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Aid beyond politics and according to need: overcoming disparities in humanitarian responses in Nigeria

Working paper

Written by John Bryant, Aishat Abubakar Ibrahim, Etom Obono

Hero image description: Graphic illustration of the outline of Nigeria with various icons sitting inside it Image credit:Adedoyin Betiku

Considerable discrepancies in humanitarian responses exist between the northeast and northwest regions of Nigeria despite comparable levels of humanitarian need. While northeast Nigeria has had a major humanitarian response spanning more than a decade, humanitarian efforts in the northwest have been almost entirely absent. This is despite acute malnutrition levels in the northwest currently being almost triple that of the northeast.

The stark differences are primarily a consequence of how the conflicts are understood by state and humanitarian actors. The northeast is commonly framed as an ideologically driven insurgency of Islamic extremism, a compelling narrative that helped draw domestic and international attention. In contrast, the framing of the conflict in the northwest – as one of lawlessness driven by underdevelopment – has effectively depoliticised and deprioritised it. Both of these characterisations are incomplete and simplistic, but have shaped the perceptions of donors and other actors that in turn drive discrepancies.

Nigeria’s disparities raise pressing questions around humanitarian prioritisation. Such issues are now especially pertinent for the global humanitarian system: for the first time, falling donor budgets have led to relief providers targeting fewer people in their humanitarian appeals. Yet discomfort in engaging in contexts like northwest Nigeria, with difficult-to-categorise conflicts and protracted crises, should not detract from the necessity of humanitarian actors meeting commitments to provide effective, principled assistance.

This paper is the product of a collaborative piece of research between Neem Foundation, a relief and rehabilitation organisation based in Abuja and with operations across Nigeria, and the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at ODI.

This paper forms part of HPG's 2022–2024 programme of work on
People, power and agency, which explores how the humanitarian sector can better understand the social and political forces that condition and influence humanitarian assistance.