that overheads of smaller organisations were being addressed.

These factors are important in light of globally changing weather patterns and their significance for the apparently rising spate of natural disasters, as the blog has discussed in previous posts.  Benue is no stranger to floods, but it would appear that this latest one is its worst yet and may not be its last. Juxtaposed against the need in such situations for an organised proactive response is the mix of different entities occupying different spaces on the rungs of disaster giving and civil society: foundations, nongovernmental development organisations, volunteers, financial institutions, and the state. In theory, the more people are gainfully involved in disasters, the more survivors stand to benefit. But Haiti’s Red Cross scandal is a prime example of the risks of uncoordinated goodwill and generosity.

In addition to the traditional giving mechanisms of various community groups, recent years have seen the rise across Africa of foundations owned by corporates and high worth individuals like Tony Elumelu. In Nigeria, these coexist in a loose giving framework that alternately attends to Nigerians’ (and other Africans’) daily needs, a range of development projects, and the occasional disaster. But the Benue floods and the occasion of International Charity Day 2017 (5 September) provide timely pause for thought on improving and institutionalising the infrastructure for disaster giving in Nigeria. Nascent work on Africa’s giving infrastructure looks at it from a continental view of developmental giving. This panorama is an important but small part of a large complex jigsaw. There is a clear need to extend the conversation beyond our philanthropic heavyweights to the manifold ways in which Africans give and to contextualise the discourse to specific situations.

What would it take to forge an effective disaster giving infrastructure in Nigeria? To my mind, there are at least five key considerations, interspersed by the crucial matter of resourcing: access to relevant knowledge and information; suitable structures, institutions, and facilities; valid skills and capacities; local ownership and leadership, and progressive values and attitudes. Besides emotional appeals for help, an efficient infrastructure is arguably the best way to encourage people to give, to maximise the impact of gifts, and to mitigate risks of abuse and diversion, as allegedly occurred during giving campaigns for Benue’s previous floods.

About the Author

Titilope F. Ajayi is an independent editor, writer, and civil society and gender and security scholar. Currently a PhD student of international affairs at the Legon Centre for International Affairs and Diplomacy, University of Ghana, Legon, Titilope coordinates the portal and writes periodically for the Nonprofit Quarterly and CIHA Blog.She is also a 2017/8 Social Science Research Council Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Doctoral Fellow. For more, follow her on Twitter: @TAMamattah.