Emergency in the Sahel: choosing the fight against inequalities

As massacres and violence intensify in the Sahel, so does the urgency of a response from the states of the region and the international community to prioritize the fight against inequality. That is at least what Oxfam now states in its new report, "Securing is not developing: the fight against inequality must be our priority," which is published whilst Alliance Sahel and the G5 Sahel meet in Bonn and a day before the Foreign Affairs and Development ministers of both the G7 and the G5 Sahel meet in Paris.

The crises the Sahel faces, whether they be of a humanitarian, environmental, or security nature, are all rooted in the inequality and profound sense of injustice that permeate Sahelian societies. These inequalities dangerously undermine community life and result in repeated tensions and violence.

According to Adama Coulibaly, Oxfam Regional Director for West Africa: "This new challenge is superimposed on pre-existing development issues. Indeed, despite considerable progress, the Sahel, where over half of the population has no access to drinking water, remains one of the poorest regions in the world as well as the one with the steepest food safety deterioration in the last 10 years.  The Sahel is also one of the regions with the worst climate inequalities. For the often weak and resource-poor Sahelian states, this two-pronged challenge must lead to a new approach, one centred on the fight against inequalities.”

As of recently, Sahelian governments’ security spending is coming at the cost of the already fragile and underfinanced social budgets, and precisely at the moment when they are most needed to target inequality.

Oxfam believes governments in the region need to be more committed to the fight against inequalities. This mainly implies reforming fiscal policy, which is too regressive and disproportionately affects the poorest strata of society, especially considering corporate tax exemptions, particularly for foreigner companies, have increased in past years.

There is also an urgent need to reinvest in social policies for quality public education and health services to be accessible to all because, although considerable progress has been made (girls' access to education has tripled in Niger in 30 years and maternal mortality rates have halved in Burkina Faso since the 1990s), the disparities in the access to such services remain extremely pronounced, especially those between women and men, between rich and poor, and between urban and rural areas.

The gap is widening and the feeling of injustice is growing in the Sahel. The multiplication of civic movements in which young people are massively invested attests to the population’s yearning for the respect of rights, justice, transparency, and accountability.

Adama Coulibaly reports: "We have noticed an unsettling restriction of an already very limited civic space. In Niger, it has taken the form of numerous arrests, like those of the Citizen-Day-of-March-2018 leaders, who were protesting new tax measures. In Chad, social networks have been censored for a year."

"This is a worrying trend. Young people represent the majority of the Sahelian population as well as the future of the region. We must restore trust by recognizing the role of young people and other citizens in controlling the government’s actions as well as their right to participate in public life."

Faced with these various challenges, the G5 Sahel and Alliance Sahel must reconsider their approach. On the one hand, the G5 Sahel must strengthen the development and governance aspects of its action and, on the other, the Sahel Alliance must ensure the genuine coordination of development aid for the Sahel as well as strengthen common efforts to implement quality public policies under the leadership of the different states.

In addition, France, which holds the G7 presidency this year, is dedicated to fighting inequalities in the world and particularly in the Sahel. The G7 should translate its rhetoric against inequality into concrete action to urgently and sustainably tackle the structural causes behind the vulnerability of Sahelian populations. "There is urgency in the Sahel. The efforts of all national, regional, and international actors must prioritize the fight against inequalities, by redirecting development aid towards this issue and by placing the human dimension of security at the heart of all initiatives."

Notes to editors

The Sahel is a deeply unequal region for various reasons. First, in terms of income: in Senegal and in Chad (the most unequal countries in the region), the income of the richest 10% is twice that of the poorest 40%. Then, in terms of rights: while important progress has been made in recent decades, access to education or health is still very difficult for women, for people living in rural areas, and for the poor in general. In Mali, barely 3 to 4% of nomadic pastoralist children go to school. Inequalities between sexes are also prevalent: legislation and social norms continue to blatantly discriminate against women. In Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal, women only own 10% of agricultural land, even though they constitute 40% of the agricultural labour force. Finally, there are climate inequalities: the Sahel is responsible for an infinitesimal share of global greenhouse gas emissions, and yet it is one of the most affected regions by climate change in the world. Niger is in fact considered the most vulnerable country to climate change on the planet.

Considering such low tax revenues in the Sahel, which represent 22% of Senegal’s GDP, 18% of Burkina Faso’s, 16% of Mali’s, and only 14% of Niger’s (compared to an average of 34% for OECD countries), mobilizing domestic resources must be a priority. This must be done through more just and progressive tax policies. The Sahelian states, however, currently prioritize regressive taxes on consumption such as the VAT, which represent 60% of tax revenue. At the same time, the proliferation of tax exemptions has resulted in companies being less and less taxed. In Mali, for instance, such exemptions totalled 203.45 billion FCFA in 2015 (309 million euros), or 3.5 times the education budget.
 
Even though the States of the region committed to devoting 20% of their budgets to education and 15% to health, no country has achieved these goals, with the notable exception of Senegal in the education sector. Inequalities in the access to such services therefore remain flagrant. Whilst Burkinabe children in urban areas go to school for 11 years on average, children in rural areas do so for less than 4.

Despite the grimness of the situation, many Sahelian civil society members are mobilizing in a thousand different ways to face these challenges. Particularly young people and women have, in recent years, joined a dynamic civil society determined to fight against inequalities. It is on this theme and in the context of the C7 summit (the civil society of the G7) as well as in that of and a high-level conference on inequalities in the Sahel that Oxfam will present a new exhibition on July 3 at the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (Paris 16th arrondissement). 

Contact information

Claire Le Privé  |  Dakar, Senegal  |  Tel: (+221) 78 140 47 93  |  claire.leprive@oxfam.org

For updates, please follow @Oxfam.