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Perspective: Climate & Security in the Sahel Region


On Thursday September 8th, Cordaid participated in the Pre-Tana Forum 2022, on Climate and Security in Africa, Focus on the Sahel Region. The event was hosted at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Addis Ababa and organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Institute for Peace & Security Studies (IPSS), and the Organisation Internationale la Francophonie (OIF).  

The event included three panel discussions – Cordaid participated in the third panel discussion, represented by Regional Advisor Shyvonne Henry. The topic of the panel was ‘Rethinking Politics, Peace and Resource Distribution in the Sahel Region’, with the objective of producing recommendations and solutions to meet the immediate needs of communities while capitalising on the medium and long-term resilience of populations, with a special attention to the youth and women in the context of peace building and sustainable development.  

Speaking from the heart, Shyvonne brought to the panel the civil society perspective, appealing to the climate justice agenda, the understanding and acceptance of human nature in crisis situations and a call for a re-imagining of the international communities’ approach to learning from past work, and knowledge management. Her full statement is provided below.  

Good afternoon your excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies, and gentlemen.  

It is an honour to be here today and to be a part of this important dialogue on Climate and Security in the Sahel Region, at this year’s Pre-Tana forum.   

Today, I want to bring a little bit of the perspective of civil society.  As actors on the ground, we work together with our partners, donors, national governments, and stakeholders to provide humanitarian assistance and development support to affected communities. 

My organisation Cordaid, is a Netherlands based INGO, with presence in Africa, Asia, The Middle East, Europe, and Latin America. We are a double mandated organisation working on both humanitarian aid and development. As it pertains to the Sahel Region, we have presence in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad, implementing projects in the thematic areas of Health, Humanitarian Aid, Sustainable Livelihoods, Justice, and Inclusive Peace and Reconciliation.  

I think it goes without saying that the situation in the Sahel is a crisis of an inconceivably complex and protracted nature. The discussions around what can be done to bring peace, security, and stability to the region has been going on for many years. As little as three years ago, the discussion around this topic did not include the effects or concept of climate change to a large extent. In fact, I have had heard discussions where the word ‘climate’ was not mentioned at all. I am therefore pleased to see that the framing of the discussion around the Sahel has evolved – this gives me hope and shows that with enough advocacy, research, and multi-stakeholder engagement, we  can not only move the conversation forward, but also the actions around it.  

At the forefront, and one of the most visible aspects of this crisis is the pervasive armed conflict and resulting insecurity. Armed extremist groups are primarily responsible for perpetuating the violence, and have destabilised an already fragile region. The effects of climate change further compounds the issue and has led to a loss of livelihoods, of which agro-pastoralism has historically and culturally been the main source. The food insecurity in the region is grave. Communities are fighting over limited resources, and land. They have become distrustful and territorial.  

With billions having already been spent, and after years of fighting, international militias and the G5 Sahel have not been successful in bringing peace, security, and stability in the region,  despite notable tactical victories.  

So, on the question of what can be international community can do, I think a good starting point is examining the question of WHY?  

Indeed, in consideration of the security development nexus, we understand that peacebuilding requires conflict prevention and establishing the conditions for a return to sustainable peace and development. The key word here being “conditions”, which I will elaborate on further.  

As we have seen, an overemphasis tactical military strategies as a means of bringing peace is not enough. It is important to address the issue holistically and strategically in coordinated and considered fashion. So, we need to address the root causes of the conflict and instability. We need to answer the question: Why are the armed groups able to thrive this context?  

In line with the theme of the forum, we have to address the negative effects of climate change. The region has historically been drought prone; however, human induced climate change has exacerbated the issue and has led to the loss of arable land for productive agriculture and pastures for grazing. Developed countries make up a relatively small proportion of the global population; yet are responsible for the vast majority of planet-warming greenhouse gases. The effects of which are disproportionately affecting marginalised and underserved communities – especially fragile states, who are not resilient enough, and have limited capacity to deal with and mitigate its risks and challenges.  

So, my first recommendation is to push the agenda on climate justice.  

There needs to be equitable distribution of the burden of climate change and the responsibility to deal with it, among the various international, national, and regional actors.  

Donors need to ensure that the there is adequate funding allocated to the Sahel, to support its regreening. For instance, the Great Green Wall Project is an important, yet underfunded initiative that aims make the Sahel green again. Funding also needs to be availed to support interventions that aim to diversify, and rebuild livelihoods, in a sustainable way. We need to support communities’ climate resilience and climate adaptation capacity, such as strengthening early warning and prevention mechanisms, climate resilient crops, strengthening markets, market access, access to finance, and sustainable access to water for crop irrigation and other uses. Solutions need to be participatory, localised, and evidence based to ensure their effectiveness and sustainability. When it comes to climate justice,  I also want to emphasise that it should not only be focused on actions for ‘affected’ communities, but also what can ‘affecting’ nations do? What major projects are developed countries putting in the place to reduce the harmful effect of their activity on the rest of the world? The narrative when it comes to climate actions seems to be more centred around climate adaption and mitigation, and less about what can be done reduce emissions, by those whose emit the most. Just food for thought.  

Another key factor to consider is to consider the relatively weak governance in region. Radical groups thrive in areas where there is weak governance and high civic dissatisfaction. They exploit local conflict by providing protection, social services, and jobs in the form of recruitment, to marginalised communities. This enables them to gain support and to spread their ideology. So as long as governance is weak, radicalised groups will thrive. We need to acknowledge that at the end of the day, people will align themselves with groups and take actions that bring them the most sense of security and safety – this is just human nature.  

So, in line with this, my second recommendation is that the governance in the region needs to be strengthened. We need to work with national governments to promote democracy and address issues related to people’s unequal and insufficient access to livelihood opportunities, lack of access to quality public services such as health and education, and insufficient access accountable and fair justice services and to ensure they provide adequate and equal protection from the violence and threats to human security. We should not aim to introduce entirely new ways of doing things, but strengthen existing systems to address their relative weaknesses, ensuring inclusion and application of the human rights-based approach – accounting for the principles of participation, accountability, non-discrimination, equality, empowerment, and legality.  

Taking it down to the community level, my third recommendation is that we need to support communities to foster inclusive peace, and reconciliation. One way  this can be done is to strengthen traditional community-based dispute resolution mechanisms. Traditional and religious leaders have historically been very influential in their communities. They can thus be a significant means to effectively resolve conflicts at community level. However, they have been weakened and less effective over the years. This is due to their lack of legitimacy from the highest levels, lack of well-defined mandate, lack of proper remuneration, and lack of responsive and transparent accountability mechanisms. With all of this, it is understandable that some may be at times be easily compromised. Furthermore, traditionally, they have been known to be non-inclusive in their decision-making structures. Especially, when it comes to the inclusion of youth, women, and other vulnerable groups. Despite all of this, their strategic importance to bring peace to their communities cannot be ignored. So, we need to work with national governments to legitimise these structures, and ensure proper remuneration, and provide them with guiding principles. We need to work with them to strengthen their dispute resolution skills and to support them to adopt more inclusive, gender-sensitive, and conflict sensitive practices.  

Also at community level, the role of civil society is key. We need to implement interventions that strengthen civil society, especially at the grassroots level to strengthen their civic engagement capacity as well as their ability to engage in structured policy dialogue at all levels.  

They need to be equipped with the knowledge and tools to identify and take action on the key drivers of conflict in their communities and enabled to advocate for evidence-based conflict prevention policy and practice, as well building trust as representatives of their communities with key conflict prevention stakeholders, such as local governments, law enforcement and local leaders.  

Finally, I want to mention that the discussion around the Sahel, especially in the media tends to be very much focused on the geopolitical narrative, with much less emphasis and urgency on the grave humanitarian crisis that is plaguing the region, one of the worst on the African continent. According to recent reports, over 30 million people across the Sahel  are in need of humanitarian assistance. Millions of IDPs are struggling to survive along with host communities.  They have not only lost their livelihoods and access to services but there has also been reports of increases in human rights violations, gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual abuse. In light of this information, it is extremely important that the humanitarian aspect of the crisis is made more visible in these discussions, and that the more funding is committed  to its response. Operations need to be scaled up in a coordinated and transparent way.  

The international community tends to place their funding interests based on domestic political interests. And while that is certainly reasonable, it is also important to ensure that available funding is distributed according need and to the people who are the least resilient. All crises deserve support; however, we cannot ignore the vulnerability spectrum when it comes to fund allocation.  

In conclusion, the situation in the Sahel needs to be stabilised through effective security measures and fostering an environment where armed groups are unable to thrive or return. We need a wholistic , complementary, synergised and coordinated approach. We need more commitment to long-term partnerships among local, regional, and international actors. We need harmonised strategies that are aligned with locally identified needs and priorities and we need more transparency in development and aid activities among actors.  

We need to re-think and perhaps innovate our approach to results-based management. Instead of tracking progress towards pre-determined results, identify what has worked and trace it back to the actions, actors and factors that contributed it.  

We need to strengthen our knowledge management and information sharing forums on international level.  

We need to be more inclusive of affected people in these very discussions about their lives.  

We need a long-term strategy, looking at the security, humanitarian, development nexus. Firstly, addressing the immediate security and aid needs of people, while maintaining commitment to  planting the seeds to achieve the long-term development goals ahead. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the above statement is that of the speaker and does not necessarily reflect the position of Cordaid or its affiliated entities.