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Mabingue Ngom: We can make a real difference in the Sahel

UNFPA Report

Mabingue Ngom: We can make a real difference in the Sahel

In an exclusive interview, Mabingue Ngom, UNFPA Regional Director for West and Central Africa, talks to us about the organisation’s Demography, Peace and Security project. The objective of this initiative is to provide a new narrative for the Sahel region, and to spur a high-level political dialogue on the links between demography, peace and security.

What is the scale of the pandemic in the Sahel?

Afflicted by a combination of armed conflict, terrorism, extreme weather conditions and economic instability, the region was at the centre of international political debates long before the pandemic.

In the Central Sahel zone, and in particular the Liptako-Gourma region, which borders Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, this security crisis led to the deaths of some 4,000 people in 2019 alone and has caused significant population displacements in the three affected countries.

The crisis is combined with high population growth. The population is growing at a much higher rate than in other countries. This translates into a large share of the population consisting of young people (more than 60 per cent of the population is under 15 years of age) and high social demands that become a handicap for governments and difficult  to provide for in terms of national budgets, as well as for households.

More than 8 million children aged 6 to 14 years are out of school, which is almost 55 per cent of children in this age group. At the same time, governments are obliged to devote the bulk of resources to the military response, accounting for almost a third of national budgets.

That is why, very early this year, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and all the United Nations agencies working in the West and Central Africa region paid particular attention to the Sahel.

This year, we have had the additional challenge created by Covid-19, which will inevitably aggravate this pre-existing situation. It is well understood that, in such a situation, people cannot afford to remain confined to their homes.

How can a solution be found in these circumstances?

This is a very important question. By the end of 2019, we had conducted six empirical studies. From the outset, we wanted to ensure that these studies should be based on data, solid fact and figures that constitute evidence without any ideological preconceptions.

This is a new project, which is currently in progress. Initially, this work was based on three case studies in three different countries that make up the Central Sahel: Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

We carried out strictly statistical studies to assess changes in a number of variables as the crisis emerged and developed.

And specifically, what does this involve?

We looked, for example, at changes in health spending, education spending, military spending and other areas of demand. We found that as this demand increases, the fiscal space shrinks because these are mainly countries that are struggling and are forced to increase military spending significantly.

It’s a catch-22. The more that countries increase this expenditure, the less fiscal space they have to meet current and future essential needs, and so the cycle continues.

For example, in recent years, spending on security has risen sharply in the countries in question, at the expense of spending on health, despite the fact that all three governments have pledged to allocate 15 per cent of their budgets to health.

In Niger, for example, the share of expenditure financed from domestic government resources increased from 10.3 per cent in 2010 to 15.3 per cent in 2017. In the same period, youth unemployment rose significantly from 13 per cent to 17 per cent.

Domestic resource mobilisation has also stayed 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 (2.87 billion euros).

This is the result of spending on dependent age groups, the 0–27 year olds and over 64 years age groups.

Are governments doing enough?

Despite passing the 10 per cent mark in 2017, the Government of Burkina Faso is still a long way from the commitment to allocate 15 per cent of its national budget to the health sector, while the share allocated to the security sector increased significantly to nearly 14 per cent in 2019.

A similar situation can be observed in Mali, where security budgets tripled between 2010 and 2018, at the expense of health spending. This increase in military expenditure has taken place in a context where government resources have not increased much, and sometimes not at all.

Whereas in some developed countries such as Japan or in the countries of the north, the opposite trend can be seen: military or security expenditure is contained at around 4–5 per cent of GDP. We see that when social demand increases due to population growth, the resources to meet that demand are limited. This contributes to increased social tensions that can lead to security crises such as we are seeing in the Sahel.

With each terrorist attack, the governments concerned are forced to strengthen security measures by cutting funding to priority sectors such as education and health, which are already underserved. There is a resulting decline in the coverage and quality of essential services. This spiral naturally has a negative impact on the relationship of trust that should exist between national authorities and populations.

What are the new findings from these studies and the solutions that go with it?

The studies and modelling work we have carried out with these respected institutions point to a relationship between demographic dependence and the occurrence of crises in the Sahel countries.

This is an extremely interesting element. An important result of these studies, obtained by statistically classifying countries, shows that the group of Sahelian nations has a low level of security.

These countries have a higher demographic dependency (75 per cent, compared to 47 per cent for the overall average), a youth unemployment rate 10 points higher than the overall average (27.71 per cent compared to 17.86 per cent) and a secondary school enrolment level that is half the overall average (36.94 per cent compared to 72.18 per cent).

Further analysis revealed that an increase in the demographic dependency ratio of one percentage point leads to a deterioration in the peace and security index of 0.01 point for the country.

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 region in particular.

As for the prospects for peace and security in the Sahel, we note the modelling work carried out by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) on the risk of armed conflict between now and 2050. This shows a clear increase in the risk of conflict incidence for some Sahelian countries such as Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, with a potentially significant spillover effect to their immediate neighbours. Simulations indicate that high population growth, poverty and low educational attainment are associated with an increased risk of conflict.

What can we conclude from this?

The results of these studies should enable us to envisage more objective and sustainable solutions based on new trends and new types of partnership. Of course, they will not solve all the Sahel region’s problems, but they will tackle at least one of the major problems that is at the root of the crisis.

Solutions over the last 50 years have been aimed only at treating the symptoms, the most pressing and visible problems of everyday life. Unfortunately, not enough time has been taken to explore these issues, to better understand them and act on them in a sustainable manner to transform the lives of the people of the Sahel.

If we invested the significant resources that are allocated to military responses, we would see better results. Of course, we cannot ignore these military needs, but we must have an optimum range of tools at our disposal to change the pattern of demographic dependence in the Sahel.

How can you ensure that political actors hear your conclusions and translate them into action?

Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, who has shown remarkable vision, has been very committed to peace and security in the Sahel. In 2013, he made a heartfelt appeal to the international community to commit to capturing the demographic dividend.

He understood that if we did not tackle the issue of demographic dependency in order to capture this demographic dividend, it would be difficult to talk about economic development, especially when the crisis was bringing everything to a halt. Look at what is happening today in Mali, Burkina Faso or Niger.

That is why he will host and chair an international symposium, bringing together all stakeholders working on issues of demography, peace and security. Economic, political and strategic research institutes will be invited to consider these factors and the results of our statistical modelling work in detail, and to put public policy proposals on the table.

These will guide development plans and programmes for the next generation of Africans. This concerns the whole of Africa, because what happens in the Sahel affects the whole continent.

[Editor’s note: The symposium has now taken place. For further details, visit the UNFPA website. To read the studies that form part of the project, see the link below.]

But isn’t President Mahamadou Issoufou at the end of his term of office?

He still has enormous capacity for action! I am convinced that his work on behalf of the Sahel and of Africa will not end with his term. He will continue to be committed to seeking out solutions and implementing them in a pragmatic, non-ideological, evidence-based way. These are projects that have the potential to change the lives of people in the Sahel region and all Africans.

Read more from our special report on peace and security in the Sahel, created in association with UNFPA.

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