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Beyond any drought: Root causes of chronic vulnerability in the Sahel

Pippa Trench, John Rowley, Marthe Diarra, Fernand Sano, Boubacar Keita

The Sahel Working Group

June 2007

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This report examines how vulnerability is understood and addressed by development agencies and government departments in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The 2005 food crisis highlighted the extent of vulnerability in the Sahel region, increased international attention paid to the people of the Sahel and led to large sums of money being released to help those people survive the immediate crisis. Most studies written in the aftermath of the crisis have looked at the particular circumstances of the events of 2005. This report was commissioned by the Sahel Working Group, which was concerned that too much attention has been paid to a quite specific scenario and too little to the unacceptable and growing levels of vulnerability that pre-dated the crisis and persist two years later.

The present study took place during April and May 2007 and is based on a series of interviews with development practitioners and donor representatives in London, Washington DC, Bamako, Niamey and Ouagadougou, and on a desk review of academic and grey literature including commissioned reports on development approaches from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

The report is divided into four main sections. The first explores the meaning of vulnerability as perceived by theorists and development practitioners in the context of the Sahel and identifies who is most vulnerable. The study finds that the understanding of vulnerability varies between different stakeholders, and that there is a tendency to equate vulnerability with poverty. Most analyses in development agencies and government offices divide causes of vulnerability into temporary and structural, and carry an assumption that structural issues cannot be addressed by development initiatives. Vulnerable households can be found among farmers and pastoralists, and among the growing workforce of landless labourers. Continuous loss of assets, including land and livestock, without time or opportunity to rebuild has left people extremely vulnerable. Among all these groups, children are particularly vulnerable, as reflected in the high levels of acute child malnutrition seen in 2005.

The second part of the report assesses the root causes of vulnerability in the Sahel. It considers a wide range of critical and interlocking factors that lead to so many people being vulnerable. Changes in climate and increasing drought frequency, population increase, a dependence on natural resources and lack of economic alternatives, poor access to services, poor governance and inequitable markets are all factors that lead to more people becoming more vulnerable, and many have been at play for many decades.

The third section reviews aid delivery mechanisms adopted, and the impact these have had on vulnerability in the Sahel. The report highlights the relatively modest level of overall aid flow to the region despite it being home to three of the world’s four poorest countries. The effects and sensitivity of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) and Poverty Reduction Strategies (PRSs) to vulnerability concerns, as championed by multilateral institutions, are reviewed together with the trend towards donor budget support among bilateral donors. Project-based approaches are then considered, together with the interaction between long-term development and humanitarian responses during the many episodes of heightened crisis in the region.

The final section raises a set of conclusions and sets out a number of key recommendations that emerge from the overall report, as follows.

The landlocked countries of the Sahel include three of the four poorest countries in the world and yet rank low in the amount of funding they receive. Short-term emergency responses to crises will not affect the ability of people in the Sahel to cope with future shocks. A commitment to significant and sustained increases in funding for longterm development is required. The short timescales of most analyses and most interventions make it difficult to address the root causes of vulnerability.

There is an urgent need for a regional affirmation of pastoralism as a viable livelihood in the Sahel. Pastoralism exists in many forms and is adapted to make the most of scattered, variable and unpredictable resources, but the mobility upon which pastoralists depend is under severe threat. Support to pastoralism offers real hope for sustainable production in some parts of the Sahel.

All development initiatives must include planning for drought as a normal condition and not as an unfortunate event. Drought happens and must be part of development planning. Plans need to include reducing the impact of drought, and increasing both resilience to drought and the ability to recover from it.

New development work must combine elements of humanitarian and development work. The situation in the Sahel requires new approaches that combine welfare and development practices. Agencies need to experiment with flexible models including social transfers, and cash and food distribution, integrated in different ways with development work on improving production and diversifying livelihood systems. Agencies will need to overcome the administrative, budgetary, personal and cultural divisions and antagonisms that exist between these two disciplines.

The imposition of external ideas about what constitutes good development and a focus on economic growth as a driver for national development are not addressing the needs and realities of the most vulnerable rural poor. Rural development policies and approaches need to be more locally based and community driven, and should relate to the resource-poor and risk-averse. Development initiatives using different forms of aid delivery (e.g. budget support and project support) should ensure synergy in the initiatives they support. Long-term commitment and flexibility are essential for successful interventions.

Donors should be prepared to support recipient governments in international trade negotiations. They should acknowledge inequities in terms of subsidized support to farmers in developed countries when considering conditionalities on development aid.

Decentralization, underway in all three countries, offers considerable potential to improve accountability and representation of local interests in decision-making, but requires a long-term substantial financial and moral commitment from donors and government. Tiered approaches to service provision (e.g. health, veterinary) can improve access to services among more remote or mobile populations. Support to civil society and to mechanisms to improve communications between elected officials and their constituents is necessary to improve accountability and representation, as well as training and support to the officials themselves.

There are some exciting positive developments in the region. These derive almost exclusively from long-term project work based on good learning from the communities concerned.

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