World Food Programme London Office– Written evidence (ZAF0035)


The UK and Sub-Saharan Africa – prosperity, peace and development co-operation inquiry


  1. This World Food Programme (WFP) submission offers a response to the call for written evidence on The UK and Sub-Saharan Africa - Prosperity, Peace and Development Co-operation. This submission addresses the inquiry’s questions relating to strengthening resilience and creating the conditions to allow full participation of women in society. This submission focuses on the Sahel Region of West Africa where the security situation is rapidly deteriorating.


WFP UK recommends that the British Government invests more heavily in community level resilience building in the Sahel, as part of its strategy to increase UK soft power in the region. This is even more urgent given the COVID-19 pandemic.


  1. The dramatic increase in violent conflict in the core Sahel countries (Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger) is leading to massive displacement and pressure on already vulnerable host populations. This spike in violence coincides with the UK Government’s growing investment in the region including a peacekeeping presence in Mali. These efforts must be complemented by community level, resilience building action implemented at scale.


  1. The Sahel is a tough place. It is affected by recurrent climatic shocks, chronic poverty, food insecurity, high population growth and land degradation. As COVID-19 takes hold in the Sahel, it will have a devastating impact on already highly vulnerable communities with weak health systems. We argue that humanitarian response alone, while saving lives, cannot address the root causes of Sahel’s worsening crisis. Approaches that go beyond aid, such as resilience-building interventions at the community level are also crucial as they contribute to addressing the drivers of social instability. They help build social cohesion and contribute to reducing inter-communal violence. By supporting and developing livelihoods, resilience building programmes help to create self-reliant communities who are less likely to migrate in search of better lives. These actions will help communities better face the challenges that are coming with COVID-19.


  1. The UN General Assembly resolution on COVID-19 was adopted on April 2nd, recognising the unprecedented effects of the coronavirus and calls for intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat the COVID-19 disease. The UN Secretary General has called for a global ceasefire asking all countries with influence on parties waging war to do everything possible for ceasefire and put shared battle against COVID-19. 70 countries have responded but there is a difference between expression of acceptance of the appeal and actions on the ground, given difficulties in implementing the ceasefire.


  1. See below some observations from WFP’s Security Analyst, Bantchev, who works in the Sahel, on what the deteriorating security situation means for the most vulnerable people on the ground.


  1.                                                                                                                                                                          ‘No day without news of an attack’ : A proliferation of non-state armed groups, counter-insurgency actions by state forces and international partners, and the creation of armed self-defence groups at village level, notably in central Mali and Burkina Faso, have created a fireball of conflict that is engulfing most of the Sahel region. Violence has its epicentre in the so-called tri-border area between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, and is spreading fast. Existing ethnic tensions have been exacerbated by rising insecurity.


“Basically, not one day goes by without a report of an attack on a security post,” says Bantchev. “The anatomy of the attacks has evolved. Before, it used to be a few men attacking an isolated army or gendarmerie post and then retreating. In the past months, however, we have seen highly coordinated attacks that have taken a heavy toll on the security forces. The last major attack on the Mali-Niger border in January alone left at least 89 Nigerien soldiers dead.”


According to first-hand accounts, in a typical attack groups would storm a military base from different angles, with columns of motorbikes and pickup trucks transporting hundreds of armed people. Armed groups started using car bombs to breach the entrance of a military base. This creates chaos and allows armed men to enter the premises. Groups are also imposing taxation on villagers.


  1. ‘Civilians are increasingly targeted’: In all three countries, security forces were until recently the primary target of attacks. However, as the conflict is evolving including with the involvement of local militias and inter-communal violence deliberately aimed at specific ethnicities and groups, the number of civilian victims is increasing dramatically.


“Civilians were initially ‘collateral damage’ - a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, during an attack on security forces or a counter-insurgency operation,” says the analyst. “But increasingly we see civilians being targeted, intimidated, harassed or killed, by actors who accuse them of siding with the opposite side.”


In Burkina Faso, there have been killings aimed at religious communities, with attacks on churches but also on clerics who are deemed insufficiently radical. Armed groups also target representatives of the state as well as local chiefs. This mostly happens because armed groups want to stir tensions between communities, furthering their agenda of destabilising to project the image of a weak government, unable to provide security.


As civilians come increasingly under attack, they are forced to flee and depend on humanitarian assistance where available - 950,000 people have been uprooted by violence so far in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.


Abductions are also on the rise. While some have targeted westerners, it is mainly locals who are kidnapped for ransom or as a form of intimidation. The abductions of many local village chiefs in Western Niger are believed to be a way of generating fear and preventing the population from protesting or seeking help against armed groups - people have either been released once a ransom is paid or killed.


  1. ‘They don’t even trust their neighbours any longer’: Insecurity has quickly translated into everyday fear. People live in constant fear that an armed group might attack their village and kill their children. Rumours about potential, actual or fake attacks in distant communities spread like wildfire.


“People don’t know who to trust. They don’t know who to believe,” Bantchev says. “People who were on good terms with their neighbours are now scared and pointing the finger at each other. This cycle of hate that has been spreading is probably one of the most dangerous features of the tragedy unfolding in the Sahel.”


  1. ‘Villages are emptying out’: Villages in areas hit by violence are emptying. More than 950,000 people are now internally displaced within Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. They have left their fields and now depend either on the help of host communities, who themselves are deprived, or on the government and humanitarian assistance, where it is available. Teachers have been repeatedly intimidated and threatened, forcing many to flee while schools have closed. In Burkina Faso, 2,000 schools have been closed, disrupting the education of more than 300,000 children.


  1.                     ‘A terrible fate also for those who do not flee’: People who stay behind, often the most vulnerable such as the elderly or families with young children, face a difficult situation. Poor access for humanitarian organisations means they are often cut off from help. They are subjected to taxation and extortion at the hands of armed groups and militias. During counter-insurgency operations, they are often suspected of consorting with the armed groups.


Security measures such as the ban on the use of motorbikes in parts of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are making life even harder for people. “Motorcycles are used by armed groups, but they are also the main means of transportation for villagers to reach markets, farms, hospitals,” adds Bantchev.


Beyond these everyday problems, the danger of witnessing violence while growing up raises serious concerns for younger generations in the Sahel. Bantchev warns: “A young boy or girl for whom violence has become a normal part of life risks believing that his or her fate can only be determined through violent means.”


  1.                     See below a brief description of good practices in community level resilience building which are coordinated by WFP to help strengthen social cohesion at the community level. With over 20 years of resilience building experience in the region, WFP’s interventions are constantly monitored and strengthened drawing on lessons learned.


  1.                     The G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) are home to 80 million people and a very young population that is expected to double within two decades. This puts a strain on existing natural resources, basic services and safety nets. At the same time, this presents an opportunity to make the most of the drive of a young population looking for a better future.


  1.                     WFP’s resilience programme in the Sahel harnesses this potential by working with the governments of the Sahel to bring children back to school, invest in the health and nutrition of people, make degraded land productive again and create jobs for the youth. By assisting 2 million people, the aim is to:


-          reduce unsafe migration in at least 70% of the communities

-          create between 250,000 and 500,000 jobs across the region

-          restore 0.5 million hectares of degraded land

-          produce an extra 500,000 to 1 million tons of cereals, fresh vegetables, and fruits


  1.                     WFP does not work alone. The resilience programme is spearheaded by national governments and WFP works with other UN agencies, NGOs, the World Bank, the G5 Sahel Permanent Secretariat and universities in the Sahel amongst others. Empowerment of vulnerable groups, including women and youth is key.


  1.                     Read about concrete examples and good practices in the materials below



  1.                     ARC Replica, a disaster risk financing initiative, facilitates the efforts highlighted above. Since 2018, WFP has been implementing the ARC Replica in Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Mali and Mauritania. WFP purchases drought risk insurance to cover vulnerable people in these countries. If a drought occurs and the policy is triggered, a pay-out is made to WFP to implement an early response, months in advance of traditional drought response. These activities support the resilience of vulnerable people and reduce the adoption of negative coping strategies. 


  1.                     The global COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of disaster risk financing programmes like ARC Replica, which seek to proactively manage risks. ARC Replica can help improve a country’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak in their country, as an ARC Replica pay-out will free up budgetary resources that would have otherwise needed to be split between food security and health responses.


Received 6 April 2020