Expert analysis

30 March 2021

Lessons learned: Using self-reliance as a bridge to close the transition gap

Toluwalola Kasali advocates for displaced people to achieve self-reliance in order to rebuild their lives with dignity and end their protracted displacement. In this guest blog, she shares the results of her work with IDPs in Nigeria and lessons learned to close the transition gap from aid-dependence to self-reliance. 

The Boko Haram conflict in north-east Nigeria has displaced over two million people, now forced to live in camps and with host communities. More than 50% of them have been displaced for over five years and continue to depend on infrequent relief distributions to meet their daily needs. 

Speaking to Internally Displaced People (IDPs) across camps and host communities in Abuja, I observed the ongoing vulnerabilities arising from their prolonged displacement. 

"I am worried when I think of what the children will eat..."

"I am worried when I think of what the children will eat. When I sit down, I think, so I go out to look for people I can talk to," said Mariam. 

"I lost everything, and I don't have a job. Sometimes, I find it difficult to eat…," said Zainab.

Despite years of humanitarian assistance, displaced people in Nigeria remain vulnerable, and this affects their state of mind. The cycle of vulnerability and poverty between the humanitarian assistance phase and long-term reintegration creates what I have termed the "transition gap," which contributes to a prolonged stay in the camp. As protracted displacement becomes the norm in humanitarian crises, the transition gap needs to be closed using self-reliance as a bridge. This will improve IDPs state of mind and enable them to earn a living, creating a pathway to leaving the camp and reintegrating into society with dignity.

In providing solutions for the transition gap, governments, non-government organisations, and development partners should recognise that there is no single pathway from displacement to reintegration. Assistance should focus on providing tools that will enable displaced people to choose their preferred form of reintegration voluntarily and safely.

From my experience, solutions are most effective when developed by IDPs themselves. Below, I share some lessons learned from my experience designing, implementing, and evaluating psychosocial and vocational interventions, research, and anecdotal evidence from displaced people who participated in these projects at Area 1 Camp, Abuja.

Psychosocial support is an integral part of self-reliance 

When displacement occurs, family and other social structures become broken, and IDPs experience trauma and a sense of loss regarding their identity. Prolonged displacement also leads to anxiety about their future. Community-based counselling, focus group discussions, and safe spaces should be introduced across all displacement phases to help IDPs share their experiences and seek support. This will improve their state of mind, resilience, and ability to make informed decisions, enabling them to overcome day-to-day challenges and rebuild social ties, including participation in school, skills training, and employment programmes. 

"The counselling has really helped me to stop thinking too much." 

"The counselling has really helped me to stop thinking too much. It has helped me to believe that there is hope in life," said Matina.

Opportunities for IDPs to earn a living will improve their quality of life

Displaced people have lost their sources of income, which affects their well-being and lowers their self-confidence. Therefore, solutions should focus on empowering IDPs with opportunities to earn a livelihood during the transition gap to make them less dependent on aid. Here, skills acquisition should include training in locally relevant and marketable skills to match the local labour demand or make self-employment a viable option.  

"I have started a business. I made two hair wigs for sale, and I got good money," said  Rashida, who had been in the camp for over five years. She leveraged her external social ties to leave the camp and move into a neighbouring community where she opened a salon, having received a combination of counselling, hairdressing training, and business grants. 

While her story is inspiring, not all IDPs have access to resources and social networks. Many still face other practical challenges, including a lack of capital, customers, and opportunities. 

"I was running a business but stopped because there is no place to sell it." 

"I was running a business but stopped because there is no place to sell it," said Zainab.

IDPs should be supported with financial grants to purchase equipment and start micro-businesses, improve their quality of life, and boost their self-confidence as they move towards a pathway for leaving the camp. 

Skills acquisition in north-east Nigeria

Improve access to connections and resources outside the camp 

An over-reliance on strong ties has limited IDPs from forming advantageous connections to weak ties (extended family and acquaintances outside the camp). By connecting displaced people to external resources, weak ties can act as a crucial bridge linking them to opportunities that can enable them to leave the camp, like Rashida. One of the young male participants in the mechanic training got an apprenticeship in a workshop through his uncle living outside the camp. In contrast, many others without external support have not had the same opportunity. Evidence shows that access to resources and weak ties usually act as a differentiating factor in the socio-economic progress of those who can leave the camp and those who are left behind.

Expand social safety net programmes

Access to government social safety net programmes, such as conditional and unconditional cash transfers, school feeding programmes, and fee waivers to access health and education services, will ensure that IDPs do not fall into extreme poverty and indignity. While the safety net provides a floor (living standard) below which IDPs should not fall, the self-reliance model pulls them up into a state of economic activity and dignity.

"I use some money from my trading business to support other women in the camp."

"I use some money from my trading business to support other women in the camp. I also use it to buy gloves and basic supplies to assist the women in delivering their babies," said Liyatu, the female camp leader.

Liyatu's trading business currently enables her to support her family and assist other women in the camp as she considers her preferred form of reintegration. 

In the long-term, solutions should focus on ending protracted displacement by reducing the vulnerabilities that keep displaced people in camps. Emphasis should, therefore, be on tools that promote self-reliance aimed at achieving reintegration into society. 


Toluwalola Kasali is a finance and public policy consultant from Nigeria who has been working on the issue of internal displacement for over five years. She won the British Council Emerging Policy Leader Award for her work on forced displacement and her policy paper promoting self-reliance in protracted displacement at the London School of Economics won her the Lloyd Gruber Prize for the best paper in the school of public policy.