Soldiers patrol in a village of Gorgadji in Burkina Faso. Photo by: REUTERS / Luc Gnago

WASHINGTON — Humanitarian and development assistance is more critical than ever in an unstable Sahel, but the deteriorating security situation is making access more challenging, according to U.S. government officials who testified at a congressional hearing on Thursday.

“The rapidly spreading instability in the Sahel threatens U.S. national security and undermines our diplomatic goals. It enables the spread of terrorism, stifles economic growth and thwarts democratic institutions,” said Whitney Baird, deputy assistant secretary for West Africa and Security Affairs at the State Department at the hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.

“We're focused on three lines of effort, greater coordination with international and regional partners, bolstering state legitimacy in the region and implementing the Algiers accord in Mali,” Baird said.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is working with partners to address three priority issues in the region, including “countering violent extremism, building citizen responsive governance, and strengthening resilience,” Cheryl Anderson, deputy assistant administrator of the USAID Africa Bureau, said at the hearing.

Humanitarian needs, especially in the Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger border region, have increased, but the presence of armed groups has sometimes meant limited humanitarian access. When Anderson was in Burkina Faso in March, there were about 100,000 people displaced by conflict, she said. That number has risen to more than 500,000 since. In those three countries, there are now more than 270,000 refugees and more than 900,000 internally displaced people, she said.

USAID provided more than $130 million in humanitarian assistance, including emergency food aid and health services, to Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger in fiscal year 2019, Anderson said.

In addition to humanitarian aid, USAID has run a Voices for Peace program, which uses radio and video programming to promote peace, good governance, and human rights. The agency has also helped local governments better manage natural resources and community conflicts, for example by working with about 900 water user associations in Burkina Faso and Niger.

“While the situation in the Sahel presents a complex set of challenges, one thing we're sure of is the situation won't get better if the United States looks the other way,” Anderson said, adding that USAID is expanding its presence in the region.

The problems in the Sahel don’t necessarily need more resources, but the various donors and international partners do need to have better focus and coordination, Baird said.

Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the Africa subcommittee who recently visited the region, pushed the officials on staffing levels, which she said seemed low when she was there.

Baird said that if she “had a magic wand” she would bump up staffing because the workload has increased, but that the department is looking for ways to assist or backfill positions, in part by sending people to the region for temporary assignments.

USAID has difficulty filling some positions in the region and it is piloting a staff incentive that would provide additional payment to people willing to go to those posts. The agency is considering other incentives, Anderson said.

There was some consensus at the hearing that there could be a benefit to more high-level visits, perhaps even joint congressional administration visits, which Anderson said would be a welcome boost to diplomacy, help advance the agenda, and be a boost to staff working in the region.

There are also discussions underway about creating a special envoy for the region, a post many European partners have, but a decision has not yet been made, Baird said.

In response to a question from Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, Baird and Anderson outlined how their agencies are incorporating women in their policies, particularly when it comes to peace and security-related programs.

In 2017, Congress passed the Women, Peace, and Security Act aimed at integrating women into conflict-prevention activities; encouraging partner governments to include women in peace processes; and promoting the safety of women and girls, among other requirements. Earlier this year the administration released its U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace and Security. 

The State Department is doing outreach at many levels to women’s groups to support community-building activities and the role of women’s groups and ensure that government policies are inclusive of women, Baird said. At USAID, women and youth are central to all planning and programming, Anderson said.

Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey and the ranking member of the subcommittee, asked a host of questions about how to mitigate conflict in the region, and pushed for details about malaria interventions, food security, nutrition, and concerns about drought.

Anderson said that there is a high disease burden in the region, and while the U.S. responds with humanitarian assistance, it must also look to help build health systems and resilience institutions. In Burkina Faso, there is an emphasis on malaria, and on helping get the country to reach epidemic control of HIV/AIDS. Its food security work is addressing drought in Mali and Niger and through Feed the Future is looking to technology to help predict future shocks and help people prepare for them, she said.

About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.