Six ways to think and act regionally in the Sahel-Sahara – Avoiding sand castles or being stuck in the mud


This third blog on international strategies for the Sahel looks at what working regionally could mean in the Sahel-Sahara, following an analysis of what is really at stake behind current debates on regional coordination mechanisms. It is based on our mapping of existing published strategies for the Sahel and of on-going interventions in the region. It is too early to analyse how international strategies are being implemented. This blog tries instead to frame the debate about available options for their implementation.

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      In the Sahel and the Sahara, numerous policy areas are priorities for human development. International strategies for the region attempt to address humanitarian emergencies, security, development and governance in a holistic manner. Implicit in these strategies is that efforts will have to be made on a regional basis with a decades-long perspective and planned along multi-year programming strategies. In practice, international interventions are usually much more short term, aligned to national development strategies or donors’ planning cycles. In the case of emergencies and crisis response it is several weeks or months, but longer term cycles are 3 or 5 years, sometimes 7, but rarely beyond that. Yet the pressure for short-term results is high.

      Although the regional dimensions are viewed as central in all strategies that we scrutinised (including the EU’s), the implementation is expected to take place at national or even local level. However, not all interventions at national level or of cross-border nature (a given for many populations on the Sahel) automatically fit into a regional vision.

      Thinking and acting regionally actually requires a vision, some background knowledge, some expertise and adequate mechanisms. Our study of current and past regional dynamics in the Sahel-Sahara tells us a number of things about what it could mean to “work regionally” in the long term to achieve their objectives. 

      Our recent missions and interviews in the region have led us to identify 6 types of regional approaches. Some are already being applied and others are only being developed. There is probably very little new below for Sahel-Sahara experts but it is important to highlight that firstly there is no point in reinventing the wheel and secondly that regional action is not particularly new. Although each regional policy is specific, we believe that apart from the frameworks described below, there aren’t many alternatives to conducting regional work in the Sahel-Sahara.

      The 6 Options of Regional Approaches: Framing Implementation

      The first approach is international diplomacy that is shaped by formal institutional multilateral cooperation, international agreements amongst states, international and regional organisations and underpinned by public international law in which actors have a legal identity. For cooperation covering territories with no dedicated or adequate regional organisations (such as the Sahel), international agreements or Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) have to be signed (for instance, if ECOWAS decides do engage with Sahel-wide issues together with Maghrebian states). The AU-led Nouakchott process is another example. It will most probably be the case that regional programmes, in infrastructure or the Niger River for example, involve a variety of regional and international organisations.

      As most strategies envisaged are implemented at the national level, the second obvious way of working regionally is to build the national base of regional policy pillars identified in the strategies. This is already being done through bilateral cooperation in all sectors, with all inherent dilemmas related to development cooperation, including the shortcomings of aid effectiveness in particular. So far available financial resources are mostly allocated to the national level of action.

      The third approach is strengthened cooperation between like-minded groups of states. The Sahel G5 for security and development composed of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad is a recent example. States can decide to act jointly on an ad-hoc basis or be formalised by international agreements on a bilateral or multilateral basis depending on their degree of commitment. Joint patrols along common borders and joint infrastructures programmes are an example of this approach.

      The fourth approach is cross-border cluster activities with neighbours working across or on borders themselves. For communities and peoples working on both sides “working regionally” is simply about being able to live their lives without exaggerated constraints created by states. Working regionally should be about contributing to the improvement of the lives and work of local authorities and community leaders, businesses, religious and pastoralist groups across borders. This approach is particularly attractive to all organisations that have published a Sahel strategy, and the challenge will be to design sound interventions not overloading local authorities and communities. Implied in this is a minimal level of consent from national authorities focusing efforts on key circumscribed areas. Border cooperation can mean infrastructure on land, sea and by air.

      The fifth option of regional work in the Sahel is related to transnational action beyond borders and covering territories regardless of state boundaries. This work is particularly relevant to deal with intra-region or inter-region territories and phenomena, be it financial flows, illicit extractive industries, web-based communication media, cultural and religious relations, satellite imagery, migrations, organised crime and religious extremism. This field of activities implies the ability to have a comprehensive understanding of transnational phenomena and a wide geographical coverage. It also requires the ability to combine those assets with the ability to engage specific partners at national level. For instance, initiatives dealing with issues such as regional environmental challenges, organised crime and illicit trafficking, satellite information sharing, cross-Sahel migration flows or cyber security all are of transnational nature. 

      A sixth and final method is to operate through networks of expertise and experience, the composition of which depends on participants and internal by-laws of network—based organisations. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and some companies from the private sector often operate on a network basis to discuss and address regional activities, opportunities, lessons learnt and challenges. One example we came across is Eau-Vive, an NGO registered in France operating in over a dozen countries in West Africa with mostly African staff and plugged into a variety of CSO networks, who recently launched an international federation. 

      Other examples abound of network-based actions in all kinds of policy areas - nutrition, religious tourism, pastoralist practices, healthcare education, infrastructures, etc. CSOs and business organisations use their network structure to share information, analysis and experiences to raise finance, find customers and providers or carry out advocacy. International organisations also use networks that allow them to share information and knowledge on an informal but pragmatic basis.

      While many stakeholders in the Sahel-Sahara are keen to compare existing international strategies for the Sahel, it seemed relevant to remind them the frames within which regional action takes place. By doing so, this blog is intended to frame debates and discussions on what possible shapes regional action could take in the future.

      These regional frameworks in the Sahel-Sahara are not all new but they are being multiplied more actively by those in charge of the implementation of international strategies for the Sahel. For those who seek to understand in which direction regional cooperation or competition dynamics are going, the key variables to monitor are leadership and political traction exerted by the most powerful actors in the Sahel-Sahara. This will be particularly visible when they are disbursing funds and aggregating political energies to implement existing strategies for the region. How the 6 options for regional action will unfold and what respective impact they have will be something to analyse in a few years time.

      If leadership and gravitas are the key two variables, an engine for regional dynamics will have to be found for effective alliances between those who can provide funds and those who have the necessary political clout to push for their effective use. In this competition across and around the desert, the EU is quite well placed provided its new leadership will take the region seriously and are genuinely keen to avoid building castles in the sand.

      This blog post will also be published on The Broker's new project on regional approaches to conflict in Mali, which will be launched in September.

      The views expressed here are those of the authors, and may not necessarily represent those of ECDPM.

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