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OPINION: It's time to address the root causes of human suffering in the Sahel

by Mark Lowcock | United Nations
Friday, 19 July 2019 13:23 GMT

Fifteen year-old Nigerian refugee Fati, is pictured at the Minawao refugee camp in Northern Cameroon, April 5, 2016. Karel Prinsloo/UNICEF/Handout

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Military and humanitarian efforts in the Sahel will fail unless there is sustained development, better leadership and action on climate risks

Mark Lowcock is United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Four years ago, 23-year-old Abiguel was newly married, expecting her first child, and enjoying the overall tranquility of village life in Nigeria, near the Cameroon border. Then Boko Haram attacked her village. Abiguel and her relatives fled on foot across the border to Cameroon. 

But safety was short-lived. The militants attacked the Cameroonian village where they had sought refuge. Abiguel’s husband was killed in front of her eyes. She managed to escape and give birth to her son, Titus, in a camp. Now all she has left of her husband is a faded ID card with his photo to show Titus when he grows up. 

Today, many women and mothers across the Sahel suffer the same fate as Abiguel.  Every morning they wake up to the fear of death and abuse.

Since 2012, conflict, armed violence and intercommunal clashes have displaced more than 3 million people within their own countries and forced a million more to flee to neighbouring countries. In Mali alone, nearly 600 people have been killed in the first half of 2019.

Problems posed by poverty, demographic pressures, development and governance failures and environmental stresses exacerbated by climate change are common to most of the 10 countries in the region: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, The Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

Some 300 million people live in the vast semi-arid region of Africa separating the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannas to the south. They are among the poorest on the planet.

The Sahel’s population growth is one of the world’s fastest, at 3.5 per cent each year. This rapid growth in a region where essential food and water are already threatened by climate change will only spell more trouble.

The Sahel’s porous borders, poverty and large population of marginalized young people make recruitment too easy for extremists - some of them coming back battle-hardened from former ISIS areas. As extremist groups expand their influence, they are undermining local economies as farmers are unable to harvest or sell their crops, and herders are too terrified to seek pasture for their cattle.

If we want to change the future for Abiguel and Titus, we must break this cyclical nature of dealing with short-term needs and address what are long-term causes. Unless we address underlying causes, the military and humanitarian efforts in the Sahel will fail.

Three areas of action are needed:

First, the Sahel needs sustained development investment to build basic services, improve infrastructure, manage population growth and find more diversified income sources for people.

Initiatives to address land degradation, build agriculture resilient to climate shocks and find diversification for pastoralists to make a secure living will go a long way in making people less vulnerable.

Governments must legislate for land ownership rights for women, who make up half of the Sahel’s rural workforce but own just 10 per cent of land.

Second, strong national leadership, together with more effective international support, is needed to strengthen the rule of law, judicial systems, and human rights frameworks, which can help bring sustainable peace and development to the region.

Improved national governance needs to span basic services – including health, education, and sanitation – as well as thoughtful family planning and other strategies so that rising population does not weaken the impact of economic growth.

Third, we need to continue to save and protect lives. This year, humanitarian agencies aim to help 15 million people in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger and Nigeria with shelter, food, water and sanitation, livestock support, nutrition and health services.

Donors, and especially the European States, have been very generous. However, six months into 2019, we’ve only reached 22.3 per cent funding.

Every year, we treat 2.7 million children in the region for malnutrition. Last year, we provided more than 4 million people with food assistance and helped more than 3 million farmers and herders to protect their assets.

But we need to do a lot more to treat the real causes for the continued crisis in the Sahel. We owe it not only to mothers like Abiguel and young Titus, but also as an investment in peace and development that will ultimately benefit us all.