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Last week I joined UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, African Union Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and EU Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs on a visit to the Sahel region.
It was a first.
This was an unprecedented joint tour by Heads of international and regional institutions, a clear indication of the urgency and intricacy of the problems at hand and our determination to help find lasting solutions.
As we made this tortuous tour through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad it became increasingly clear to me that the Sahelian region is a crucible of the challenges of development much of Africa has to contend with – but with a difference.
For much of the 1970s and 1980s, the region suffered repeated and devastating droughts, crop failures, and an encroaching desert, all of which caused much suffering.
As the years went by and the impact of this ecological crisis deepened, inevitably the economic and social fabric weakened, too.
As one might expect, in no time there were spillovers into politics, and other superimposed man-made problems such as chronic instability and military takeovers, all of which combined to turn the Sahel into one of Africa’s most fragile regions.
The northern belt of the Sahel, stretching all the way from the Indian Ocean in Somalia to the Atlantic Ocean, soon became a centre for all types of trafficking.
A year ago a new phenomenon appeared – the jihadists: vicious groups and individuals of various origins who take advantage of local social grievances to impose their agendas.
I have visited Mali several times in my current role, but as we landed at Bamako Airport I could not but recall my first visit as a young economist almost 30 years ago.
Mali was then taking the first steps towards a complex currency conversion exercise. In addition, like many countries in Africa, the country was facing major macroeconomic challenges and runaway deficits while trying to fix loss-making State enterprises, an exercise in which I was involved as a young economist (my poor French at the time was not particularly helpful).
The country was in dire economic straits, but from what I could surmise it was stable, relatively speaking, and the State was functional.
Years later the country had made so much improvement to the extent it had become the poster child for political and economic reforms.
Nevertheless, along came a story that is now familiar: last year the country almost fell apart with the jihadists taking over half the territory of Mali until they were thrown out by superior military forces.
A combination of economic, social, and political factors had created a terrain for groups such as the jihadists.
The country is slowly trying to pick up the pieces.
A UN peacekeeping mission is in place.
Together with regional and continental organizations such as the AU and ECOWAS, they are working towards normalizing the security situation, which by all accounts could be a protracted exercise.
So how could we help to stabilize this region as the other organizations deal with the security questions?
That was what we were trying to figure out. One thing is certain: the resolution of the security and political issues will be made that much easier by parallel actions on the social and economic front.
This is a no-brainer, but in the Sahel it assumes higher profile.
This is why we were visiting.
This is why we were attempting to put in place a coordinated special program for the Sahel region.
In the five core countries of the Sahel the Bank’s ongoing support programs amount to $2 billion.
I pledged an additional $1.9 billion.
I committed the Bank to contribute to building resilience to external shocks, concentrating on our comparative strengths in infrastructure and regional integration to create jobs.
As we went around the four countries, we could see clearly how interrelated they are, even though each has its own specificities.
In Mali, the epicenter of the Sahelian crisis, it was evident the road ahead was going to be long and bumpy. This is a country which two or three years ago was cited as one of the high performing countries on our Country Policy and Institutional Assessment internal metric for performance-based resource allocation.
The problem in Mali remains fundamentally one of security: rebuilding the state alongside a dispensation to deal with local social grievances in the north.
I was told that the distance between Timbuktu and Kidal is about 1,500 kilometres, that there is no paved highway, and there are limited opportunities in the northernmost part of the country.
That makes it difficult for the administration and for business, but also for a sense of belonging for the inhabitants of those remote regions.
But I kept asking myself why no development institution – the AfDB included – has ever tried to fix this: building infrastructure towards the north and creating opportunities there.
Was it a case of neglect?
Did the previous Governments prioritize this? If they did not, did we ourselves bring this up in our country dialogue?
Or was it a case of “bad” economics?
I can imagine technicians arguing (wrongly) that maybe the traffic numbers did not justify building a 1,500-km highway at that time.
But even if that was the case, connecting the different regions of the country is a case strong enough on its own.
I do not know if that was the rationale.
Wisdom posits that we are all wiser after the event, but think of the sums which will have to be mobilized now to deal with the now bigger problem.
In Niger, the problem is rather different. This is a country with the highest birth rates in the world, frequently suffering bad droughts and malnutrition and which in the past has experienced political turmoil.
The week before, 92 migrants had died of thirst and hunger in the desert in Northern Niger. One of the senior officials said to me it is organized trafficking and the tip of the iceberg.
The country’s president was leading the effort to curb the high birth rates running at 3.9 percent by waging a campaign to prevent underage marriages and keep young girls in school.
In Burkina Faso, the most stable of all the countries we visited, the issues are those typical of many African countries: infrastructure, jobs, etc.
Our last stop was Chad, a meeting point for East and West, North and South, and a melting pot of cultures, where Islam and Christianity co-exist in an atmosphere of tolerance.
As we flew over what remains of Lake Chad, I could not but recall that it has lost 90 percent of its original size, shrinking from 250,000 to 25,000 square km.
This is a disaster for the people who live off the lake, with impoverishment the result and an entire heritage gone.
In each of the countries we discussed all these issues, as well as the wider implications of the political, security, economic, social, and ecological challenges.
In Chad we also touched briefly on the crisis next door in the Central African Republic, which, unless dealt with quickly, is on the way to becoming Africa’s second failed state, after Somalia.
Can we afford that right in the middle of the continent, especially for a country sharing borders with six other countries?
As I pondered all these issues I kept coming back to our new Ten Year Strategy, which is exactly the kind of strategy we need in the Sahel: inclusive growth, green growth.
I could not but observe the centrality of our operational focus: infrastructure supporting fragile states and generating jobs for the young through the private sector.
I could not but observe that in the Sahel solutions were both national and regional.
Economic integration is urgent everywhere on the continent, but here it was not a matter of choice; it was a matter of survival.
In the Sahel we are confronted with that perfect storm – the problems of security, development, and climate change are so interrelated here.
They have to be tackled together.
If we fail in one we probably fail in all three.
We can’t afford to fail.
Two comments by Ban Ki-moon and Jim Yong Kim struck me as very much to the point.
Ban observed that the challenges we were facing knew no borders and neither should the solutions.
I could not agree more.
Jim Yong Kim (also born in Korea) kept reminding us of the desperate situation in South Korea in the late 1950s.
Nonetheless, by aiming high Koreans were able to prevail.
The problems in the Sahel are tough, but not insurmountable. Our toolbox is limited and we will need to innovate.
We must aim high, be persistent, join hands across borders, be flexible, practical, be ready to learn and adjust at each juncture.
This way we will get it right, by empowering the people of the Sahel, raising their hopes and aspirations, and building opportunities. This will contribute to avoiding a two-speed Africa, with the stable economies charging on ahead of those mired in conundrum, such as we see in the Sahel or the Horn. I came back from the Sahel wiser, and encouraged. A long time ago, it was a centre of learning and civilization – a melting point of faiths and cultures. Rebuilding the Sahel as a zone of shared prosperity is now our task.