Photo UNDP Mali /Imen Meliane

The Central Sahel, home to Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, is a land of wealth. Spanning the Sahara to the north and the savanna to the south, it boasts of Burkina Faso’s gold, manganese and limestone reserves; Niger’s uranium, coal and iron ore; and Mali’s gold and cotton. Similar endowments have been pivotal in changing the course of economies world over. In addition, there is more in the heritage of this historic region, which has given us some of the world’s finest art and culture, from Malian singer Salif Keita, the "Golden Voice of Africa”, to FESPACO, Africa’s over 50-year-old largest film festival.

Yet today, Central Sahel is an epicenter of conflict. Violence has triggered spikes in fatalities, with 2020 alone recording 10,000 civilians killed. More than 13 million people require assistance, half of them children, according UNICEF. Acute hunger levels have tripled over the past year, reaching 7.4 million. The number of internally displaced people have reached 1.5 million, representing a twenty-fold increase in two years.  Women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable and gender-based violence is on the rise, compromising gains in human development.

The push factors for the situation in Mali seem un-unique to the country, and legitimate concerns remain as to ramifications for the entire region, with the situation exacerbated by complexities of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

As we gather at the Ministerial Round Table on the Central Sahel to explore ways to strengthen action on the “Humanitarian-Development-Peace nexus” in the region, I am reminded of that 2016 World Humanitarian Summit commitment: “To reinforce, not replace, national and local systems,” and to change people’s lives by transitioning from delivering aid to ending need.

The two, delivering aid and ending need, are significantly and qualitatively different, and would lead us on different paths of emphasis, focusing more on those actions that foster self-sufficiency and support people to take control of their own lives.

This distinction is particularly important amidst dwindling resources and mounting needs.  It requires of us a collective approach to investing across all pillars of the Humanitarian-Development-Peace nexus, if we are to secure the desired sustainable development results on the ground.  

Sahelians have weighed in on the question of how to put the nexus into action, thanks to two high level dialogues recently organized by UNDP with senior officials from national and decentralized authorities in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger: and with industry captains, African philanthropic institutions and civil society, including youth leaders.

They argue that letting them lead and focusing our actions on building resilience and empowerment is the solution.

Investments in agriculture, water and renewable energy are critical to creating a viable economic base for the Sahel. “Trust us and let us lead” is the advice from Malian renewable energy industry captain and UNDP African Influencer for Development, Mr. Samba Bathily, Founder and CEO of ADS and SOLEKTA. His views were shared by government, private sector, innovators and youth representatives.

Sahelian youth are already proving that they are up to the task. They have deployed innovative digital solutions in their responses to COVID-19.  UNDP is proud to have profiled Sahelians amongst Africa’s 50 Innovations tackling COVID-19 in our inaugural online magazine, Africa Innovates. We saw young and gifted talent from Mali’s “health assistant” app, which is providing the public with advice on preventing the spread of the virus. Powerful innovations were also seen from Niger and other African countries : all of them capable of being scaled up, if supported.   

Ending need calls for investment in what works. This is why boosting entrepreneurship targeting women and youth is critical, as is education, both academic and vocational;  support for access to new technologies; and strengthening capacities for natural resource governance.  

In the words of Ousmane Mahamadou, a youth leader from the Diffa region in Niger: “The reasons why many young people join terrorist groups in the Lake Chad Basin are linked either to ignorance, lack of education, or inability to provide for their families. It is nice to conduct all the analyses, but it is now time to support the many projects and entrepreneurial potential that don't see the light of day.”

Before us is an opportunity to pivot closer to communities and invest in their version of solutions. This would bring the sorts of results they would act as custodians for. It is time for the international community to join hands with national and local authorities, civil society and private sector, to work to end need, in the following way:

  1. Invest in transformation towards sustainable development in the region – focusing on agriculture, renewable energy and other productive sectors that can empower people to take control of their lives.
  2. End violence and all forms of discrimination against women and ensure they are involved at the table of governance and peace building.
  3. Finance the United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS) in a manner that facilitates deeper investments in breaking cycles of dependence.

Now is the time to turn our words into actions and step up efforts towards regenerating the Sahel.

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