Viewpoint: U.S. Needs Clear Strategy To Solve Crises In Africa’s Sahel Region

Our guest blogger is Alice Thomas, Climate Displacement Program Manager at Refugees International.

A resident of drought-stricken Mauritania (Photo: Pablo Tosco/AFP/Getty Images)

Poverty and malnutrition are chronic in the countries of the Sahel, a region in northern Africa stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, and the surrounding area is hardly a paragon of political stability. This year, however, a confluence of man-made and natural disasters has sent the region into a tailspin.

As a result of erratic rainfall and high food prices, 18 million people across the Sahel do not have enough food coming into the final months of the “lean season” — the period before harvest when food stocks are nearly depleted. A shocking one million children under five are at risk of starvation.

Compounding the crisis, the eruption of violence in Mali resulting in a military coup earlier this year has displaced over 440,000 people. Many have fled to those areas hardest hit by the nutrition crisis, where food and water are scarce and where local populations themselves are struggling.

Although the Sahel’s dual crises have been going on for months, so far the U.S. and its allies have largely shied away from any major intervention. The U.S., which long viewed Mali as a model of democracy in West Africa, was caught flat-footed as events took place. Despite millions of dollars in development aid and counter-terrorist programs, the U.S. failed to grasp the extent to which the country’s weak institutions, and the lack of public support for its civilian government, made it vulnerable to threats and shifting power dynamics unfolding across the region.

The U.S. has now suspended development aid to Mali given the lack of a legitimate government, and it has limited humanitarian assistance to the north due to continuing insecurity. But allowing the situation to languish risks both the further loss of control to Islamic extremists, and the lives of innocent civilians caught in the middle. On the other hand, a military intervention — as proposed by regional bloc ECOWAS — brings its own perils, including further escalation of the conflict and curtailment of humanitarian aid.

Going forward, establishing security in Mali surely remains a priority for the Obama administration, but a more comprehensive strategy is needed. On Wednesday, the day after President Obama’s speech to the General Assembly, the U.N. will convene a high-level meeting on the Sahel — and it is here where the U.S. should set out a clear, comprehensive plan. In particular, the following three points should be addressed:

First, any military intervention in Mali (whether by ECOWAS, or any other force) must avoid making the humanitarian situation worse. Hundreds of thousands of people within the country remain vulnerable due to displacement and/or food insecurity; providing protection for these groups, and ensuring that humanitarian access is maintained, is absolutely imperative.

Second, because there are essentially two crises gripping the region — the Mali conflict and the broader food crisis — the various U.S. agencies, their partners, and other donors must coordinate on the ground. The recent decision by the State Department to deploy a regional coordinator to more closely monitor the situation and ensure aid reaches both refugees and local populations is a welcome development, and one Refugees International recommended following its mission to the region in May.

The final (and equally vital) pillar of America’s Sahel strategy must be a broader effort to address the region’s longer-term challenges including chronic poverty, explosive population growth, and increased environmental degradation and climate variability. Existing programs aimed at making vulnerable populations more “resilient” to recurrent drought and food crises should be part of the plan, but must be significantly scaled-up and better coordinated to have their intended effect. The U.S. should also mobilize additional resources from other donors, using initiatives like the recently-launched Partnership for Resilience to Food Crises in the Sahel.

Policymakers and the public must wake up to what is happening in the Sahel, and provide the kind of comprehensive response its people need. The risks of not doing so are too high.