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Partners in progress
by Iolanda Jaquemet

The contrast between rich and poor in Nigeria's cities underlines the need for action.
An unusual pilot project has been helping National Societies to discover how they can strengthen their institutional capacity. The Nigerian Red Cross has been one of the test cases, finding out through an interesting partnership how to focus on capacity building, resource development, effective management and sustainable programmes. Ultimately, it is a partnership that will reduce dependence on external assistance and provide an enduring framework for the future.
It is April. Kaduna, in northern Nigeria, is slowly recovering from the first wave of inter-communal violence that claimed several hundred victims and displaced tens of thousands. The town still bears the scars of the blind fury that was unleashed in February: whole districts burned out, roofs torn off, walls blackened with slogans such as "No more Sharia law" or "Sharia law forever". The Red Cross office was spared, however. In this white building standing in the shade of fruit-laden mango trees, Andrew Dogo, secretary of the local branch, reflects: "We were all traumatized, but I am also proud to say there were no tensions within the Red Cross. And the image of the institution, which had thus demonstrated its neutrality, impartiality and humanity, has emerged stronger than ever."

It was also a real-life test of the effectiveness of the disaster preparedness training programme. For two years, 50 volunteers had been following a course at national level and, on returning to their home towns, had set up emergency squads. The result was a surge of effective solidarity: groups of volunteers from neighbouring Plateau and Katsina states rushed to their aid, led by secretaries like Andrew Dogo, the representatives of a new generation. Young but above all professional, they have been elected by their respective committees over the last two years, trained, and now occupy full-time paid positions.

A world with Ofor Nwobodo

It would be impossible to speak of the Nigerian Red Cross without mentioning Ofor Nwobodo, the man who with unflagging energy has been at its helm for 14 years. During this time, the National Society has genuinely been put at the service of its community. At the moment the tripartite project wound up, Ofor Nwobodo left his office in Lagos for two years to join the ICRC delegation in Nairobi.

Q: What was the significance of the tripartite project for your National Society?

A: For us it was not a pilot project but a full-blown project! Given the political situation at the time and the fact that transparency and financial responsibility are problems in this country, the donors were obviously a bit wary. At first, it was suggested that the pilot phase be conducted in only four branches. But how do you select which ones, when there are 37 branches and our country is so diverse? I therefore fought to include all 37 in the test run - and I won. Our priority was to invest in people, develop local resources in order to turn them into springboards for the National Society. The tripartite project enabled us to update our existing potential, show what we could do independently of the economic situation, and instil in our members a sense of belonging.

Q: Have the recent changes in Nigeria had any effects on the National Society?

A: From the outset the donors have made the difference between the National Society and the military junta. In 1996, when the European Union imposed an embargo on the country, we were struck by a very serious meningitis epidemic. The support from other National Societies via the Federation was significant. It was the same in 1998, following the terrible oil pipeline disaster [ed. nearly 1,000 people killed and many more horrifically burned]. Even so, the political situation was a handicap. Clearly, with the new democratic government there is greater openness to the outside. And even within the country, the population's support has been strengthened. By the same token, the public's expectations have grown, and we are facing many demands that we can't satisfy.

Three regions in crisis

They are the fruit of a real revolution for a National Society in which, says one close observer, "some of the branch secretaries in the past were local dignitaries who fulfilled mainly honorary tasks". The source of this revolution is to be found, to some extent, in Geneva, and goes by the name of "tripartite project". Christoph Müller, director of the department of institutional development at the International Federation, has been following the venture since the beginning. He recalls that the idea took root among the big partner National Societies around 1996. "At the time, we were looking for ways to improve long-term development and its funding, but also, with a test case, to prove the Federation's capacity to manage a project of this kind over the long term."

In June 1998, the ship was launched. On board for a period of two years were the Federation, the British, Canadian and Swedish Red Cross but also, and herein lies the novelty, their governments. The tripartite project was born, with the specific aim of strengthening the institutional capacity of beneficiary National Societies to assist the most vulnerable, putting strong emphasis on good governance. The key element is training, but also direct institutional support by covering the payment of the salaries of a few professional staff members.

The beneficiaries of the project were the Red Cross Societies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Guatemala and Nigeria - three regions in crisis. They were chosen on the basis of a number of criteria: the will to change, the absence of any other significant international support, the presence of a Federation delegation and... it had to be an area in the throes of armed conflict or prone to natural disasters. This last criterion, even Müller admits, made the whole undertaking quite risky. The project had to be suspended in the DRC when conflict resumed there, but in Nigeria and Guatemala the results appear to have been positive.
"Everyone agrees that it has been a success," states Bob Storey, head of the Federation's office in Lagos. "For this kind of venture to succeed you need fertile ground, and this was true of Nigeria." The National Society had already begun its own transformation, and the tripartite project readily went along. Today, each of the 36 states of Nigeria, plus Lagos, has its own professional secretary, and three-quarters of their salaries was paid by the tripartite project up to June. The Swedish and British Red Cross have agreed to prolong their support for a further year, at a lower level, to help the Nigerian Red Cross towards financial independence.

The Federation itself has learned a lot. "It was a new experience for us to coordinate from headquarters such a complex operation involving three regions and three different languages - but also a fascinating one," says Müller. "It has even helped us to identify some of our own weak points, and the Federation's visibility has increased in the eyes of donors. No doubt we will follow a similar model in the future."

Iolanda Jaquemet 
Iolanda Jaquemet is a freelance journalist based in Geneva.

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