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The Sahel has potential, but is bound by a vile narrative

Abdoulaye Mar Dieye
By Abdoulaye Mar Dieye

Special Coordinator for Development in the Sahel.

Ibrahim Thiaw
By Ibrahim Thiaw

United Nations Under Secretary General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

Posted on Monday, 8 March 2021 17:56, updated on Tuesday, 9 March 2021 11:55

Transitional Mali President Bah N'Daw, leaves , after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Wednesday 27 January, 2021. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

In “A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar” by Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Tierno Bocar, the Sage of Bandiagara, provides this astute aphorism for the modern world: "Do not go seeking fortune by begging in far-off places, you who are seated upon a sack of gold. Make use of this fortune, make it grow by trading in it with others.”

When the Sahel region appears in global media, we always hear the same refrain: extremism, terrorism, conflict and poverty. Yet this vast, dynamic, and diverse region of Africa is so much more. From Mauritania and Senegal, our respective countries, in the west, to Djibouti in the east, the region is bursting with potential.

But the region cannot fully realise its potential if we remain locked into current perceptions; like a seed we do not water because we wrongly think it cannot grow. To see this potential, and fulfil it, the narrative of insecurity needs to change.

Words matter. Image matters. A change of narrative will inspire people both within and outside the Sahel to think differently about the region. It can spark raised ambition and action from political leaders, businesses and investors. It can accelerate development and policies that serve people and nature. It can deliver innovative private-sector finance. You get the picture. There are so many positive things to say about the Sahel.

The positives

First, and this may surprise many people, the region while – on the surface – seems to suffer from water scarcity, is not short of water resources. The Sahel has large transboundary regional watersheds and groundwater reservoirs. Considerable reserves of freshwater are stored in deep-water tables, on a scale of thousands of billions of cubic metres. These reserves could meet the current and future needs of West Africa. But less than 1% of their potential is in use.

The potential to irrigate land is huge and in areas far more fertile than people realise – areas such as the Senegal river basin, the Mopti region in Mali and the Maradi area in Niger. Just as with water, we do not take full advantage of these soils. Practical solutions – such as better adapted seeds, water-efficient irrigation systems and careful fertilisation – could boost yields by 50%. The boons for food security are obvious.

One general perception of the Sahel is true: the region gets a lot of sun. This means that it has huge potential for solar energy, in addition to the wind and hydroelectric energy potential that exists. Clearly, a lot needs to be done to start drawing on this energy due to the limited infrastructure.

But this task, in itself, is an opportunity to create skilled jobs, improve food conservation and reduce food loss, in turn. All of this would lead to better livelihoods and economic returns. And, of course, a renewable-energy revolution would benefit the climate and the region’s energy security.

Land restoration is another huge opportunity, as we can see in the Great Green Wall Initiative –building a wall that plants hope, brings peace and prosperity. A wall that will create 10m rural jobs and reduce forced migration. A wall worth building.

Then there are the people, the greatest resource and force for change in any culture or society. The 11 countries of the Great Green Wall have a population of close to 500 million people that is expected to grow to 1.6 billion by the end of the century. And they are young.

Almost two-thirds are under 25 years old. Investing in education and vocational training could yield huge dividends, from economic diversification and stronger livelihoods to value-chain development.

The youth of the Sahel must be provided with adequate tools, skills and access to opportunities to unleash their talent and creativity. Some countries are depriving themselves of half of their resources/workforce. Women and girls must be empowered and enabled to contribute to the development of their countries as agents of changes. We must create a path towards transformation, innovation and prosperity.

Bottom line

Changing the narrative creates a self-reinforcing cycle of improvement and of hope. One that can promote the creation of well-funded, impactful programmes and innovation that are driven by local needs, and high-scale structural transformation initiatives, with the leadership of, or in partnership with, local communities, the private sector and diaspora.

The UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel and the UN Support Plan to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals are vital tools for both unleashing the potential in the Sahel and reshaping perceptions of the region.

Unrest – and yes, there is unrest in the region – comes largely from poverty and lack of opportunities. If we can start to improve the economic situation, we can dampen the unrest and the positive narrative will take care of itself.

It will not be easy. Setbacks such as the Covid-19 pandemic and political instability will no doubt arise. But the Sahel deserves more and can give more – to its citizens and to the world. A hopeful and dynamic narrative is a vital step for the region to deliver on its potential. We need the world to hear it.

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