Refugees fleeing conflict have already sent shockwaves through the political systems of Europe. But unless we take urgent action now and help the countries of the Sahel, we will face the prospect of millions more refugees in the time to come.
A coordinated and comprehensive plan to partner these nations and help them to avoid catastrophe is essential for them and for us. It should be devised by an alliance between Europe, the US and Arab allies in the Gulf.
The Sahel – the belt of countries stretching for 3,360 miles across sub-Saharan Africa from the Sahara in the north to the Sudan Savanna in the south – is dominated by the G5 Sahel group of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, which in July launched a new military force together with President Emmanuel Macron to tackle Islamist militants.
These countries are buckling under the weight of the challenges of “fragile states”: poverty, food security, weak governance, ethnic tensions and the spread of radical extremism. These problems are not in themselves exclusive, but two factors make them unique – and call for a new approach.
First, huge population growth will see the combined population of these G5 nations grow from 78 million today to more than 200 million by 2050. Aid in its traditional sense cannot outrun these numbers.
Population growth brings with it many more young people needing jobs. High youth unemployment increases the risks of human trafficking, slavery, crime and violence. Population growth will also further stress the natural environment, which is already prone to climate change-induced droughts that result in crops failing and livestock dying, forcing people to migrate. Nearly five million people have already been displaced in the region.
We need a programme specifically designed for the Sahel – a formal compact between the nations and the international community.
Second is the risk that local conflicts and extremist movements join together across porous borders, aided by technology. The early warning signs are here. The UN peacekeeping operation in Mali is already one of its deadliest missions. Alongside Boko Haram, the four main groups in the region – al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Murabitoun, Macina Liberation Front and Ansar Dine – merged into a single entity this year, fuelling the probability of further violence.
We need a programme specifically designed for the Sahel – a formal compact between the nations and the international community. Analysis from my institute, which has projects supporting governments in 12 African countries, shows that the problem in fragile states is that donor aid is often less effective because it lacks buy-in from the national leadership and they do not have the capacity to use the aid well. This is confirmed by the Brookings Institute report, which analysed aid and compared fragile and stable states.
The problems are so many and so deep that governments become overwhelmed. This is why a compact must be comprehensive, covering all the different dimensions to development – including security – and must be based on a partnership with clear and measurable objectives in return for help.
This is not aid in the traditional way, but a sensible investment in the protection of our own future. Another novel feature would be that it involves non-traditional development partners in the nations to the east, who will also be greatly impacted by failure in the Sahel.
The compact should also be tailored for each nation, based on need. It must be built in the spirit of partnership and mutual accountability, balancing obligations and support and learning from other initiatives, such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation, already active in the region.
And finally, the governments should be provided not just with financial support but with embedded technical assistance. This will be key to implementing the necessary reforms and building local capability. It will not be quick; fragile states are not rebuilt in a few years – even with the best will in the world. But the need is urgent, and elsewhere on the continent countries such as Botswana, Rwanda and Ethiopia have undertaken reforms focused on building state capacity and generating growth.
I am convinced that a new path forward can be forged. A path where Sahelian governments get the right kind of partnership to build an effective government that can tackle its own challenges and, in time, transition away from aid.
At the most fundamental level, the people of these nations have the same desires as us in the west: for peace, stability, good health, education and the opportunity for meaningful work. It is the only vision of the future that works, not least because problems in countries which seem far away may well be closer than we think.
Read the briefing note A New Approach for the Sahel.