CHAD: Every silver lining has a cloud

Tuesday, April 15, 2008
An estimated 3,000 humanitarian workers are based in the remote east of Chad assisting over 250,000 Sudanese refugees and 180,000 displaced Chadians, yet the hundreds of thousands of locals not directly affected by the crisis receive little or no assistance and for them the international presence has had some downsides.

"Life has become very expensive since the humanitarians came here," Ali Chigaf, a man who owns a small shop tucked among mud houses on the outskirts of Abéché, eastern Chad's dusty regional capital which is now the aid organisations’ main hub.

He said he used to be able to support himself, his wife and five children, but no longer. A sheep, which a couple of years ago cost 12,500 CFA francs (about US$28), now sells for 35,000 CFA francs (US$84). Family meals are smaller, Chigaf said, and he can no longer afford to buy his children new clothes.

Many goods are more expensive here than in those towns where there are no humanitarian workers. The price of rice in Abéché is double what it is 750km southwest in the town of Moundou, a man from there named Donatien Diomnba told IRIN, and his monthly rent in Abéché is almost four times what it was before he moved. He is so poor, he said, meat is no longer part of his diet.

Humanitarian inflation

UN agencies and non-governmental organisations began setting up sub-regional offices in Abéché in 2003. As the largest town in the east, it provides them with some infrastructure while still being close to the vast empty savannah where the hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced are camped out.

As aid organisations arrived, they hired many staff locally, paying higher salaries than they would earn otherwise. With people walking around with heftier wages in their pockets, little shops started opening up on almost every corner and there was a mini boom in construction.

But as the number of people with a higher purchasing power increased, so too did the cost of living. And as most of the population are not employed by the aid groups their earnings have not changed.

The problem extends beyond Abéché to towns like Goz Beida, the capital of the department of Dar Sila, and one of the epicentres of the humanitarian crisis.

A few years ago, its population was around 8,000. Today it is around 60,000, with four sites for displaced Chadians and one camp for Sudanese refugees, plus staff from almost 30 humanitarian organisations and agencies.

Here, too, prices of many goods are rising as demand outstrips supply. A chicken that used to cost 500 CFA francs (US$1.12) now sells for 3,000 francs (US$6.69), Mahamat Ali Rahama, secretary-general of Dar Sila, told IRIN. "Locals can no longer afford [to eat chicken]," he said "Only well-off humanitarians can pay."

What are the options?

Some locals expressed resentment that refugees and displaced people get assistance while they (the locals) were worse off than some of those receiving aid, one humanitarian worker told IRIN, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We have a tendency to forget [about such problems]," he said. "It is a criterion that is rarely taken into account in humanitarian interventions."

Annette Rehrl, spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Chad, disagrees, saying that UNHCR was one of the first aid agencies on the ground in the east and the issues were widely discussed in planning their projects. Yet she also said solutions are often limited and require trade-offs. "What is the alternative?" she asked. "Is it better that we help no one?"

Others say the extent of the problem may be exaggerated. The type of goods that have become more expensive in the east are mostly imports, said UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator in Chad Fatma Samoura. "[A typical poor Chadian] produces his own cereal, produces his own goat's milk,” she said. "The population does not buy fruit salad and bottled water."

For Samoura, those Chadians most affected by the new humanitarian presence are local civil servants who used to be able to afford imported goods until their prices rose. "Those people, who have a minimum salary… will have a hard time finding a chicken, or eating normally,” she said, but she added, “they are the minority.”

Worse to come?

For Samoura, the big new worry is the added competition for limited resources that the new European Union military force (EUFOR) and the UN peacekeeping mission may create. Skilled local labour, transportation and accommodation are all very limited, she said, and demand is likely to increase. "For humanitarians, this is a big fear," she said.

She said she is meeting her counterparts at the missions to ask them not to hire local employees already working for humanitarian organisations. She also said much of the food the EU soldiers and UN peacekeepers will eat will come from outside the area.

"This is with a view not to negatively impact on the local population’s cost of living, and because not all food needed by the mission is readily available locally," she said.

Source: IRIN