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Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Combining crisis response with effective development partnerships to meet climate risk challenges in the central Sahel region

Blog Post

Published on 6 July 2023

Author(s): Sayouba Ouédraogo, Fabien Tondel, Boubacar Ba, Sophie Desmidt

Version française

As part of the CASCADES project, a workshop was held from 7 to 8 March in Dakar, bringing together a group of public decision makers, researchers and practitioners from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and other neighbouring and partner countries. The work focused on policies and practices that could help manage the impact of cascading climate risks on development, security and stability in the region. This article takes a number of key points from the analyses carried out as well as some areas for further consideration and the recommendations put forward.

First of all, we need to consider the political and social context in Sahelian countries together with the strategies and potential offered by local stakeholders to manage and anticipate conflicts. Better management of natural resources is a key factor for adaptation and for strengthening resilience to climate change. An efficient development and peace process requires a more pragmatic approach based on partnership.

A far-reaching and complex regional crisis

In the Sahel region, climate change has created a cascading set of risks for countries, communities and individuals. Disruptive climate events have exacerbated food security issues, economic difficulties in rural areas and community tensions, leading to violent clashes. Despite the growing awareness of climate risk, peace processes and agreements in central Sahel (including Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger) and their implementation mechanisms rarely take this risk into account.

Tensions arising between different groups competing for natural resources are the source of many intercommunal conflicts. Political choices made by Sahelian governments following the great droughts of the 1970s and 1980s were a huge factor in marginalising farming communities and increasing their grievances. The growing population increased the space required for food cultivation, leading to a reduction in grazing areas, waterholes and other livestock resources, causing nomadic farmers and their animals to venture into crop-growing areas and head further south, which has caused damage to crops and tensions with sedentary populations.

At the same time, industrial and small-scale gold mining activity has led to land, water resources and plant life being damaged, despite this activity generating significant financial resources. Illegal trading in gold ore, drugs and human organs are also the main sources of funding for terrorist groups, and drug trafficking networks have even taken over some tracts of land.

Inadequate land laws and regulations and a lack of strict enforcement of property rights and local agreements and conventions for pastoral livestock movement have also aggravated these tensions.

An ever-worsening security situation

As populations in neighbouring countries have been neglected by the state, terrorists groups have managed to exploit the tensions between nomadic and sedentary communities using violence and taking advantage of the absence of public order. The traditional mechanisms for managing natural resources and regulating the conflicts arising from their use are a factor in the resilience of intercommunal relations. However, the influence of terrorist groups has crippled these mechanisms, often taking the form of violent Islamist extremism. Added to this, military anti-terrorism operations have sometimes increased pressure in rural communities. These factors have contributed to growing mistrust and fear within the communities as well as stigmatising nomadic communities.

The failure of state authorities in multiple areas has tested the resilience of the local communities to the extreme, particularly in rural areas and small towns far from capital cities, where expectations have long been neglected, especially when it comes to protection, justice and access to basic services. Weak government has led to a loss of confidence in public institutions, with terrorists taking advantage of this by infiltrating surrounding areas.

Up to now, political and military leaders have remained firm in their focus on security and, in some cases, external parties have encouraged this approach. Military spending has swallowed up a large percentage of public finances, preventing investment in key development areas.

Closer alignment with the political and social reality in Sahelian countries

The problem with the current dominant approach is the fact that the state authorities do not engage sufficiently with traditional and religious institutions, with a few notable exceptions. However, these institutions are key partners in the fight against insecurity, conflict resolution, natural resource management and socio-economic development. Local stakeholders (chieftaincies, women’s groups, municipalities, decentralised services, farming and business associations and others) can actively contribute to conflict resolution. In particular, state authorities have made little effort to separate young people from jihadist groups, while public policies promoting their socio-economic integration have not yielded any tangible results.

At the same time, although the link between climate change and security has become a major concern for European partners, the effectiveness of international cooperation is hindered due to fragmentation. Responses to climate risk often serve only to complicate the situation by adding further goals to an already heavy burden of objectives.

Current and future recommendations

One of the key recommendations from the discussions at the Dakar workshop was to find the right balance between urgent measures and responses to long-term challenges, including those related to climate change. Protecting populations, removing young people from the influence of jihadist groups, supporting livelihoods and committing to justice are the priorities. The key factor in ensuring stability and providing public investment to improve living conditions for people in vulnerable zones is establishing and reinforcing state efficiency.

However, various local non-state stakeholders, including women and young people, also have strategies and great potential to play their part in managing and anticipating conflict, improving natural resource management and driving development processes and this should be taken into account in a pragmatic, partnered approach with the help of international partners. In areas controlled by armed groups, climate risk needs to be better integrated into mediation and security processes.

Greater consideration for political conditions, ongoing social change, and cultural and religious identity is also crucial when designing and implementing change measures and policies promoting social resilience. A number of analysts believe that the strategies and programmes concerning countries in the Sahel region have avoided these considerations. It is especially important to understand the interests of the governing elite, particularly those who provide economic funding, so that politically viable agreements can be made between them and state interventions towards economic development can become more inclusive and resilient to climate shocks and economic and social crises.

International partners, including the EU, should support leading Sahelian stakeholders by adopting the principle of joint responsibility at national and local levels, particularly via the territorial approach. For example, local municipalities need to be involved in managing population movements and cross-border livestock grazing. They should also divert climate and developmental aid towards institutions and stakeholders who have the capacity to add to the dialogue and seize economic development and peace-making opportunities while preventing behaviour that is harmful to development efforts, such as illegal financial movements.

Learning from and building on effective practices

Ultimately, all parties involved should become better at learning from positive experiences. For example, in the region around Lake Chad, conflict management mechanisms, effective regulation on the use of natural resources and livelihood monitoring measures have all contributed to increased stability. There is also the experience in Niger with the High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace, which helped to establish a more integrated approach and tighter links with local stakeholders. There were also various experiences around security and equal access to land resources, such as local land management in Burkina Faso, which aimed to be more participative and transparent than before. International partners could contribute to a regional fund to finance research into measures that respond to climate change, value home-grown knowledge and apply scientific data in the local context by local players.

These learnings, alongside an analysis of the implications of climate change, need to be issued quickly to a wider audience, particularly to stakeholders in socio-economic development, environmental management, security and defence. This will go towards promoting the integration of climate risk into policies, stimulating inter-sectorial coordination, ensuring common understanding of the problems and promoting synergies.