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The Sahel region, which stretches from West to East Africa and encompasses parts of about 10 different countries from Senegal to Eritrea, is currently home to 100 million people and is poised to reach 600 million people by the end of the century.  This rapid population growth – indeed, the most rapid on Earth – only exacerbates other challenges in the region including environmental stress, severe poverty and hunger, and intensifying security issues (as exemplified by the political turmoil in Mali).  Thus, the Sahel finds itself at the intersection of the new global development agenda—where factors including population growth, environmental sustainability, and agricultural production will be increasingly prominent, and likely at odds.  But will these interrelated challenges in the poorest region in the world be enough to compel local governments, regional institutions, and international donors to design solutions that are both feasible and sustainable?

The University of California Berkeley organized a one-day international meeting of experts under the OASIS initiative: Organizing to Advance Solutions in the Sahel to discuss this issue.  The meeting combined specialists from all spectrums of sciences, and all aspects of Sahelian studies, namely climate, demography, agriculture, environment, governance, women’s rights, and role of civil society.  From this one-day meeting emerged several key themes:

  1. The effects of poverty are already substantial in the Sahel—the Guardian blog reports that as many as 18 million people (one-fifth of the population of the region) are at risk from hunger.  The effects of this poverty has had a disproportionate impact on women, with the negative consequences of early marriage, high fertility, and repeated unwanted pregnancies
  2. These development issues are unlikely to be addressed absent a real sense of urgency.  In particular, the plight of the Sahel must become visible on the global development agenda.  The FAO has been supporting a campaign to support awareness of hunger in the region, spurred by drought and high food prices, and the London Summit on Family Planning also brought about renewed interest in family planning.
  3. Rapid demographic growth is one of the most pressing challenges in the Sahel.  The total population is poised to double over the next 20 years or so, adding further pressure to an already fragile ecosystem.  However, demography is not destiny and policies and programs to trigger the decline of fertility and mitigate rapid population growth have been implemented successfully in many other parts of the world.  Such policies ought to be pursued also in the Sahel.

Nonetheless, despite a global renewal of support for family planning, expansion of contraceptive coverage has been woefully lagging in the region.  Family planning will not only bring health benefits, especially for women and children, but it will help accelerate the decline of fertility.  In turn, the latter could potentially spur economic development because the fertility decline increases the relative size of the labor force while improving dependency ratios and reducing the burden of youth on working adults (a phenomenon known as the “demographic dividend”).  Family planning, however, must be combined with other interventions such as afforestation, enhanced agricultural production, women’s empowerment, and improved governance.  Single solutions will not work, but ignoring one of these solutions will not work either.  The time to act decisively in the Sahel is today, not tomorrow.

 The author would like to thank Kate McQueston for her contributions to this blog.