The alphabet soup of coordination in the Sahel: In search of collective leadership


Coordination from donors and actors from the region itself can help address the Sahel’s cross-border challenges including organised crime, food security and governance to name but a few. Coordination matters if it favours implementation that improves people’s lives. Yet so far, partners in the Sahel are still clinging on to their own little pet projects. 

This page is also available in French.

What's on this page
    % Complete

      The second meeting of the Sahel regional coordination platform took place two weeks ago in Bamako. The platform is chaired by Mali for two years, and is supported by a joint African Union (AU) - United Nations (UN) technical secretariat, whose terms of reference were fine tuned last week. It counts 11 members: the AU, the UN, ECOWAS, ECCAS, the EU, the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU) the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), the World Bank, the African Development Bank (AfDB), the Islamic Development Bank and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

      We recently flagged up the issue of international coordination as a key variable in the implementation of international strategies in the Sahel. A series of interviews with key players in Bamako and Niamey has informed us about recent trends in international coordination in the Sahel and led us to identify a number of challenges and choices for the future.

      What Existing Strategies Say About Coordination

      All the Sahel strategies we have studied make some reference to building on and/or supporting existing initiatives in the region. They require partnership, support (including financial), and coordination with other actors. Some strategies, like AGIR, and multilateral organisations are themselves made through coordination processes.

      Strategies usually mention the UN, the EU, the World Bank and international financial institutions among multilateral actors with which coordination is to be sought. Similarly, they make recurring reference to regional and African actors: the AU, ECOWAS, West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA), the Permanent Interstates Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel  (CILSS) and the AfDB. Official statements in coordination meetings thus end up in acronyms lists.

      Coordination Imperative or Alphabet Soup?

      Coordination mechanisms have also been proposed outside existing strategies – the G5 grouping of 5 Sahelian states (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso) is a recent example of new cooperation formats. Several strategies propose different internal coordinating mechanisms, notably those of the UN and ECOWAS, and efforts can be observed from other regional groupings such as the CEN-SAD. The coherence and coordination between these continental and regional actors remains to be found.

      The first version of the EU Sahel Strategy referenced poor coordination among regional players (Sahel states, North African states, regional and sub-regional organisations) and among the international community. Yet it does not propose its own platform to address the challenges.

      Because of the multiplication of international interventions in the region, coordination has become an imperative but remains very challenging. As a matter of fact, the coordination mantra may well hide competition amongst international organisations and states that seek to capture international resources committed to the region. The institutional architecture in the Sahel has become an alphabet soup.

      There is no set method to assess the comparative advantage of a player in a given sector, and power struggles are likely to prevail over or within apparently consensus based coordinating frameworks.

      In fact, as strategies operate at different levels, there is scope for more than just one coordination platform to address specific thematic issues. For instance Food security is addressed both in agriculture-related frameworks such as ECOWAP and resilience-related frameworks such as AGIR.

      There is risk that the proliferation of coordinating bodies distracts resources and dilutes energies from addressing the substantial challenges of the region, becoming as counterproductive as the proliferation of initiatives and documents.

      What’s at Stake with Coordination in the Sahel?

      First, talks about coordination initiatives reflect the African and international “geopolitical tectonics” of the region (a wording used by an EU official last week regarding Mali). Controlling coordination mechanisms is about controlling the use of the millions committed for the Sahel and about the capacity to shape the economic and political future of the area.

      Second, views diverge on which strategy should have primacy over the others. The UN strategy, because of its international anchoring, could be seen as the main umbrella under which other strategies should be aligned. Yet, the African Union underlines that the drafting of its own strategy is as old as the process behind the UN Sahel Strategy. Beauty contests between international organisations and Sahel-Saharan states are also at play. The same can be said of the Algeria-Morocco rivalry, and the preference of Burkina Faso and ECOWAS to anchor Sahel coordination in the Southern part of the region.

      Third, as recent events in Kidal show, Mali is still the epicentre of the crisis with immediate impact on its neighbours and the dynamics of coordination in the region. Since Mali is the chair of the UN-AU managed coordination mechanism mentioned above, the success of coordination in the Sahel is very much in its hands. Some informed observers sometimes stress the need for Mali to first have its own Sahel Strategy.

      At the end of the day, coordination matters because it improves implementation, using available resources in a more effective way to improve people’s lives. Yet so far, as we heard recently in Niamey, “each stakeholder is trying to have one’s own little coordination pet”.

      Several modalities of coordination may emerge over time: the first one being on a “first come first served” basis, consisting of some players taking regional initiatives outside existing coordination frameworks, but managing to attract available funds with political back-up. This is already the case in joint research and pooled analysis of Sahelian challenges. 

      The second is the formal bureaucratic, top down format of institutionalised coordination mechanisms (as described above) which are supposed to help clarify the agenda of all stakeholders. This format may appear necessary to avoid duplication and to divide the burden of large cross-border infrastructure initiatives.

      The third modality of coordination consists of “strengthened cooperation” within a core group of states moving forward together. Such an approach has prevailed in the past to address sensitive security issues and is already applied to a certain extent in the field of intelligence sharing.

      Last but not least, current regional dynamics may lead to no coordination at all, with rivals or spoilers managing to prevent any effective regional cooperation to take off.

      In the coming months, experts working on Sahel dynamics should be attentive to concrete regional initiatives leading to the first significant disbursement of funds, and where they come from. In theory, coordination could help to address the region’s cross-border challenges, but its failure or bypassing has its own risks inherent to the aid industry. Watch for our next blog, where we will unpack what ‘working regionally’ in the Sahel could mean.

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

      Loading Conversation