Funding a future and not just a quick fix for the Sahel

Women and children in a makeshift site for displaced people in Kongoussi, Burkina Faso. Credit: Keystone/AP/Sam Mednick

Donors have pledged $1.7bn to help one of the world’s most troubled regions, stressing the need to improve basic services and uphold human rights.

With rising militancy closing schools, cutting off access to healthcare services, and making jobs scarce, donor countries are urging Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso to swap a "security-first approach" for one focused on building a future for the central Sahel region, where half the population are under 15 years old.

The focus, donors urged at an online pledging conference last week, must be on good governance, respect for human rights, and access to basic services.

The conference, convened by the governments of Denmark and Germany, together with the UN in New York and Geneva and the EU, raised $1.7bn in promised funding for the Central Sahel.

It was a significant amount, although it falls short of the $2.4bn the UN says is needed. The effects of increasingly volatile conflict, unpredictable weather, extreme poverty, and Covid-19 have left more than 13 million people in the region requiring humanitarian assistance, with over 1.5 million displaced, according to the UN.

More than short-term quick fixes are needed to address the human rights, political, and security crises faced by the region, speakers at the 20 October event - which was attended by representatives from EU countries, the UK and all the G5 Sahel countries - emphasised repeatedly. They also said that addressing root causes and structural problems would require better governance, political dialogue, economic opportunities, and more investment in basic services such as education and health facilities, as well as water and sanitation.

“The urgency of the humanitarian response does not have to be at the detriment of long-term solutions to systemic and structural problems,” a senior UN envoy, Giovanie Biha explained.

Addressing the Sahel’s “multidimensional challenges” will require a “whole-of-society approach,” said Biha, UN deputy special representative for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS).

Achim Steiner from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) outlined the UN's strategy to focus heavily on investing in green energy and a youth entrepreneurship programme to create “millions” of new jobs and train, financially support and mentor 100,000 young people who may otherwise be vulnerable to radicalisation from extremist groups or miss out on vital education.

The plan aims to “break the deadly cycle of conflict and humanitarian crisis in the central Sahel and to stop the violence from spreading to other countries,” said Steiner. The goal is to foster “a positive and unbridled transformation of the region” through an investment that the UN anticipates will  “pay dividends for years to come for the people of the central Sahel and far beyond,” he added.

As Yasmine Sherif, of Education Cannot Wait, a global fund to support education in crisis-affected countries, put it during the conference: “We need to invest in education because it’s this generation that will build good governance, that will restore the rule of law, that will achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If you don’t invest in their education, we are not investing in the root cause.”

Schooling: Twenty million children in the region are now out of school - more than double the number before the pandemic - UNICEF reports. That puts “the future of an entire generation of children and young people at risk,” UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore noted.

Fore called for more funding specifically to meet the needs of children. She noted that all UN agencies were “hugely underfunded” for their response in the Sahel, having received just 39 per cent of the $1.4bn they called for as of August.

Over 4,100 schools in the region have been closed due to conflict, and UNICEF is calling on governments to redouble their efforts to stop attacks on school buildings, teachers, and students to get children back to school

Meritxell Relano, deputy director of UNICEF's emergency operations, said the crisis could be an opportunity to improve education in the region, rebuilding with “health, water, sanitation, and child protection systems around the school”. Relano said there should be a focus on “increased equality, an inclusive education system, and scaling up models for quality digitisation and preventing dropouts.”

Reopening schools promptly is especially urgent to ensure the safety and well-being of girls, Relano said, explaining that girls are at a far higher risk of abuse, child marriage, and unplanned pregnancy when out of school. The region has the highest rate of child marriage in the world, with 76 per cent of girls in Niger getting married before the age of 18 and often leaving education early.

Donors and international organisations have not gone far enough to put the needs of children at the centre of all policy and development for the region, Save the Children's pan-African policy director, Eric Hazard, told Geneva Solutions after the conference. “There are still millions of children who are out of school,” said Hazard. “It's really massive, and I'm not sure it has been well understood or integrated into the current and specific response that is needed to address the root causes of the Sahel crisis.”

“We're worried because there's been a growing trend of children recruited by force by armed groups since early 2020. And we know that children who are out of school are a really easy target for all the groups that are trying to continue to fuel conflict , and feed the vicious cycle that the Sahel is facing,” he added.