At about the same time my flight aborted its second landing attempt at N'Djamena Airport due to intense thunderstorms last week, armed militants were reported to have attacked a Nigerian village on the Chadian border, causing the displacement of more than one thousand people to an island in Lake Chad. By the time I arrived 24 hours later, it was clear that one storm had cleared, allowing my plane to arrive, but the other tempest may just be getting started.
Emerging from decades of instability some five short years ago, Chad is becoming an increasingly important stabilizing player in central Africa -- and not a moment too soon. Yes, the landlocked country of Chad, a country home to one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world plagued by chronic childhood malnutrition and further complicated by poor infrastructure and high levels of poverty, finds itself in a new position. Now, the country is an island of refuge in a region embittered by civil strife and religious extremism. Already hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sudan, Chad is moving center stage as armed militants encroach its western borders from Nigeria, Libyan extremists trespass from the north and tens of thousands of people seeking asylum arrive from the south fleeing the civil wars in Central Africa and South Sudan. The new refugee caseload now joins the Darfur refugees from the east who have lived in Chad for more than 10 years. In looking at the geographic pressures from all sides, Chad prepares to become the Jordan of Africa, the eye of the regional storm.
For a country with little capacity to manage its own development let alone care for a major influx of new refugees, such a role carries huge challenges that will require greater outside assistance. One measure of those challenges: The World Economic Forum's 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report ranks Chad's primary education and health services as 148th out of the 148 countries covered.
Although much needs to be done, far more hinges on its ability to succeed -- not just for Chad itself, but for the broader region and beyond. For Chad to play the important role as a regional stabilizer, it will need more humanitarian aid to address immediate needs and additional development assistance for longer-term projects. International Medical Corps has been working in Chad for more than a decade, arriving in 2004 as tens and then thousands of children and families from Darfur fled violence and ethnic cleansing to make eastern Chad their refuge. International Medical Corps has since expanded programming into additional regions with the latest being the Lake Chad region, home to the most recent influx of Nigerian refugees.
A new frontier, however, is quickly emerging -- and the dynamics of extremism demands our immediate attention. With refugees arriving by the day, our efforts to ensure that both refugees and host community families are stabilized will help the international community present a positive alternative to incessant militant attacks and empty extremist promises. Expanded efforts are underway to promote the integration of refugees into local socio-economic networks -- directing assistance according to vulnerability, not nationality. The goal of this strategy is to build resilience at the local levels while avoiding the social tensions that can arise when hard-pressed host communities watch recently-arrived refugees receive goods and services that they themselves also desperately need.
The international community is smart to recognize the opportunity of stability in Chad, and we call on these stakeholders to increase investment in the kind of programming that leads toward development and peace and away from poverty and extremism.