Sahel: a Long-Term Vision for a Region Under Stress
When Mali was plunged into crisis last year, it drew into relief not just one nation’s deep difficulties but the fragility of the vast Sahel region of Africa to which it part.
An ambitious new United Nations strategy for the region aims to bring opportunity and resilient development to its people, prevent future political upheavals and gird the Sahel from becoming a breeding ground for terrorism and criminality.
The United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel was unveiled in a June report by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the Security Council. The Council had requested the strategy amid growing concern about the direction of developments in the region and a sense that disparate, uncoordinated responses by governments, the region and the international community needed to be brought together under one umbrella.
The Department of Political Affairs (DPA) has anchored UN efforts to forge the new strategy in partnership with actors across the UN system. DPA led an early assessment mission to the region, organized a high-level meeting on the Sahel during last year’s General Assembly, and has provided support to the UN’s envoy for the Sahel while spearheading the inter-agency process leading to the adoption of the strategy.
The new strategy provides a broad framework for action. Its far-reaching agenda will take time to bear fruit in a region that has lurched between political and humanitarian crisis for many years.
The “Sahel” stretches from Mauritania to Eritrea, including Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Nigeria and the Sudan, a belt dividing the Sahara Desert and the savannahs to the south. The terrain is harsh and difficult to control and human development in the region is among the lowest in the world.
Over the years, recurring food and nutritional crises caused by climate change, environmental degradation, drought, floods, poorly functioning markets, low agricultural productivity, poverty, and conflict have seriously eroded the ability of households to withstand shocks.
Despite good rains and better harvests in 2012, at least 11.4 million people in the Sahel region are estimated to remain food insecure. About 5 million children under the age of five are at risk of acute malnutrition.
The region’s population of 150 million is expected to double in the next 25 years amid real concerns about the ability of traditional agricultural and pastoral livelihoods to sustain it. Weak governance, corruption, and the inability to provide basic services have fed into patterns of chronic political instability. Porous borders have given lease to transnational crime and terrorism.
An already difficult situation took a rapid turn for the worse last year when Mali was hit with a coup that sent refugees spilling over into other countries and, later, Islamist fighters, after a French-led military intervention.
UN peacekeepers have now been deployed to help bring stability and reconciliation in the near term to Mali. With its longer term and comprehensive focus, the UN’s Sahel strategy takes aim at the wider swath of difficulties afflicting the region.
“Only through strong, common preventative actions geared primarily towards development can we avoid the Sahel turning into an area dominated by criminal and terrorist groups that undermine our collective security,” the Secretary-General said in his latest report.
Foremost among international concerns is the expansion of criminal and terrorist networks, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram and the Mouvement pour l’Unité du Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO), and the growing passage of the international drug trade through the region.
The UN integrated strategy for the Sahel revolves around three key objectives: making governance more inclusive and effective, building capacities to counter cross-border threats, and strengthening the resilience of the Sahelian people.
The development of the strategy was spearheaded by the UN Special Envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, a former Italian Prime Minister appointed in October 2012.
In presenting the strategy to the Security Council at the end of June, Prodi said it was time for the implementation phase to begin. He called for focused attention and international funding, cautioning not to “forget the Sahel or you will have more Malis.”
Prodi is placing a strong emphasis on spurring development opportunities in sectors such as infrastructure that could kick-start growth, encourage regional integration and create jobs, especially for youth. The Secretary-General has welcomed his proposals to establish a new coordination platform through which multilateral donors can review Sahel strategies and avoid duplication, as well as the establishment of a Sahel Action Fund to be managed by a pool of international financial institutions.
The new UN strategy builds on previous initiatives such as the UN Action Plan for Resilience-building in the Sahel, a system-wide effort, while more closely linking national efforts and regional approaches than has been the case in the past.
“The challenges faced in the Sahel do not respect borders and, therefore, neither can the solutions,” the Secretary-General has said.
As a first step in implementation, the Secretary-General has announced the UN will now undertake a review of its available resources at the global, regional and country levels that are currently being marshaled in support of the Sahel, in order to see how best to focus this support.
UN actors, particularly country teams and agencies based in the region, as well as the United Nations Office for West Africa — a DPA-supported political mission based in Dakar — will have important responsibilities in the carrying out of the strategy.
The strategy also puts a premium on regional ownership of efforts.
Uncertainties remain, yet one thing is clear. Absent a new approach that unites efforts in a common direction, conditions in the Sahel will only get worse. As the Secretary-General said in launching the strategy: “Business as usual is not an option.”