Some personal reflections on resilience in the Sahel
By Joachim Theis, Regional Child Protection Adviser in UNICEF West & Central Africa
Resilience has certainly become the new buzz word in the Sahel.
The resilience agenda makes a case for ending the recurrent food and nutrition crises in the Sahel. My first exposure to international development came in the mid-70s when my parents supported the humanitarian response to the drought in Niger. Ten years later I worked in the Sudan during another famine. At the time, we identified desertification as the culprit – now we blame the food and nutrition crisis on global warming. Whatever the cause, it is bad and it does not seem to go away. Billions of dollars have been spent over the past forty years on humanitarian response in the Sahel, but the frequency and severity of food and nutrition crises in the Sahel do not seem to decline. So, mobilizing governments and development actors to build resilient families, communities and nations in the Sahel and to end the recurrent food and nutrition crises is a compelling proposition.
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A broad chapeau. Strengthening resilience requires long-term economic and social investments that reverse decades of decline. The resilience agenda brings together a broad range of actors working on agriculture, the environment and economic development, and on health, education, social protection and social development. This is a good thing and is important because the problems people in the Sahel are facing cannot be solved by one sector alone. They are interrelated and require approaches that strengthen families, communities and societies at all fronts.
Listen to children, families and communities. Resilience has to measurably improve the wellbeing of children and their families. We have to understand family and community coping strategies and how to strengthen them. This requires approaches that are informed by community realities. The current resilience discourse is dominated by international agencies, donors and inter-governmental organisations. Where are the voices of children, women and men struggling to survive and thrive in the Sahel? A top-down, technocratic approach risks passing by the needs of the population and maybe even of inadvertently undermining their own coping strategies. Following the Sahel famine in the mid-80s the Panos Institute launched an oral history project to learn more about how the affected populations had coped with the crisis.
Analysis and evidence. In the scramble for seats on the resilience bandwagon there seems to be little time for in-depth analysis. This is a recipe for disaster. The resilience approach is only going to work if it is grounded in theory, solid analysis and sound evidence. Anything less, risks wasting billions of dollars and actually making things worse rather than better.
Government responsibility. The food and nutrition crises in the Sahel are man-made and not natural disasters. Ultimately, the resilience agenda is about government responsibility. Niger and Chad – the two countries worst hit by the 2012 crisis - consistently rank low on the Human Development Index. Yet, both countries have natural resources. Governments in the Sahel have options and make choices on what to do with their nation’s resources. During mid-80s in the Sudan, much of the blame for the famine was placed on failed development policies and on food subsidies, which aimed at keeping urban populations satisfied, but which impoverished agricultural producers in rural areas. A resilience approach to national development has to review and revise national development and spending priorities and allocate public resources where they can do most to reduce the risks of recurring food and nutrition crises.
Don’t abandon unfinished business. Resilience has become a fashion in the Sahel. The risk with any development fad is that it leads to the abandonment of existing development priorities and a reallocation of existing donor funds away from poverty reduction and programmes to increase access to basic social services. This would be a disaster for the children and adults living in the Sahel. All of us involved in the resilience approach have a responsibility to ensure that the fundamental development agenda in the Sahel is incorporated in the resilience agenda – and not abandoned for a mirage that will quickly disappear.