To solve the problems of the Sahel requires pragmatism rather than ideology, says Mabingue Ngom, UNFPA Regional Director for West & Central Africa. In an exclusive interview with Guillaume Weill-Raynal, he how UNFPA’s ‘Demography, Peace and Security’ project is using empirical data to find solutions to the root causes of the region’s problems
How is the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), of which you are the Regional Director for West and Central Africa, carrying out its role from Dakar to impact the entire region?
As you know, with the COVID-19 crisis, everything has changed and is changing. And more changes are underway. Since March, we have adapted: we are telecommuting. With remote working, we have been able to come up with new approaches that enable us to continue to support the countries of the region in responding to the severe problems they face, including issues related to COVID-19, which have added to their existing long-term challenges. These new ways of working have made it possible for us to learn, adapt and progress.
What has changed?
Nothing will ever be the same again; in the way we work and support countries, in the way we solve problems, but also in the relationships between the actors in the international community – countries, partners, UN agencies, private sector, civil society, etc. – we have learned a great deal.
These lessons mean that nothing will ever be the same again. We have been able to adapt to new challenges, inventing and rolling out new ways of working that allow us to do more, and better, with the limited resources at our disposal. And many of these ways of working will remain, even after the health crisis is over.
I believe that the symbiosis of traditional and new approaches, of each other’s experiences, will open up new avenues that are potentially extremely promising. The crisis has pushed us to be more creative and to make better use of tools we had previously not made the most of.
What is the scale of the pandemic in the Sahel?
Long before the health crisis related to the COVID-19 pandemic the Sahel region was the subject of special attention within the international community, primarily because of the fragile and worsening security situation that tended to jeopardise its development. A combination of armed conflict, terrorism, extreme weather and economic instability meant that the region was at the centre of all international political debates.
In the Central Sahel area, and in particular, the Liptako-Gourma region, which borders Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, this security crisis has led to the deaths of some 4,000 people in 2019 alone. It has caused significant population displacement in the three affected countries.
This combines with high population growth (the population is growing at a rate much higher than other countries of the world), which results in a large proportion of the population being young (more than 60% of the population is under 15 years old) and a significant social demand that governments and national budgets, as well as households, are struggling to cope with.
More than 8 million children aged 6 to 14 are out of school, representing almost 55% of children in this age group, while governments are having to devote the bulk of resources to the military response, which apparently accounts for nearly a third of the national budget.
That is why, at the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations Population Fund and all the agencies of the United Nations System working in the West and Central African region paid particular attention to the Sahel.
We were careful to listen to the main actors in each of the Sahel countries, which meant we could assess the quality of the response and set up a mechanism for monitoring the daily development of the pandemic in these countries through regular meetings (every Tuesday morning, from Dakar).
Despite the relatively low numbers of cases of infection related to the pandemic compared to other parts of the continent, the Sahel remains one of the regions most affected by COVID-19. The level of impact is due to the socio-economic fragility of the countries linked to the poorly organised education and health systems that were already being tested by the security crisis, where each additional challenge created by COVID-19 aggravates this existing situation. Of course, in such a context, people cannot afford to remain confined to their homes.
In these circumstances, how can we provide a solution?
This is a fundamental question: towards the end of 2019, we conducted six empirical studies. “Empirical” is the key word here: this is based on data, figures, solid facts which make up a base of evidence, without ideological bias.
It’s a new project we’re in the process of getting off the ground. Initially, these studies were based on three case studies in three different countries that make up the Central Sahel consisting of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. We carried out pure statistical studies to assess the evolution of several variables as the crisis emerged and developed.
Specifically, what does this entail?
We looked, for example, at the evolution of health spending, education spending, military spending and other components of demand.
We found that as this demand increases, the fiscal space shrinks because it is mainly countries with difficulties that are forced to increase military spending significantly.
The more countries increase this spending, the less fiscal space they have to meet current and future demand. The results of these studies show that in recent years there has been a sharp increase in security spending in the countries in question, at the expense of health spending, although the governments have committed to allocating 15% of their budgets to health.
In Niger, for example, they have gone from 10.3% of spending funded from domestic state resources in 2010 to 15.3% in 2017, while youth unemployment has risen significantly from 13% of the active population in 2011 to 17% in 2014. At the same time, domestic resource mobilisation has remained low since 2015. Because of the large number of young people in the general population, the government recorded a deficit of 1,880 billion CFA francs created by the dependent population made up of the 0–27 and 64+ age groups.
Aren’t governments doing anything?
Despite having passed the 10% mark in 2017, the Burkinabé government is still a long way off its commitment to allocate 15% of its national budget to the health sector, while the share allocated to the security sector increased significantly to nearly 14% in 2019. A similar situation can be observed in Mali, where from 2010 to 2018, the amounts allocated to security were multiplied threefold, at the expense of health spending. This increase in military spending has taken place in a context where state resources have not increased much, and sometimes not at all.
On the other hand, in some developed countries, such as Japan or in the countries of the North, an opposite trend can be observed where military or security spending has been contained at around 4 or 5% of GDP. These data show that when you have social demand increasing due to population growth, the resources to meet that demand are limited, which contributes to increasing social tensions that can lead to security crises like the one we see in the Sahel.
With each terrorist attack, the governments in question are forced to strengthen security measures by cutting funding for priority sectors such as education and health, which are already under-served. As a result, we are witnessing a decline in the coverage and quality of essential services. This spiral naturally harms the relationship of trust that is essential between national authorities and populations.
What points to this new reading of the situation and the solutions that go with it?
The studies and modelling work we have carried out with renowned institutions point to a possible relationship between demographic dependency and the occurrence of crisis in the Sahel countries. This is a fascinating element.
One important result of these studies, obtained by classifying countries statistically, shows that the group of countries of the Sahel has a low level of security. These countries have higher demographic dependency (75% compared to the general average of 47%), a youth unemployment rate 10 points higher than the general average (27.71% compared to 17.86%) and a level of secondary school enrolment half the general average (36.94% compared to 72.18%).
Further research on this descriptive result with a statistical model showed that a one-percentage-point increase in the demographic dependency ratio leads to the country’s peace and security index falling by 0.010. That is to say, alongside other factors, demography contributes directly and indirectly to explaining the occurrence of conflicts in the world in general and in the Sahel in particular.
As for the prospects for peace and security in the Sahel, PRIO’s modelling work on the risk of armed conflict by 2050 for 169 countries in the world, including the countries of the Sahel, shows a clear increase in the risk of conflict incidence for some countries of the Sahel such as Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, with a potentially significant spillover effect on their immediate neighbours. Simulations indicate that high population growth, poverty and low educational attainment are associated with an increased risk of conflict.
The results of these studies should make it possible for us to envisage more objective and long-lasting solutions based on new paradigms and new types of partnerships which, of course, would not solve all the problems of the Sahel, but at least one of the major problems, which is at the root of what is going wrong. Indeed, the solutions envisaged over the last 50 years have only targeted treating the symptoms, the most pressing and visible problems of everyday life.
Unfortunately, not enough time has been spent exploring these issues to understand them better and take long-term action to transform the lives of the people of the Sahel. Today, if we were to invest the significant resources allocated to military responses, we would see better results. Of course, we cannot ignore these military imperatives. But we must have an optimum basket of instruments at our disposal to be able to change the configuration of demographic dependency in the Sahel.
How can you ensure that political actors take ownership of the conclusions of your work and translate them into action?
Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, who has shown remarkable vision, has invested a great deal in peace and security in the Sahel. In 2013, he issued an appeal for the international community to commit itself to capture the demographic dividend. He had understood that if we did not tackle the issue of demographic dependency to reap this demographic dividend, it would be difficult to talk about economic development, especially when the crisis was bringing everything to a halt.
Look what is happening today in Burkina Faso, Mali or Niger. If you look at the data and the evidence from our monographic studies, you immediately understand President Issoufou’s vision.
That is why he will soon be hosting an international symposium in Niamey [scheduled for November] bringing together all actors working on issues of demography, peace and security, as well as institutes in economic, political and strategic studies, to provide a detailed understanding of these factors and the results of our statistical modelling work and to put proposals on the table for public policies that will guide the development programmes and plans of the next generation of Africans.
The whole of Africa is involved, because what happens in the Sahel affects the whole of Africa.
President Mahamadou Issoufou is a man whose experience can benefit the whole region, especially as he is at the end of his mandate and is leaving office…
Indeed, he has an enormous capacity for action. I am convinced that his work for the Sahel and Africa will not end with his mandate. He will continue to dedicate himself to searching for solutions and their pragmatic, non-ideological, evidence-based implementation. These are projects that can change the lives of the people of the Sahel and of all Africans.
What do you have planned for the coming months, beyond the studies you mentioned, to accelerate action?
We have a roadmap which, unfortunately, has been somewhat disrupted by the health crisis. Fortunately, we have still been able to adapt. Today, the project is progressing even if it has changed a little in form. Some of the steps have been readjusted, but we remain on the course we set: to put this demography, peace and security project high up on the international agenda.
Our partnership with Niger and the commitment of President Issoufou and the Scientific Committee we set up give us hope that this project will create a new dynamic, particularly on the occasion of the forthcoming Dakar Forum on Security and the African Union Summit.
We intend to present the outcomes of our work, as well as the policy implications and concrete approaches each country can adopt to move forward, to the highest authorities on the African continent. These approaches are not just for the countries of the Sahel. For these countries, they will be urgent and ambitious interventions. For others, it will be a question of being in the vanguard, taking measures ahead of time to prevent them from experiencing the difficulties encountered by the countries of the Sahel.
UN agencies in Africa have a rather ambiguous and confused image. How do you explain it?
That is like the glass that some people see as half empty while others see it as half full. But not enough is being asked about what would have happened in Africa or the Sahel if the United Nations did not exist, or if it was not there, or if it was not doing what we are doing there today.
The problems to be solved are huge and they have been around for decades! The problems of the Sahel are not the kind of problems that can be solved overnight, or that can be solved by a single actor. These are complex problems that require in-depth knowledge.
Our work allows us to understand the causes and to map out the critical path towards solutions, in partnership with all relevant actors and parties. We fight on the ground with limited resources; we try to respond to emergencies; we try to understand the factors at the root of the difficulties, to mobilise partnerships at all levels. Without this action, we would be facing human disasters.
Now, it is true that the solution of the underlying problems requires further action. This is precisely why we started this project. We do not intend to stop at the humanitarian response. For example, it would be difficult to address the problem of schooling for children in the Sahel without significant investment in empowering women, which will change the structure of the population, including the median age and dependency ratio.
Data and evidence help us to see and better understand complex realities and better assist decision-makers in their choices. The Sahel needs more pragmatism than ideology. Some obstacles are within our collective grasp, and we can contain their damaging effects on peace, stability and security in the Sahel and everywhere else in the world. We are all being called to action.
With that in mind, what do you hold hope for?
The first reason to be hopeful lies precisely in our work on demography, peace and security. It allows us to act on the root causes of the problem, or at least some of them. By pursuing this pragmatic, data-driven approach, we can make more objective and dispassionate judgements that mean we can find a solution to each problem and then tackle another.
I also place great hope in the youth. Young people want to grow up in a Sahel of peace, security and stability. They have the ambition to enter fully into the era of the fourth industrial revolution and to play their part.
In order to achieve this, Africa must become an equal partner. We are working on the root causes of the security challenges facing Africa in general and the Sahel in particular. And I think it is within reach of Africans. This is how we will be able to build Africa as we want it to be by 2063: a prosperous, peaceful, healthy Africa, in which young people take on their rightful share of governance.
And we cannot build this Africa by simply replacing development efforts with humanitarian action or a military response – all three are indispensable. We can only build it by attacking the roots of the problem. This is the whole point of our demography, peace and security initiative.
Mabingue Ngom was one of New African magazine’s 100 Most Influential Africans of the Year in 2019.