I have had a strange experience of watching Super Storm Sandy devastate the resilient city that Reboot calls home. As my colleagues and friends faced terrifying waters, set up makeshift offices where power was available, and helped their neighbors dig out from the storm, I have been watching idly by through images mediated by the likes of CNN and the Internet.
My distance from the suffering at home has been surreally conflated with my proximity to a similar, and inarguably greater, tragedy. I’ve spent most of the last few months in or around Nigeria’s Niger Delta region. During this period, the region has experienced the kind of devastation through floods that come once in a hundred years and they have catastrophically destroyed the homes and livelihoods of countless individuals and communities.
The response here was dramatically different. The cameras of CNN, Al Jazeera, and the BBC did not swoop in for days of round-the-clock coverage. Complex political dynamics kept the government from declaring a state of emergency, foregoing the much needed aid relief and attention that this status would likely have brought. As a result, the communities impacted by the Niger River’s flood waters are left wondering what their future will hold.
It is clear that there is no comparison in how formal institutions reacted to the two disasters. As one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful cities, New York commanded the resources of dozens of government and non-governmental agencies in pursuing an immediate and relatively effective recovery. The same wealth and power brought the full spotlight of the media, ensuring that the recovery moved forward, and that there would be some accountability to how it played out.
The communities struck by the Niger’s rushing waters did not enjoy the same benefits. Though government efforts to set up refugee camps and other relief systems have been well-meaning, they have been defined by their limited reach and capacity. A local media that aspires to hold these government efforts to account is limited by the cost of covering the floods. Helicopter aerial views, waterproof cameras, and rented boats are all expensive, and the media houses lack the resources to tell the full story about what is or is not happening. Meanwhile, reports of looting, sexual assault, and food shortage emerge from camps meant to provide shelter to those who have been displaced.
What can be compared from New York to the Niger Delta is the strength and importance of informal systems of human support. Despite the laudable efforts of New York’s many government agencies, some communities faced greater challenges with less support. Volunteer networks and donations have been quickly and visibly put forward to support these communities. Similarly, in the Niger Delta, private individuals and faith groups have set up their own relief camps, and are providing food, shelter and other services to the flooded. Families whose homes have been spared of the flood waters have invited in extended relations to share what space they have available. Many NGOs and community groups have paused their formal programs to support relief efforts however they can. For some, this has meant tense relations with donors who are sitting far away from their work. On the ground, however, it is clear that many are living up to their mission with a nobility that is hard to criticize.
There’s little value in evaluating the government’s response to the Niger Delta floods against the situation in New York. But the comparison makes salient an important point: Events in New York remind us that accountability of government performance can be driven by the communities in which they purport to serve. In the Niger Delta’s current disaster, a stronger media landscape could help monitor the government response, shining a spotlight where efforts fall short or are misaligned with need. Greater organization and coordination of community groups can strengthen their resilience and amplify their voices in evaluating relief efforts and directing resources. Finally, well-resourced individuals or community-support groups that contributed to relief efforts should be celebrated so that others are more motivated to follow in their footsteps. These efforts can build the type of social accountability that will help government in its efforts to deliver results for communities who so badly need their services.