Voice calls in Niger: when basic works best

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WFP/ Cecilia Signorini

As many of you know, mVAM has expanded considerably in the last few years and we are now present in 26 countries. You may be familiar with high profile places we work in like Syria, or those where we are testing out new technologies like Haiti. We therefore wanted to write an update on one country that we haven’t spoken about in a while: Niger.

What is WFP doing in Niger?

To give you a reminder of why we are working there here’s a quick rundown. Niger is a landlocked low-income country in the Sahara-Sahel belt with a population of over 16 million people. Every year the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) does a Human Development Index based on indicators of income, health and education indicators and Niger has ranked 188 out of 188 for the last few years. WFP estimates that 2.5 million people in Niger are chronically food-insecure. Increasing regional instability has only worsened the situation. Niger is currently responding to two emergencies: the recent Malian civil war in the north and Boko Haram in the south east whose insurgency and systemic violence has forced even more people to move, destroying community assets and food reserves. The volatility of this situation means that getting accurate food security information is both incredibly important and unfortunately very difficult. To get some more information from the ground we spoke to Moustapha Touré, who works on VAM and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) in WFP’s Niger country office. For the full interview (in French) watch out for an upcoming episode of our VAM Talks series, our podcast about how WFP sources its food security data.

Why mVAM?

The country office in Niger was keen to add extra dimensions to their food security analysis, and with insecurity rife in and around Diffa, it made sense to try remote monitoring.  Moustapha was the VAM officer in Goma where mVAM started in 2013, and when he arrived in Niger, his ideas and experience helped him to establish mVAM in the country, which quickly flourished. In our blog last September we wrote about how the team in Niger scaled up from their pilot surveys in the refugee camps working with a Niamey-based call center, iTelCom. This call center is pretty special – they are actually based in Niger’s first and only start-up incubator. By working with them, we are also contributing to the emergence of a local start-up specializing in digital engagement in vulnerable communities.  

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WFP/VAM

The call center had begun placing calls to refugees from Mali in the camps of Abala and Mangaize in early 2015. One of the advantages of mVAM is ‘no boots on the ground’: we can conduct food security surveys without having to put anyone in the line of fire. When increasing attacks from Boko Haram meant it became urgent to get data from Diffa, the corner of Niger on the Lake Chad basin, our partner was able to ‘shift’ to this new area with relative ease, thanks to their prior experience.

mVAM and displacement

The complexity and longevity of the insecurity affecting Niger means that ‘displacement’ has many different meanings. Populations have been moving in and out of the country for so long that it’s sometimes almost impossible to define them as a ‘refugee’ a ‘returnee’ or an ‘internally displaced person’ (IDP). Many of the Malian refugees in the north are pastoralists whose livelihoods depend on moving around with their livestock so living in an enclosed refugee camp is even more of an issue. To try and solve this problem new areas have been designated as ‘Zones d’accueil des réfugiés’ (ZAR) or refugee hosting areas. Unlike a standard camp setting, they are open spaces where displaced people have room to graze animals, allowing them to continue their traditional lifestyle. In Diffa, recent Boko Haram attacks have caused a new wave of displacement in June raising the total to more than 240,00 displaced people in the region. All of this means that the questions we have in our food security surveys about a household’s displacement status is not nuanced enough to provide us with any useful answers. So we were wondering how the team in Niger is dealing with this complex landscape in terms of their implementation of mVAM.

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WFP/Cecilia Signorini

Moustapha said one way of coping with this was making sure to “conduct face-to-face surveys before mVAM” to get some prior information about the households. This information serves as a base which they can use to monitor the movements of the populations. They also change their terminology, making sure they only refer to “forced displacements” to specify that they only want to know about the movements because of a specific shock rather than seasonal movements. The reason this works in Niger is because the only mVAM modality used is our live calls so more time can be taken explaining this terminology than with SMS. Sometimes basic really works best!

In fact, this baseline information has already come into use. One area that has suffered from a recent attack is Bosso, resulting in a large amount of displaced households. As Moustapha pointed out, via mobile phones we can maintain a direct line to the affected populations, wherever they happen to be. Based on their responses, “we can see when they moved, whether they moved just once or if they are constantly moving or returned”. This might sound a bit CIA but the information is actually really useful for WFP operations. With a better understanding of affected populations we can make sure distributions are in the best places.

Challenges ahead?

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WFP/Cecilia Signorini

Whilst the system is working quite well there are always areas that can be improved. We spoke before about the challenges of mobile coverage in this largely rural context, so they are talking to the phone companies to try and get better coverage. There are also issues in terms of female responses. Less than 5 percent of women own their own
mobile
and some women don’t have the right to use a phone to receive a call without their husband’s permission, otherwise they could invite accusations of adultery or subversion of their husband’s authority. WFP’s West Africa Regional Bureau is working hard to try and solve some of these issues, exploring the possibilities of using female operators or using face-to-face recruitment.

We don’t think we will be using our fancy IVR and chatbots in Niger anytime soon, but it does look like mVAM is set to stay. As well as continuing the regular data collection in Diffa, Moustapha and the team plan to expand countrywide.

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