The Sahel region in Africa is a study in contrasts.
On one hand, it has among the world’s youngest population and largest reserves of natural resources, including oil, natural gas, gold, and other precious stones, woods, and metals. On the other hand, the region is home to some of the poorest and most vulnerable populations and is seeing the continued expansion of violent extremist groups and inter-communal violence.
Against the backdrop of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, this violence is even more staggering; according to ACLED data, the countries of the G5 Sahel have already experienced more than 4,000 deaths in 2020 related to violent conflict compared to fewer than 500 deaths related to COVID-19. Despite the many existing challenges and new hurdles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders from the Sahelian private sector have been able to come together to identify solutions that address the insecurity and health crises at hand to build a more prosperous and equitable future for the Sahel.
“Keeping the Sahel high on the international agenda is of utmost importance,” the UN Deputy Secretary-General told the European Union in April 2020. “While COVID-19 has put a pause on the world, it has certainly not put a pause on terrorism, poverty and climate change.” Her advocacy for increased support for the G5 Sahel has been motivated by alarming information that has serious regional as well as international consequences; while action on the ground remains unsatisfactory, many countries have committed to continuing aid efforts during an international crisis when the most advanced countries are themselves seeking help.
The African Development Bank estimates an exceptional economic growth loss for the continent due to COVID-19 and noted that, “people in West and Central Africa faced a higher risk of falling into extreme poverty due to the pandemic.” These figures also translate tangibly into significant job losses and further rural exodus in the Sahel. According to UNFPA reports, 17 million people are currently identified at hunger risk with around 2 million seen as critical already; UNHCR data shows over 3 million refugees and internally displaced people throughout the Sahel, mainly due to insecurity matters, and current trends from the African Development Bank show estimates of over 15 million people getting out of rural areas into major cities searching for help.
Rural exodus does not only have an impact on urban overpopulation pressures, it also has dangerous mid to long term impact on food security strategies. Farmers are no longer cultivating land and participating in livestock activities, creating foreign dependence for food imports and using needed foreign currencies from the public budget. As reported by UNFPA, countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have already demonstrated agriculture production losses of more than 20% and recent reports from the Mauritanian livestock owners’ association indicate the possibility of a similar situation for the country in 2020.
The double crises of insecurity and a global health pandemic have already begun to erode the small successes made on the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to fight extreme poverty and support shared growth. In Sahelian countries, where the World Bank Investment Climate Assessment estimates that over 80% of the economic activity is made up of informal and micro-enterprise driven markets, the COVID-19 lockdown measures have put additional stress on people, jobs, livelihoods, and have led to the further disruption of already weak public service delivery.
According to the former Mauritanian Prime Minister, “the COVID pandemic taught the Sahel countries two important resilience lessons: to invest in local production and promote private sector development.” Based on statements from various G5 Sahel ministers and international stakeholders, including Mauritania’s Trade Minister and Mali’s Minister of Finance, it is clear that they recognize the need for further private sector involvement to capitalize on the advantages of the region through public and private investment. The private sector is now widely recognized as a key development partner at a time when many are fearful of its collapse due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sahelian countries are currently working with multilateral partners to address economic recovery and find ways to support during and post COVID-19. Before the pandemic, there was already a clear need to promote international investment to share capital knowledge and support high value industrialization locally. Now more than ever, the national private sectors of the Sahel need to be incentivized to create jobs, support production, and develop local resilience strategies.
Working in the region since 2016, the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) has supported the creation of a G5 Sahel private sector coalition – the Sahel Business Coalition for Inclusive Partnerships – and a network of think tanks focusing on economic reform analyses to combat insecurity. Local experts worked to produce a regional report that outlined the impact of insecurity on the private sector in the countries of the G5 Sahel ahead of the COVID-19 crisis and included priorities and recommendations from regional business stakeholders.
Since the onset of CIPE’s work in the region, the G5 Sahel Secretariat as well as local business leaders have noted an increasing demand for private sector inclusion in economic and security policy reforms. Beginning in mid–2020, the second phase of CIPE’s work in the Sahel will engage local stakeholders in new partnerships through the Sahel Business Coalition for Inclusive Partnerships to ensure that the voice of the private sector is heard loud and clear in peace and resilience efforts in the G5 Sahel.