Combating Islamic terrorism in the Sahel region has united Europe and the wider international community. Most attention has been focused on the G5 Sahel joint military operation which has been tasked with combating jihadist groups in the region.
At a funding conference in Brussels in February, donors raised €423 million for the military force, which is commanded by the African countries.
But the military mission is only part of the picture. Jihadist terror groups have been active in the region, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean across to the Red Sea, for a number of years.
Before their arrival, the G5 countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – were still among the world’s poorest countries, with poverty rates of between 40 to 50%.
The G5 countries say that development and security must go together. The aim is to improve the coordination of development cooperation in the Sahel region, alongside the military operation.
For the moment, the major donors, particularly in Europe, agree. One of the most important geo-strategic regions to the EU, the Sahel is also a central point of the migrant route from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean Sea.
“This isn’t only about security but also about development,” stated EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini at the funding summit in February.
“There can be no real conditions for security without social and economic development, such as opportunities for young people and women in the region,” she added.
The brainchild of French President Emmanuel Macron, the Sahel Alliance was launched in July 2017, shortly after his election victory, as a joint initiative of the EU, France, Germany, the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the UN.
Since then, Italy, Luxembourg, UK, Spain, and Saudi Arabia are among the countries to have committed funds. A new wave of countries, including the Nordic nations, are now pledging funds.
Yet despite being launched nearly a year ago, the Alliance is still very much a work in progress. An African Union meeting in June in Mauritania is likely to formally launch its work. Projects have been painfully slow in getting started.
“The big question is whether this is changing things,” Friederike Röder, director of ONE in France, tells EURACTIV.
“We need to do more than just a few projects, we need to go big,” she adds.
Funds will go towards 500 initial projects across the G5 countries, and will be based on providing employment for young people, rural development, food security, energy and climate, governance, and access to basic services.
But the Sahel projects still face plenty of uncertain terrain. Funding so far is on a bilateral basis, despite the fact that the G5 countries want on a lasting funding solution rooted in the United Nations, arguing that the security situation in the Sahel has been worsened by the crisis in neighbouring Libya caused, in part, by western intervention.
The main block to a formal UN role comes from the US.
USAID is providing $350 million per year, which Christopher Runyan, the organisation’s Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Sahel tells EURACTIV is aimed at “addressing the underlying causes of the conflict”. However, the Trump administration insists that any funding must remain bilateral and without UN involvement.
The EU’s financial commitment also remains unclear. The Alliance is promising to deliver projects worth €7.5 billion by 2022. But it is unclear whether this is new money or existing resources being re-allocated.
The EU’s External Investment Plan, which the Commission wants to expand in the bloc’s next seven year budget framework, has been mooted by France and Germany as a tool to encourage private companies to invest in the region.
The bloc’s €3.4 billion Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, set up to help combat the migration crisis, meanwhile, has also been earmarked for a role concentrating resources.
Nor can it be a ‘donor-led’ initiative.
“Without the G5 being on board it won’t work,” says Röder. She adds that the G5 governments will need to add their own resources and budgets to those of donors.
The French development agency AfD hosts the co-ordinating unit for the Alliance.
Röder is also anxious that Macron and others to back up their rhetoric with resources and ambitious projects.
“We need to be clear about the cost, and the needs of the people in the region.”
“One of the objectives (of the Alliance) is to create 1 million jobs by 2022 – but we actually need to create 760,000 per year,” she adds.
Part of the rationale for Macron’s Sahel initiatives is that France is anxious that Operation Barkhane, its own military mission in the Sahel, does not become a permanent, and expensive, arrangement. Matching development goals with military commitment would go a long way towards achieving that.