Africa’s Sahel Region Urgently Needs the World’s Help


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Strong and sustained global growth has enabled living standards throughout most of the world to converge on an upward course. Even throughout Africa, the world’s poorest continent, there have been drastic improvements in health, education and governance. Countries such as Ethiopia and Tanzania are seeing the start of industrialization.

Yet a few parts of the world remain mired in desperate poverty. The largest and most troubled of these is the Sahel region of Africa — the long strip of arid land along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. Its outline is hard to define, and doesn’t overlap well with existing national boundaries, but generally the Sahel includes Mali, Niger, Chad, South Sudan, Burkina Faso and the northern half of Nigeria, as well as smaller pieces of several other countries.

These are not quite the world’s poorest countries — that distinction probably belongs to a few war-torn nations in central Africa — but they are close. And in terms of human development, the Sahel lags behind essentially everywhere else. Its child mortality rates are higher even than those of Ghana and other nearby countries:

Africa’s Sahel Region Urgently Needs the World’s Help
The Sahel lags in education as well, as a detailed map by epidemiologist Simon Hay shows. And literacy rates are extraordinarily low:
Africa’s Sahel Region Urgently Needs the World’s Help

When the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative combined various measures of health, education and living standards to create an index of multidimensional poverty, the Sahel stood out starkly.

Why is the Sahel doing so badly? The region is landlocked, which means it has little sea-based trade. And except for South Sudan, which has significant oil deposits, Sahel countries have relatively few natural resources. Most people have to subsist on farming or herding.

But farming and herding are being threatened by desertification. Poverty has led the people of the Sahel to cut down their forests, overgraze their animals and over-cultivate their land — making already marginal areas unfit for habitation as the vast Sahara creeps south. Climate change, bringing ever more frequent droughts, only makes things worse.

Meanwhile, the Sahel’s population is soaring. Even as fertility has fallen elsewhere in Africa, most women in the Sahel are still having more than five children each, expanding the population exponentially. By 2100, Nigeria is projected to have 733 million people — the third most in the world. Most of that growth will occur in the country’s Sahelian north, where fertility rates are highest. With every passing minute, the number of Nigerians in extreme poverty rises by six.

Africa’s Sahel Region Urgently Needs the World’s Help

The exploding population stands to make the Sahel’s plight global, if waves of destitute migrants and refugees swamp neighboring African countries and threaten their hard-won economic development. Many may also try moving to Europe, testing developed countries’ immigration systems. Such an outflow will be exacerbated by conflicts over scarce resources. South Sudan and Mali already have civil wars, and the struggle against the Islamist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, Niger and Chad has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

The only real hope is for the U.S. and other rich countries, as well as international development agencies such as the United Nations and World Bank, to step in. Foreign aid to Sahel countries is already substantial — but money paid to governments doesn’t efficiently address the region’s basic problems. Instead, donors should target education, health and the environment. More schools, especially for girls, will improve literacy, boost economic growth and enable family planning. More health clinics will reduce infant mortality. And reforestation and improved land use will help slow the desert’s advance.

As a major front in the fight against global poverty, the Sahel needs more attention and aid, or the consequences could be dire.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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