By Nellie Peyton
DAKAR, Feb 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Survival mechanisms in Nigeria's hungry, insurgency-hit northeast and around Lake Chad should not be confused with longer-term resilience, the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said.
Famine has been ongoing since last year in parts of Nigeria where the government is fighting an insurgency by Boko Haram, which has forced millions of people from their homes.
Some 10.7 million people in northeastern Nigeria and around Lake Chad, which has been drying up due to climate change, need humanitarian aid and more than seven million risk starvation, the United Nations says.
Mass displacement has stretched resources and piled pressure on schools, clinics and sanitation systems. People are doing whatever they can to get by - often relying on remittances and pooling resources, said IFRC secretary general Elhadj As Sy.
But there is a mistaken tendency to call the survivors resilient just because they have exhausted their options, he said.
"People wake up every day and develop coping mechanisms which are stretched to the maximum ... and sometimes we say they are resilient. That's not really resilience," Sy told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
"Resilience is a very active and proactive engagement to shape your environment and your future," he said.
He was speaking ahead of an international donor conference in Oslo on Friday which aims to raise a chunk of the $1.5 billion the United Nations says is needed to address deepening food insecurity in the region this year.
Long-term resilience requires security, funding and long-term engagement by aid workers and development experts, Sy said.
If one agency provides emergency aid for three months and then hands over to another for development work, the population loses trust and rebuilding is less effective, he said.
"People remember who was with them when it was hard ... who was there with them before, during and after. And that will determine the level of acceptance and partnership."
Forging relationships within communities is also a first step toward building resilience, especially during a crisis when people lose family members and social networks, he added.
Even something as simple as having children attend the same school can help adults form connections that become the basis of community work and recreating livelihoods, said Sy.
But donors have not yet caught up with the idea that a long-term, integrated response to crisis relief is best, he said.
After crises such as a deadly typhoon in the Philippines and floods in Bangladesh, disaster preparedness programmes have been effective in greatly reducing the number of casualties in similar disasters, said Sy.
But he said it is too soon to know whether the population around Lake Chad is learning ways to withstand future environmental and conflict-linked disasters.
"We're not working in a normal situation," Sy said. "It will require a certain level of normalcy to get into the resilience building."
(Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Katie Nguyen and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)