As in Syria, Sahel's Crisis Deserves Tireless and Concerted Action

As world leaders gather to address human suffering in Syria and the region, the values of humanity, solidarity and responsibility that bring them together must apply for other crises, such as that in the Sahel. This may appear a tall order. It is. But the alternative - insufficient engagement - is much worse. Without urgent and concerted action, the converging effects of climate change, abject poverty, and violent extremism at play in the Sahel risk spiraling out of control.

Leaders of the world are coming together in London this week for all the right reasons: As the violence continues unabated, stoking more turmoil in an already restive region, standing by the Syrians is unquestionably our collective duty. Encouragingly, re-invigorating the quest for durable solutions to the crisis that has plagued the Middle East for long is the order of the day, and it is heartening to see renewed energy coming together in London to this end.

While decision makers meet, it is not only the children, women and men of Syria who must be on their minds. It is also the disenfranchised, the impoverished and the displaced people of the Sahel who grapple with the effects of a powerful cocktail of violent extremism, climate change and abject poverty that is wrecking the lives and prospects of millions.

Stretching across the central belt of Africa, some 150 million people live in one the harshest environments in the world. All countries in the Sahel are stuck in the bottom fifth of the human development index and extreme poverty affects one in every two people. The region is also one of the world's hot spots for climate change. The impact of environmental degradation is clear as it becomes harder for agro-pastoralists - the backbone of the region's economy - to cope with increasingly unpredictable weather with which people had coped for centuries. The shrinking of the Lake Chad's waters has contributed to crop failures, livestock deaths, collapsed fisheries, thereby increasing poverty and social tensions among communities. As if that were not enough of a burden, violent extremism has added a more dangerous ingredient to the blend. Hunger, poverty and limited economic and social prospects have laid the ground for grievance and radicalization. Across Mali and its neighbours or in the Lake Chad Basin, armed groups lure impoverished youths with monetary compensation they could not earn in a year's honest work.

Immense and ever-mounting humanitarian need is the most visible symptom of the triple jeopardy. The region remains one of the world's main humanitarian operations, representing a tenth of the global relief response. Some 23.5 million people - one in six - struggle to secure their daily meal, and nearly one in five children die before their fifth birthday. Violence has driven 4.5 million people from their homes, a threefold increase in less than two years. Africa's fastest growing displacement crisis is unfolding across the Lake Chad Basin, where the lives and livelihoods of some 20 million are threatened by Boko Haram, today's most deadly armed group.

Calling on world leaders to tackle the root causes of issues in the Sahel as they gather to discuss the ever-present crisis in Syria may seem a bit much. It is. However, today's leaders cannot afford the alternative. The longer we wait to address the tragedy of poverty, climate change and violent extremism, the bigger the problem will grow because of a simple, fourth ingredient: the region records the world's fastest demographic growth. Today, about 150 million people live in the Sahel. With the population doubling every two decades we are likely to see 300 million people in the region by 2036. Shrinking natural resources and stretched basic services will not sustain people's needs, fuelling more tensions, grievances or pushing people to seek safety or life elsewhere.

Given the scale of the threats, only an urgent and coherent approach that builds on the comparative advantages of security, trade, development, environment and relief can help stabilize the Sahel and create conditions for people not only to survive, but also to prosper at home in their countries. By investing collectively now, we will save much more later.

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Children who fled Boko Haram attacks attend classes in Minawao refugee camp, northern Cameroon. Credit: OCHA/Ivo Brandau