Amidst a global crisis, an opportunity for the Sahel to emerge stronger

January 22, 2021


Although Africa is among the areas most spared by the coronavirus, the crisis has had severe repercussions in the Sahel, one of the most fragile regions of the African continent. According to the United Nations, about 30 million people, or about nine per cent of the population, have been pushed into poverty this year due to border closures and reduced activity. And this at a time when half of the population is already living in poverty. No less than 24 million Sahelians are now in need of humanitarian aid and protection, one million more than 2019. Beyond the numbers, which are always abstract, human tragedies like violence and food and physical insecurity continue to push people into exile.

It is necessary to be realistic; a regression is possible in terms of development, particularly in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Since its launch in 2017, UNDP has supported the Sahel Alliance as a founding member and partner to federate and coordinate commitment to a prosperous, resilient, inclusive and dynamic Sahel for its people. Also, as the Sahel Alliance takes stock of three years of existence in the region, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger are still among the last ten countries in the Human Development Index (HDI). Indeed, the latest HDI, published at the end of 2020 with the 30th Human Development Report, "The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene", highlights a new vision of the world, offering a less optimistic but more precise assessment of human progress, as new measures are adjusted to global pressures.

With the COVID-19 crisis, will everything need to be redone in these fragile states of the Sahel? The pandemic has revealed the extent to which digital technology can be a source of solutions, allowing work to continue at a distance. In five of the 10 Sahelian countries, Accelerator Labs has been set up to channel local youth's creativity and find concrete development solutions, particularly in rural areas, and to replicate them elsewhere. However, digital technology remains inaccessible to many people. Moreover, it alone will not be enough to recover economies, prevent conflicts, stabilize, transform and sustain.

Building back better

What needs to be done? UNDP works on several fronts - youth, governance, and renewable energy - with the "Build Back Better" vision. This slogan was coined by the Japanese delegation to the UN Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015 and then popularized by Democrats in the United States. The idea is to turn a disaster into an advantage, using it as a support point to rebuild better.

With 1,200 people in 10 countries and a US$250 million budget for 2020, out of the estimated US$5.6 billion needed over the period 2020-25, the UNDP has made it a priority to stabilize conflict zones. In other words, it is aiming for a return to everyday life in the Lake Chad basin, central Mali and the Liptako-Gourma area, on the border of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Thanks to UNDP's key donors, this objective is being translated into very concrete operations in northern Nigeria; construction of houses, market sites, clinics and schools, to restore the social contract at a local level. In addition to civil and military cooperation, the project is also creating an alternative for young people, with income, to prevent their recruitment by armed groups.

Global impact

Elsewhere, prevention involves urgent community development programs led by local and national authorities. In Senegal, this type of project has made it possible to reach 16 of the 17 SDGs more quickly, by building roads and connecting two million people living in rural areas to the electricity grid. The reopening of the trade corridor between Cameroon and Nigeria in 2019, after five years of closure, has benefited both countries and Chad, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Urgent and comprehensive action is needed in the Sahel, with a differentiated approach that considers countries' various development trajectories. The magnitude of the challenges requires significant changes, eagerly hoped for and already driven mainly by communities in the region, especially women and youth. As no single entity can solve everything, only hard work on the ground, partnerships and innovation will allow us to return to achieving the SDGs. Faced with the risk of contagion of armed conflicts - terrorist groups and self-defence militias - to other countries in the Gulf of Guinea, investing in human capital, local governance, peace and prosperity seem more urgent than ever. For the repercussions of the situation in the Sahel are not only African but global.