The countries of the Sahel face significant social, demographic and security challenges. Understanding the links between these issues will allow us to develop an innovative approach to provide a sustainable solution.
The Sahel is the subject of great interest from researchers due to the peculiarities of the conflicts across the region. UNFPA supports efforts to highlight the quantitative, and then explanatory, elements of these conflicts. A study carried out by the National School of Statistics and Economic Analysis (ENSAE) in Dakar, Senegal, tried to model the interrelationships between peace, security and demography in order to derive a synthetic indicator, among other objectives. And, of course, to draw evidence-based conclusions for those working in the field.
Major insights can be drawn from this. We can demonstrate that countries with a high level of secondary school enrolment, a high urbanisation rate and good agricultural performance, generally also have a high level of peace and security. Conversely, countries with high youth unemployment and inequality are most affected by insecurity.
The same is true for those countries experiencing an increase in demographic dependency levels (measured by the average number of dependants for a person of working age). Unsurprisingly, the authors stress that the preservation of natural resources, and democratic advances, are important factors for peace.
In the Sahel, the lack of employment opportunities makes young people vulnerable to human trafficking. They are also easy targets, at the mercy of armed groups seeking new recruits.
It is also clear that insecurity leads to unmanageable levels of migration. Finally, although young people are educated, the lack of jobs is a factor in the Sahel’s fragility.
A high dependency ratio
Improving youth literacy is therefore not sufficient. Nevertheless, there is a positive correlation between the Global Peace Index (GPI) and the level of education, rate of urbanisation and agricultural performance. The GPI, which classifies countries according to their degree of peace, is a synthetic index that includes data such as youth unemployment, arable land area, gross domestic product (GDP) and health expenditure. What the index also does is to highlight the importance of education in development.
The higher the fertility rate for a country, the higher its demographic dependency ratio. The same applies to economic dependence. This is because those who are presumed to be economically active are responsible for a much higher number of dependents, mainly adolescents, children and the elderly.
The index underscores that security is weak in the countries of the Sahel, particularly those around Lake Chad. However, a major limitation of the index is that it is purely descriptive.
The team at ENSAE and UNFPA agreed that the results should be supported and confirmed by statistical techniques. By taking a dynamic evolution approach, the panel study would provide more robust findings.
One finding that came out was the contagious effect of conflict, and peace. Who you share a border with can have a positive or damaging impact on your own security. Some countries that share common borders, such as Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic, are all experiencing a very high state of insecurity. Of course, this is not the only factor, as demonstrated by the relative stability of Tunisia, that neighbours Libya’s.
Slow fertility transition
In terms of conflict, models developed by another piece of resarch that was commissioned by the UNFPA and conducted by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) suggest that the risk of conflict will continue to increase in Sahelian countries such as Mali, Niger and Nigeria between now and 2050.
For many of these countries, this increased risk is in majority the result of factors related to the low level of socioeconomic development and demographic factors. It would be interesting, in the case of the Sahel, to update the models by extending the analysis to 2020, factoring in the Covid-19 situation.
In terms of demography, it is clear that the decline in child mortality in recent years (in this region as in most of the world) has not yet led to a substantial decline in fertility rates, which is what one would expect from the historical patterns of demographic transition. The average number of children per woman is still high and has not yet fallen significantly. It is close to, or over, five children per woman, and higher in Niger and Mali for example. In all the countries studied, demographic structures are dominated by young people under the age of 30 years.
Worryingly, the PRIO study showed that countries where the population is growing at an accelerated pace, and where populations under 30 years of age represent more than 60 per cent of the total population, are more likely to experience civil conflicts or security crises. They face pressure on education systems and social wellbeing, as well as unemployment and underemployment, along with a propensity for lawlessness.
Conversely, low population pressure on resources does not necessarily mean less conflict. If good governance is not enforced and resources are not equitably distributed this can lead to social unrest.
Strictly from a numbers perspective, no correlation could be established between the growing insecurity prevailing in the Sahel and certain factors that one would expect to mitigate it, such as increases in GDP per capita, arable land areas and democracy. These links are, for the moment, purely intuitive. We cannot confirm that these factors affect insecurity one way or another in the Sahel region. ‘Micro’ data collection (from individuals and households) seems to be indispensable for better understanding the reality on the ground.
Three scenarios for the future
Seeing these accumulated vulnerabilities and linking them to rising insecurity in the Sahel, Mabingue Ngom, UNFPA Regional Director for West and Central Africa, confirms that “a negative spiral has been set in motion” and predicts a “situation that will worsen socially, and therefore also in terms of security” if nothing is done.
Against this background, UNFPA’s white paper, ‘Understanding the Sahel through its history, geography and socio-demographic and security challenges’, sets out three scenarios:
1. Trend-based scenario
The first scenario is simply a status-quo, in effect a continuation of the major trends of recent decades. With a government, in each country, whose situation improves, but where external security remains a threat. The result: rising birth rates and continued high population growth and inequalities. This trend scenario is clearly undesirable for all those who advocate development, but remains very plausible.
2. Adaptation scenario
An ‘adaptation’ scenario assumes a slowdown in fertility. An approximate fertility rate of three children per woman would allow a gradual decrease in population growth and the dependency rate. As a result, more sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth becomes possible. In this scenario, social and organisational innovations also contribute to the establishment of win-win relationships between states and civil societies. If the right decisions are taken and implemented, this scenario assumes that border management is resolved because seasonal migration related to the dominance of rain-fed agriculture in rural economies has decreased in intensity, among other reasons. This scenario is the most desirable, but is it the most likely?
3. Worsening imbalances scenario
A third scenario, of increased tensions, cannot be excluded. If Sahelian societies do not engage in changing reproductive behaviour, fertility decline will be insufficient to improve the position. The number of births in five Sahelian countries could increase from 3.4 million to 6.4 million by 2040, with detrimental implications for peace and security, the like of which we can only imagine. Community pressures would prevail and the State would become “too small for big things and too big for small things”.
Worst-case scenario can be avoided
According to UNFPA, the countries of the Sahel should pursue policies to control demographic dependency and provide opportunities for young people, whose level of education, combined with their use of communication technologies and social networks, contribute to their need for emancipation and a better future. The root causes of radicalisation and violent extremism have often been associated with a growing youth population and the inability of governments to respond effectively to their various political and economic demands, the PRIO study confirms.
PRIO also notes that large youth populations are not, by nature, a security problem. On the contrary, they have the potential to bring greater prosperity and enhanced security to the state. In South-East Asia, countries have succeeded in significantly and effectively reducing their fertility rates while benefiting from the labour resource offered by the strong demographic growth of young people.
However, countries that are in a situation of insecurity, especially those in West Africa, need to support the process of urbanisation and initiate an education policy to keep children in the education system. Family planning efforts should also not be forgotten.
The third scenario described by UNFPA is just as plausible as the previous two, although it is at the opposite end of the spectrum from development activities in the region. Avoiding it is within reach.