Sahel faces poverty and conflict traps: A call for international action

, Editorials

Pessimism about the Sahel is high and growing, with some observers saying that emigration is the only long term solution as widespread economic, social, demographic, and environmental vulnerabilities press down on the vast, dry region. Indeed, the five countries – Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad-- often called the “G5” in recognition of the group set-up to deal with their precariousness-- have either fallen into, or are about to fall into, poverty and conflict traps (see their country rankings in the table below).  These looming traps emerged following disengagement by the state in the wake of donor-led structural reforms in the 1990s when tough choices on spending meant security was sacrificed for investments in education and other sectors.  As governments became unable to maintain the balance between generating surplus and income from resources and protecting hard won gains by shoring up the military, the police, gendarmerie, and the law, the G-5 and other neighbouring countries have edged toward ‘failed state status.

Economic and aid Indicators

a 2015 population (in millions), UN World population prospect
b WDI 2015 GDP per capita in current US$ (2014 data for Mauritania)
c Food-Energy-Water (FEW) composite index (148 countries: 1 is highest rank).
d Average yearly GDP growth rate (%)
e UN World population prospect (medium fertility variant)
f CPA: Country Programmable Aid
g ODA Source: Creditor Reporting System (CRS) Aid Activities database, OECD. Expenditures in donor countries excluded
h Least Developed Countries (LDCs)UN classification. Excludes Ethiopia and Bangladesh (694 million people)


“Linking security and development – A Plea for the Sahel,” a new report by Sylviane Guillaumont, myself and others from the Fondation pour les études et recherches dans le développement international (FERDI), summarizes the views and insights of 17 actors and observers involved in this unfolding drama. We interviewed military personnel, academics in and beyond the region, diplomats, dignitaries and former ministers in the countries, and nongovernmental organization representatives in the field.  Our report is intended for a wide audience ranging from practitioners, decision-makers in national and international communities, aid specialists, politicians in the Sahel, and politicians in the donor community in charge of allocating funds.  All 17 respondents recognized that there is no development without security and no security without development and spoke to the urgency of the situation. Although enduring progress requires country-ownership, the window of opportunity for a much-needed ‘big push’ in foreign assistance that has any chance of success is closing fast.

The Sahel: An Economic, social and political breeding ground for violence

Violent conflicts in the Sahel are a result of complex factors, some with deep roots, as in the case of the nomadic Tuaregs (who number around 2 million) who have long felt excluded from political life. Othes factors include the emergence of the region as a hub for cocaine trafficking around 2005 on top of other traditional trafficking, and the return in 2013 of thousands of poor, unemployed soldiers and armed men following the fall of the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. This ushered in sophisticated weapons to the already complex stew of Sahelian conflict.  Added to this are: local grudges (family conflicts over land), national grievances (Tuareg demands), and trafficking struggles (arms, drugs, contraband, and migrants).  The situation was compounded when Algeria expelled Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which led bad actors towards the Sahel, with conflict systems mutating across borders.  Armed banditry spread and day-to-day insecurity grew. Populations in the Sahel, already on the edge of ‘poverty traps’, fell into conflict traps. Fragmentation along ethnic, language and religious lines eroded identity and made governing ever more difficult.

High population growth has and a youth bulge have contributed to low per capita income growth resulting in social, educational, and political vulnerability. (Testimonials were unanimous that efforts at moderating population growth should only come via efforts at improving health, especially for women and the very young.)  As elsewhere, primary school enrolments are up, but time spent in school tends to be brief and the public education system is failing to provide training needs for the agricultural sector. At the same time, public sector jobs are disappearing and employment in manufacturing and services is typically reserved for those with secondary and higher qualifications. Youth who tend not to want jobs in agriculture feel excluded from economic, social, political, and civic life and held back by deeply entrenched inter-generational hierarchies. Salafist schools supported by religious organizations funded by states of the Persian Gulf have stepped in to fill voids, especially in the northern Sahel where governments have withdrawn. Many Koranic schools are only preparing their students for entry into a society dominated by religion.

The international response: Delayed and imbalanced

International support for the Sahel, starting with an EU pledge for €5.0 billion in April 2011, has been characterized by long delays and slow disbursement. A high-visibility terrorist attack in Mali in early 2013 prompted a mix of grant aid and military interventions. In November 2015, a detailed plan for spending the promised EU funds was finally adopted. Funding was topped up by a €1.0 billion urgency fund, but with no clarity on when the money would disburse.  While the international community continued to focus on the development of the Sahel, France’s support has shifted toward military spending (see figure below). Following series of military interventions in Mali (operations BARKHANE, EUTM-Mali and MINUSMA), parties to the conflict signed a peace agreement in 2015, avoiding descent into chaos. While terrorism has been contained, peace is at risk because military spending has not addressed day-to-day insecurity due to banditry, trafficking, and related violence.  As one of our interviewees told us, “There is no point in building schools or initialling water supply points if we’re afraid to go to the market or send our girls to fetch water.”

Country programmable aid and military expenses in the Sahel by donor (2013-2015)

(% of G-5 GDP)

Notes: Data for 2015 are extrapolated from ratios in 2014
Source:  Laville (2016).


For a long time, donors have been reluctant to fund military or police spending for fear of encouraging coups or strengthening armies that show little respect for human rights. So military spending is not recognized as Official Development Assistance (ODA).  This amounts to a failure to recognize the need for additional resources to strengthen the capacity of African security forces so they can protect civilians in the remote and thinly populated regions across the vast G-5 territory.  But capacity-building for armies, gendarmeries, and police forces takes time and donors want to be at ease about overall governance before going ahead with financial assistance for security building.

The way forward: Boost funding and focus on primary education and agriculture

Insecurity, the sociocultural complexity among the G-5, and the “do no harm” requirement (OECD (2007)) explain inaction in the Sahel and the pattern of spending by donors. In 2014, ODA shares for health were respectable (France (28 percent), US (21 percent), multilateral donors (9 percent)). By contrast, per capita funds allocated to agriculture and especially to education – the two sectors singled out by respondents in our report – were generally low compared to the average for least developed countries and falling during 2010-14 (see table). An increased financial effort by the international community to improve day-to-day security and re-ignite economic development is necessary and urgent. Everyone we interviewed concurred that the cost of investing in the public good that security and development in the G-5 represents will be far lower than managing the human, financial, and political costs of an extended crisis.

Respondents suggested a multidisciplinary approach for the Sahel, given the region’s sociocultural complexity.  That would entail researchers, diplomats, ethnologists, humanitarians, and defense and development experts working in a coordinated way in their respective domains of expertise. Success will depend on a close cooperation between the public and private sectors working with local and international NGOs.

Simultaneous progress on security, education, and development of the agricultural sector are needed to tackle demographic, economic, social, environmental and institutional vulnerabilities.  

Our report identifies several success stories that offer room for hope. First is in agriculture, where rural development activities in the Agadez and Tahoua regions in Niger as well as an agro-ecology project in Keita (also in Niger) appear to hold promise. A second relates to the reintegration of fighters in Côte d’Ivoire through a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration project. Recovery requires a big push in assistance to reduce day-to-day insecurity as well as a targeting of ODA toward projects with a quick return. For example, initiatives to promote the inclusion of professional content into school curricula and mini-projects in rural farm areas where 70 percent of the population resides, combined with projects with longer-run returns (e.g. improvements in the quality of teachers and of security forces), may offer a good starting point.



Collier, Paul, (2016) “Fragile State and International support”, FERDI, WP#175,

Guillaumont Jeanneney , Sylviane with Christophe Angely, Aline Brachet, Patrick Guillaumont, Bruno Joubert, Camille Laville, Jaime de Melo, Serge Michaïlof, Olivier Ray, Tertius Zongo (2016) “Linking Security and Development: A plea for the Sahel”, FERDI report

Laville, Camille (2016) “Les dépenses militaires et l’aide au développement au Sahel : quel équilibre ? »

OECD (2007), Principles for Good International Engagement in Fragile States, OECD, Paris.


* A shorter version of this blog appeared here