Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously referred to my country, Mauritania, as Terre des Hommes or Land of Men—a fitting description that applies to the entire Sahel region. From time immemorial, it has been a crossroads of humanity, commerce, learning, and exchange.
It is therefore simplistic and unfair to speak about this region (as some do, unfortunately) solely in terms of the challenges that beset it.
Let’s not forget that the Sahel has been trading with Europe and Asia since the seventh century, and thousands of manuscripts from the Great Library of Timbuktu, some of which date back to the thirteenth century, have expanded our knowledge of world history. It should be noted that Stunning works of art, which are on display in the world’s most renowned museums, have been produced in the Sahel. And let’s remember that in 1236, the Manden Charter set forth the principles of individual freedom and social harmony five centuries before France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
I do not share these few historical facts to relive a glorious past, but rather to recall that the development of nations does not always follow an upward trajectory. Consequently, there is reason to hope for the kind of development that ushers in peace and stability in the Sahel, despite the myriad and complex problems.
Fragility exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis
Violent conflicts rooted in many causes are escalating and providing fertile ground for terrorism in the region. Last year, the more than 1,000 violent incidents occurred, stretching from Mauritania to Chad and crossing Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. They claimed close to 8,000 lives and forced over 1.5 million people to flee.
This is also a region where 80% of the population lives in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day. Most work in agriculture, toiling in temperatures that are rising one and a half times faster than the global rate due to climate change. The consequences are dire. More than 11 million people living in the Sahel face the threat of famine and 40% of children under the age of five are stunted. Furthermore, with an average of 6.4 children per woman and a population projected to more than double by 2050—half of which will be under 15 years old— economic growth remains insufficient to provide the education, jobs, and public services needed to improve the daily lives of all Sahelians.
Conditions have been exacerbated by the coronavirus. Although the health impact of the pandemic has been limited, the economic and social impacts risk wiping out five years of development gains achieved across the Sahel. The number of people living in extreme poverty is projected to increase by more than 1.3 million in 2020—a situation that further strains the already fragile public finances of governments forced to cut social services spending in order to increase security spending. Remittances to Africa are also expected to decline by 9% in 2020.
Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the daily progress that does not make headlines. We are seeing, for example, states taking collaborative action to strengthen security as well as to preserve and share their natural resources. For instance by creating a collective drought monitoring, early warning and response system.
A growing number of women are taking charge of their lives, gaining access to vocational training and working in growth sectors, like these female tractor drivers and electricians who are changing mindsets in Chad. Religious leaders are speaking out against child marriage and new laws are prohibiting this practice, like in Burkina Faso where the penal code has been revised in 2018 to end child marriage. We are encouraged by the decline in the infant mortality rate and heartened by the incredible resilience and innovative spirit of young women and men who are launching start-ups or getting involved in agribusiness. And while some countries still grapple with cyclical political crises, in other parts of the region, the democratic process is moving forward and governance is improving.
The World Bank plans to step up its work in the Sahel over the next three years to support these positive developments and to reduce the deep-seated causes of fragility. It is providing a record $8.5 billion in financing through its International Development Association. This record amount comes on top of the exceptional financing mobilized in response to COVID-19 and the temporary debt service suspension granted by the G20. The World Bank can only accomplish its mission of ending extreme poverty in Africa by prioritizing the Sahel region.
Supporting Fair Access to a COVID-19 Vaccine
So, how can we ensure that these resources are used to ramp up resilience to climate change? By channeling them toward modernized agriculture and irrigation, particularly in rural areas.
How can we ensure the current emergency created by the pandemic is managed while preventing conflict and combating social exclusion? By investing in social welfare and food security, especially in the most critical areas, to reach the most vulnerable population groups: displaced people, women and the youth.
How can we ensure stable jobs for the roughly 1.2 million young people entering the labor market each year? By focusing on improving the level of education and contributing to the infrastructure essential for economic activity—including upgrades and access to electricity, digital technology, and transportation and support for private enterprise development.
How can we ensure that all these efforts are not thwarted by unsustainable demographic growth? By continuing to provide funding to empower women and educate girls.
How can stable jobs be provided for the roughly 1.2 million young people who are entering the labor market each year? By focusing on improving the level of education, contributing to development of the infrastructure essential for economic activity, in particular, ensuring access to electricity and digital technology, improving access to the region through substantial transportation upgrades, supporting private enterprise development, and insuring the risks taken by these enterprises with the assistance of the World Bank Group as a whole (the International Finance Corporation and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency). Efforts will, of course, also have to be made to ensure equitable access by the countries of the Sahel to vaccines as well as their distribution as soon as they are available.
The World Bank is but a partner; the future of the Sahel region lies first and foremost in the hands of its people, especially its youth. It is together with the international community—in particular the Sahel Alliance—the private sector, and civil society that we will succeed in creating a brighter future. For when all is said and done, development calls for consistency and commitment. It requires a willingness to take risks, and it can be achieved only through joint action.
This Op-Ed was published in French in Le Monde