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Regional humanitarian challenges in the Sahel


Summary of research*

Location: The Sahel

What we know: The Sahel is currently in complex crisis fuelled by conflict, climate change and weak governance. 

What this article adds: A recent case study of regional humanitarian challenges in the Sahel, informed by visits to Mali, Niger and Senegal, identifies major shortcomings in the humanitarian system as currently organised. Competition rather than collaboration characterises the humanitarian/development relationship. Humanitarian architecture is complex, duplicative and bogged down in coordination. Conflict is the dominant view of the region by donors; increased security measures pose challenges to operations. Large aid agencies are increasingly not operational, with energies diverted to reporting and accountability to donors, rather than beneficiaries. National agencies are operationally significant but lack power within the aid dynamic. Solutions are available, but political will is currently lacking.

Despite impressive growth and institutionalisation, the humanitarian system is facing a crisis. According to a recent report on humanitarian challenges in the Sahel region, the humanitarian system risks being outpaced by new threats and vulnerabilities linked to conflict, technology and natural disasters. The authors assert that the system is struggling to adapt to the social and political changes spawned by globalisation, constrained by the way the humanitarian system is organised with a framework for decision-making that risks becoming obsolete.

Recent crises in Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti, Sri Lanka and Pakistan as well as current emergencies – Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic, among other less visible crises – raise questions about the very foundations of humanitarianism. The authors argue that unless urgent steps are taken, humanitarian action will lose its relevance as a global system for saving and protecting the lives of at-risk populations. The report identifies areas where, given the political will, immediate improvements could be introduced in order to make the humanitarian system more effective in responding to current crises and disasters.

As part of its analysis of the current humanitarian system and its strengths and weaknesses, the Feinstein International Center (FIC) at Tufts University has produced a series of case studies that analyse blockages and game changers affecting humanitarian action in recent crises. This study focuses on the Sahel and is one of four case studies developed for the Planning from the Future study, conducted in collaboration with Kings College, London and the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

The Sahel

Until the early 2000s, the Sahel was on the margins of geopolitical interest and humanitarian action and debate. The African region stretches in a 4,000km band from Senegal on the west coast to Chad in the east, encompassing Senegal, the Gambia, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. The Sahel countries share a French colonial heritage (apart from the Gambia) and features of a common currency and lingua franca.

This report, based on field visits to Mali, Niger and Senegal, describes how these issues are playing out across the Sahel and discusses the implications for humanitarian action. It raises important questions for the future of humanitarian action in the Sahel and beyond. The authors introduce the history of the region and nature of the current crisis, with details on major stakeholders – an array of the state and non-state actors, including conflict actors and transnational criminal networks. The largest multilateral donors to the Sahel are the United States and the European Union, with the 2012 drought marking a sudden increase in humanitarian funding for the region.

Major findings, themes and lessons learned

Findings are organised around the concept of  “game changers” (factors that emerged from the crisis or were relatively new, and for which the humanitarian community is ill-prepared to deal with), and “blockages” (either things that are blocking humanitarian action in a given context, including long-standing problems); some findings contain elements of both.

The main findings focus on the Sahel (and more generally, West Africa) as a relatively neglected and peripheral region of intervention for aid, compared to other global crises. This is reflected in smaller budgets and observed differences in professionalisation of humanitarian staff (the region is considered a “less prestigious” posting with limited circulation of staff outside the Francophone “pocket”).

Problems have tended to be viewed in developmental rather than humanitarian terms, with the chronic crisis perceived as a “failure” in development, thus lacking humanitarian ownership and innovation as seen in other regions. This fuels the uncomfortable coexistence between development and humanitarian action, whereby the Sahel’s main problems (food security, malnutrition and epidemics) can be framed in both terms.

The chronic nature of the situation makes it a complex humanitarian environment. The humanitarian situation is understood to be in constant expansion and polarisation, with local actors only playing a minimal role. Local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are used to access insecure areas but not treated as “equals”. While international players raise issues of accountability and capability of local agencies, national NGOs voice frustrations regarding bureaucracy and challenges in accessing international humanitarian funds.

Large aid agencies are losing their “field craft” as they are increasingly not operational, with energies diverted to reporting and accountability to donors, rather than beneficiaries. Coordination and transaction costs are high, since inter-agency dynamics absorb large amounts of human and financial resources. Official coordination mechanisms involve the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)-mediated clusters, UNHCR (refugees) and a parallel ECHO (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations) coordination system; sub-groups/fora/working groups are proliferating partly in response to inadequacies in existing systems.

Key lessons include:

The report concludes that solutions are available to make the system more effective, but political will is lacking. The humanitarian system in the Sahel, as elsewhere, is becoming more remote and functional to the needs of the main players, rather than the populations it purports to serve.


*Donini, Antonio and Scalettaris, Giulia. 2016. Case Study: Regional Humanitarian Challenges in the Sahel. Planning from the Future, Component 2. The Contemporary Humanitarian Landscape: Malaise, Blockages and Game Changers. Feinstein International Center. Medford: Tufts University.



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Donini, Antonio and Scalettaris, Giulia (). Regional humanitarian challenges in the Sahel. Field Exchange 53, November 2016. p61.



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