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     Home > Culture & Society  >  2013-05-24 15:17:43
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Africa Day: Spotlight on the Sahel

(Vatican Radio) Each year, Africa Day provides an opportunity to acknowledge the achievements of the peoples and governments of Africa.

Celebrated on May 25, Africa Day marks the founding in 1963 of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), presently recognized as the African Union (AU).

The Union, comprised of 53 member states, has brought together the continent of Africa to collectively address the challenges it has faced, such as armed conflict, climate change, and poverty.

The observance also reaffirms the support of the United Nations to African nations for their efforts to build a better future.

It’s a terrific occasion to shine the light on all things African, but that of course, is an impossible feat. In fact, quoting from veteran journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book “The Shadow of the Sun” in which he speaks of his travels and life in the African Continent: “The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say “Africa”. In reality, except as a geographical appellation. Africa does not exist”.

So, let’s say it’s an occasion to shine the light on – at least – an aspect, an issue or a geographical area. One African area which is hardly ever in the limelight is the Sahel, the semiarid region South of the Sahara Desert.

It stretches between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea covering part of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea.

Over-farming, over-grazing, and over-population of marginal lands and natural soil erosion have caused serious desertification of the region. Since the 1960s it has been afflicted by prolonged periods of extensive drought.

Humanitarian emergencies in Sahel due to climatic events and to political unrest have been so serious in recent years that the British government has a Special Envoy to the area as part of a Commonwealth programme to safeguard and promote stability, security and development in the region.
Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni spoke to the UK Special Envoy to the Sahel, the Right Honorable Stephen O’ Brien MP, about his mission and about the current situation…

Listen to the interview… RealAudioMP3

The Rt. Hon. Stephen O’Brien explains that the Sahel is a large region of extremely marginal land, just South of the Sahara Desert. It effectively encompasses about 9 countries and about 100 million people. He says that about between 10 and 20 million of them every year are under extremely severe food crisis and shortage. He says that “the number of cases of severe and moderate malnutrition is “eye-wateringly” terrifying”. The people often go from crisis to crisis. And O’Brien points out: “it’s not just water shortage of the lack of grazing land for their animals. It’s the huge population explosion in these countries in areas of land which are increasingly becoming desertified, both due to the over-exploitation and to some climate change effect”. This is also in area – he says – to which the international community pays very little attention. An area in which there have been some terrible conflicts “as well as some extremely big governance challenges which have led to many people being marginalized and excluded”.

O’Brien points out that the Sahel is generally neglected “even when taking into account the recent threat to the region’s stability in Northern Mali which saw the intervention of the French, in particular, but also of the international community which responded to the Malian Transitional Government and Army’s request to support them in repelling the terrorist attacks and the attempt to take over the country”. Whilst the military intervention has - at this time - been successful, O’Brien concludes, “the big challenge, the much bigger context to recognize – is development support”. That, he explains, is both stabilization but also resilience, which has to do with access to food, to water, to services. And what is important, he continues, is also “just feeling engaged. So many people feel marginalized from their nation’s affairs”, so it is essential to give them a sense of shared ownership and engagement with their own country.

O’Brien says that at a moment in which there is greater international focus, “there are grounds for much greater confidence that we can find a strategic way forward that is going to help the people of this area, not just be under such enormous pressure for nourishment, but to build a much more stable area with greater capacity and trust in their governments” That, he says, is what will give them greater resilience, and over time the chance to build their economies which is the best way to tackle poverty.

O’Brien says that any amount of donor money, of mobilization, of grant aid, however huge and important it may be at the time, “there is no better antidote to poverty than economic growth and giving people the chance to grow economically through private sector development rather than the sort-of “hand-out culture” of the past”.

O’Brien observes that the Sahel area, just as many others in developing countries, receives press coverage and attention when something terrible happens – like the recent political upheaval in Mali – but in fact it should not be neglected.

And this – he says – “is part of my job as well as being a signal from the British Prime Minister that, in an area where we haven’t necessarily had a lot of interest or focus, the fact that he has chosen to appoint his own special envoy to an area where it straddles so many of the traditional boundaries gives us the opportunity to bring it together in a strategic way that makes it possible to look at the region as a whole, to identify the sources of instability and vulnerability for people and their governing classes, and to try and find the methods by which the international community can be most supportive in helping stability”. Therefore it’s not just a matter of strengthening security for all the people in the area, but also giving them economic opportunities as well as their protection in health and education.


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