The Sahel: responding to emergencies with efficiency

By Abdoul Salam Bello, Senior Fellow, Africa Center, Atlantic Council

Image by Anton Wagner/Pixabay

The situation in the Sahel is concerning as community conflicts add to existing security, humanitarian and development challenges. What is now at hand is an emergency requiring the Sahel countries to respond with a sense of urgency. And not only is a greater and effective State presence necessary, but also improved synergies and coordination amongst stakeholders, including beneficiary communities and the private sector whose role is often overshadowed and underleveraged.

Here’s what we know: security challenges in the Sahel region put additional pressure on governments’ budget. This consequently generates significant macroeconomic and fiscal costs. Mali, for example, almost quadrupled its military spending from USD 132 million to USD 495 million from 2013 to 2018 according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Over the same period, Niger increased its military spending by 2.5-fold, from USD 91.6 million to USD 230 million, while Burkina Faso doubled its expenditures from USD 142 million to USD 312 million. Mauritania spent 4.1% of its GDP on security spending in 2016, while Chad spent the equivalent of 5.6% in 2013. Such security expenditures often crowd out social investments. In 2018, for instance, Niger spent 17% of its total budget on security compared to 11% on health. If this trend persists, it would hinder the States’ ability to implement critical social programmes needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Thus, Sahel countries find it critical to include parameters on conflict assessment and prevention in their development policies. This requires building historical and projected data on conflicts to design, in turn, adequate prevention mechanisms. One year before the tragedy of Ogossagou in Mali, where more than 160 people, mainly Fulani, were killed, the Simon-Skjodt Center for Prevention of Genocide applied its Early Warning Project country assessment to identify both plausible scenarios that could lead to mass atrocities and recommendations for preventing them.

Still, effective regional conflict prevention mechanisms and early warning systems need to be developed and scaled up in the Sahel region. In this regard, mechanisms such as the High Authority for Peacebuilding (HACP) could play a critical role. The Government of Niger created the HACP in the 1990s to carry out prospective analysis, prevention and management of crises and conflicts.

As important as security is, focusing just on it is not enough. Focusing on development matters as well to deliver what citizens expect and need. Enhancing the capacity of national governments to provide quality services to all Sahel citizens as part of this commitment to sustainable development is key, especially in the context of fast demographic growth. Basic public services in the Sahel have been subcontracted in some cases to third parties in recent years, or worse, the State has been replaced by private entities or groups of people, particularly in remote areas. While the rationale behind such approaches in emergency contexts is laudable, it accentuates the risk of citizens considering themselves disfranchised by their own governments. This discontent, powered by poverty and poor public service delivery, can undermine the population’s confidence in and reliance on State structures.

Moreover, improving the quality of public service also improves human capital. Given the correlation, efforts should be made to improve educational outcomes and access to jobs. For instance, the expected years of schooling are 7.7 in Mali. It is 8 years in Chad, and 5.5 years in Niger. In a country like Mali, the skilled labour force represents 5.2% of the total labour force. In Niger, it is about 1.9% of the labour force.

The Sahel countries are also taking significant steps to deepen overall resilience. For instance, Niger is implementing the ‘3N’ programme (Les Nigériens Nourissent les Nigériens) to enhance food security. The country is also implementing the Smart Villages project to digitally connect around 15,000 villages to speed up and facilitate the connection of more than 85% of the population. It will involve the expansion of priority digital services in areas such as health, education, agriculture, finance and commerce.

Additionally, the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank Group (WBG) signed a strategic partnership framework last year to strengthen their shared commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. A key component of this commitment is the humanitarian-development nexus to build and sustain peace in the Sahel. The Sahel Alliance, or G5 Sahel, is a mechanism for strengthening partner coordination on security and development for faster, more effective and more targeted assistance to vulnerable areas in the five Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Indeed, the Sahel countries face the double-edged challenge of security and development. Financing security in developing countries has often been a taboo. Some argue against partners overseeing security support while tackling development. It remains difficult to count the purchase of arms and military equipment as an international solidarity expense. This is a domain where institutions that oversee the definition of the international accounting rules for official development assistance might need to shape an approach for security and development accounting. Meanwhile, one can understand the risk that security spending diverts aid from health and education.

Furthermore, coordinated institutional support is needed for both countries and regional bodies. In supporting project financing, partners should help countries create fiscal space to finance priority security, social and infrastructure spending. At the regional level, donors and partners stepped up support by pledging about 2.4 billion euros to finance the G5 Sahel’s Priority Investment Program (PIP) in December 2018. To effectively play its role in donor coordination, resource mobilisation and implementation support for the PIP, the G5 Sahel’s Permanent Secretariat must tap into adequate human and financial resources to better respond to its member countries, deliver results and increase impact.

Ultimately, the Sahel countries need strong support to promptly address crises and build resilience. In practical terms, the countries need capacity building support to increase their absorption capacity, strengthen coordination/negotiation functions and increase their effective presence where they are most needed. Collective, smart and determined efforts remain necessary to bring the Sahel region (back) on the path to sustainable peace and development.

This blog is based on the French version that first appeared in Jeune Afrique; you can read it here.