Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, Remarks at the European Council on Foreign Relations on the Humanitarian Situation in the Sahel, Brussels, 12 June 2019

from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Published on 12 Jun 2019

As prepared for delivery

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about the Sahel with you.

My main point, to cut to the chase, is that, at the moment, most public policy efforts, both at the national and international levels, are treating symptoms rather than the causes of those symptoms. That is a surefire recipe for failure.

So, it should be no surprise that policy is failing and things are getting worse.

If we want things to improve, we need to address the causes: poverty, demographic pressures, development and governance failures, and environmental stresses, exacerbated by climate change.

The main responsibility rests with national authorities. But the EU also has a deep interest. Not least because if things don’t get better, Europe will pay a price. So, Brussels seems like a good place for this discussion.

The Sahel region is a vast area: as large as the European Union. Its 135 million people, the poorest on the planet, span northern Senegal and Mauritania in the west, and Mali, Burkina Faso,
Niger, northeastern Nigeria, and parts of Chad further east.

It is largely made up of semi-arid grasslands, savannah, and deserts that are now expanding as climate change takes hold.

For decades, the Sahel has faced a multitude of structural challenges. Under-investment, under-resourced basic services and weak governance marked by corruption and social exclusion.
Environmental pressures, especially over grasslands and water, with ever-larger numbers of people competing for them, have fomented communal tensions and conflict, which governments have failed to cope with.

The Jihadist group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has expanded its footprint over recent years, swallowing smaller extremist groups. In a span of just 10 years, more than 10,000 jihadist fighters have been recruited in the Sahel.

And in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, the number of people killed in Jihad-related violence has doubled each year for the past two years, to reach 1,100 last year.

Since 2012, conflict, armed violence and inter-communal clashes have displaced more than 3 million people within their own countries and forced a million more to flee to neighbouring countries.

In late April, ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi referred directly to groups in Burkina Faso and Mali that had pledged allegiance to the caliphate. In the latest large-scale attack, in the early hours of 10 June, extremists killed at least 95 people in a Dogon village in central Mali’s oncepeaceful Mopti region.

The path of terror has driven people away from their land and livelihoods. More than 350,000 people are freshly displaced in Burkina Faso, Mali and western Niger this year.

Even in good years, millions are at risk of food insecurity and malnutrition in the Sahel. But this year is worse than most. As conflict and violence have spiked, 20 million people, or more than one in six of the population, are now in need of humanitarian assistance to survive.

Despite predictions of good rain between now and September, more than 7 million people in the Sahel will be food insecure. And 5 million children already face acute malnutrition across the region.

As conflict spills over the border of one country, it affects the next, spreading from central and northern Mali to Niger and Burkina Faso, and now with a risk of reaching Benin, Togo and Ghana.

Burkina Faso has seen the most dramatic escalation in violence this year, struggling with almost daily attacks in its northern provinces.

Meanwhile, conflict in the Lake Chad Basin, further to the east, continues unabated into its tenth year.

Women and girls, as so often, are bearing the brunt of the violence, with rape, abductions and subjugation among the tactics of choice for the extremists.

The Sahel’s porous borders, vast open areas, endemic poverty and large population of marginalized young people make recruitment too easy for the extremists. But while some young people join the armed groups in desperate search of a daily wage, others – including children – are forcibly recruited into the ranks of groups that unleash the worst forms of violence on civilians.

In Mali, Burkina Faso and western Niger, repeat attacks have caused school closures to double, with 2,000 now not functioning. In the Lake Chad region, education is hanging in the balance for more than 3.5 million children.

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, lest they be attacked.

Twenty-four-year-old Ahmadou Dicko, who my colleagues met recently, is a herder from Bole in Burkina Faso. Earlier this year, armed men on motorbikes raided his village, killing all his cattle. He and his wife grabbed their children and ran. They now live in an IDP camp.

His wife and children share a tent with more than 40 people, while he sleeps outside with other young men. Being in the camp “is like dying a little every day,” he says.

Djeneba Dicko lives in the same camp. She cannot sleep at night because she relives the moment her husband and son were killed before her eyes. She told my colleagues, “I cannot sleep. I keep seeing visions of my son.”

As we know from their stories, nothing good comes out of a situation where insecurity and poverty rules the day and where humanitarian aid remains a lifeline for years, even decades.
The Sahel has always been one of the world’s poorest regions.

Between 80 and 90 per cent of the population in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger are poor.
And the Sahel’s human development indicators are among the worst in the world, with high rates of stunting, child and maternal mortality and poor school completion rates. Sahelian countries traditionally land in the bottom five globally for education outcomes.

Chad has the world’s second-highest under-five mortality rate, and the third highest global maternal mortality rate.

Climate change is already devastating the Sahel. The region is warming at a rate one and a half times faster than the global average. Rains are projected to get shorter and less predictable in years to come.

With 80 per cent of the population reliant on fishing, rain-fed grazing land or crops, the region is one of the most vulnerable in the world to climate change.

Pressure over services and resources is also exacerbated by one of the world’s highest population growth rates. The Sahel’s population has more than doubled since the year 2000. It is set to more than double again, to 330 million, by 2050.

So, this arid region is becoming even dryer, which makes the poor poorer. And there are few to no safety nets help those in need.

As herders, fishing communities and farmers compete over dwindling fertile land and water, inter-communal clashes are mounting.

Then armed groups enter the fray to exploit these grievances.

As a coping mechanism, we are seeing ever-greater numbers of people flee their homes in search of safety and survival.

The vast majority seek opportunities within the Sahel or wider West and Central African region.

A small minority attempt passage to North Africa and Europe. But a severe crackdown on immigration means they have fewer legal recourses. The Sahel is now the most used and dangerous transit route for irregular migrants across the Mediterranean.

So, how can we break this trajectory of repeat and prolonged crises in the Sahel?

And how do we ensure that the conflict in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger does not spill into neighbouring countries, putting the entire region at risk?

I propose three areas for action to bring about swifter progress.

First, the Sahel needs sustained development investment to strengthen basic services, improve infrastructure, manage the population bulge and build more viable livelihood models.

Some 50 million people in the Sahel rely on pastoralism. Most of them are poor and becoming more so as insecurity and environmental pressures take hold.

Conflict, combined with demographic pressures and climate change are, I fear, making nomadism an unsustainable way of life for millions of them.

Some of these pastoralists need support to improve their economic prospects, including investments in animal health, and in infrastructure to improve water resource management and connect them to markets. Others need help in diversifying their livelihoods, including through closer integration of pastoralism and farming.

Realistically, sustainable livestock models in future will probably be more sedentary and less nomadic: property rights need to accommodate that.

Farmers too need investment as they battle environmental degradation and erratic rains. More research and investment are needed in crop diversification and management of water sources, including the ground water table and major rivers.

Economic activity is shifting to towns and cities across the Sahel, just as across the rest of the world. The Sahel is the world’s youngest region with 65 per cent of people under the age of 25.
They need investment in education and vocational training tied to job creation in order to make a living in the new urban areas.

Women make up half of the Sahel’s rural workforce but own just 10 per cent of land. The structural limitations that hamper them from sharing in development progress must be addressed, including legislating for rights to land and property. And empowering women to participate in decision-making at all levels.

One of the best investments – as we have all known and failed to act adequately on for too long – is to help more girls to stay in school long enough to acquire the skills needed for employment and obtain their own income.

I am a cautious optimist and there are things to be optimistic about in the Sahel. The region is rich in resources. There is huge potential for renewable energy in the form of solar and wind.
The Sahel has a young, vibrant population eager to learn and to work. Before the current destabilization, there was a rich tradition of peaceful, inter-communal co-existence.

And with stronger governance and better support, there are many reasons for hope.

Second, lifting the Sahel out of crisis requires strong national leadership, together with more, and more effective international support.

By reinforcing good governance, strengthening the rule of law and tackling corruption, we can help governments forge a stronger social contract with their citizens.

There are signs of progress to build on. Before the current crisis, some governments were improving governance, and making gains on human development indicators.

Until recently, Burkina Faso has performed well on many aspects of governance, undertaking public sector reform, fighting corruption, and making efforts to strengthen democratic rule.
Senegal has demonstrated long-term political stability and just underwent another peaceful democratic election.

This social contract needs to span strengthened 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.

As many have argued, the best investment in a country’s economic development is to invest in health and education, and making sure girls have access to both. This includes investment in reproductive health and access to family planning.

We need to see adapted security solutions that suit the local context and, together with strengthened governance and development, make a real difference for the most-affected people.
In an increasingly militarized region, security has been a central priority for governments and the international community over recent years. But these security interventions have not managed to bring stability or tackle the root causes of the crisis.

Military responses are part of what is needed to deal with the extremists, but they can, if not well managed, do more harm than good for civilians, creating grievances that end up being exploited as another recruitment tool for insurgency groups.

A broader strategy is urgently needed. One that will address the root causes of disenfranchisement, from unemployment to human rights abuses, from lack of economic prospects to corruption.

This must be matched by direct investment in improving basic services, in particular education and health.

Europe has a very strong interest in supporting national governments providing effective leadership in tackling these problems.

Third, as part of our moral responsibility and in order to avoid things getting worse, while longer-term measures take effect, we need to scale up humanitarian assistance to save and protect lives.
There is no time to waste. The lean season has already arrived this year, and assets are depleting fast.

This year humanitarian agencies are targeting 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 in particular the European Union Member States, have been very generous.
But needs are vastly outstripping resources. In 2018, none of the response plans across the Sahel were more than two-thirds funded. And six months into 2019, we’ve only reached 22 per cent funding.

We do all we can with the funds we receive. Each year we have helped treat 2.7 million children for malnutrition. We have worked with governments to vaccinate 9 million children against measles. We provided 4 million people with food assistance; 3 million farmers and herders to protect their assets; and provided shelter to millions of internally displaced people Aid agencies are ready and willing to scale up – they just need the resources to do so.

Humanitarian access is becoming more difficult across much of the Sahel and since 2012, at least 40 aid workers have lost their lives. UN peacekeepers have also paid a heavy price. With 177 peacekeepers killed, Mali has become the world’s deadliest peacekeeping mission.

Further descent into conflict, insecurity and chronic poverty must be prevented in the Sahel.

The current trajectory is extremely worrying, but if we commit to address not only the symptoms but also the root causes of the crisis, we can – and must - turn this situation around. Not only for the sake of Ahmadou, Djeneba and the millions of others like them, but also for the collective good of all of us.

Thank you.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:
To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.