Military and humanitarian climbing in the Sahel.

I recently took part in a conference on the theme “Can we still innovate in the face of crises? ». That day, at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, the amphitheatre was full and everyone was thinking about the Sahel, the Middle East and the last episode of the Afghanistan season.

The theme itself was challenging. Does this mean that we have tried everything without success and that we are still looking for the magic formula? Is the word innovation adapted to crises as if we were talking about a recipe that transforms the life of a housewife or manager?

I’ve also thought of reversing the question. Have the actors in the conflict, usually referred to as jihadists or terrorists by mixing all the causes of rebellion indiscriminately, taken the ascendancy because they would be more innovative? To ask this last question is already to answer it. Innovation is not the solution to the crisis. However, the advantage of this catchy title is that it raises questions and has allowed for a useful debate.

Let’s now put our feet in it in a friendly way. The more general theme was “Security and Development”. I have great respect for both of them as practitioners of international solidarity. However, I still find it difficult for some people to refer to the name “humanitarian” alone as if it were a taboo word when it is an inescapable necessity of international aid. It is not by erasing the word humanitarian that we will make progress, since humanitarianism is precisely a response to these crises when insecurity makes development difficult or even impossible.

The Nexus in question.

We must also talk about the “nexus”, which is one of the key words in the crises of recent years. We remember that the 1st World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016 in Istanbul made it one of its priorities. We also know that we have surreptitiously moved from the double nexus of emergency-development to the triple nexus of humanitarian-security-development or even development-security-peace or a combination of all of these.

What is it all about? For a long time, humanitarians, who are far from perfect, warned of the need to plan for the continuation of aid after the emergency and implemented it as best they could. This goes back at least 25 years to the end of the war in Bosnia. But it was not fashionable.  And emergencies are difficult, complicated and dangerous. So we waited patiently for the military solution of a peace imposed by force to rebuild the foundations and to restart development after having cleared the ground.

Unfortunately for this cautious wait-and-see approach, it has become apparent that wars today are difficult if not impossible to win, that people are at the heart of conflicts and that our grand theories and our most sophisticated tools are not producing the desired results.

Let us remember the slogan “winning hearts and minds” coupled with a “surge” of 30 to 40,000 troops of General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan and the famous “PRT” or “Provincial Reconstruction Team” made up of military and civilian experts doing humanitarian work to support the reconstruction of the state and public services for the population. What were the results?

As far as the French state is concerned, awareness has come mainly from Mali and the CAR, not to mention the DRC and Afghanistan. I still remember a conversation with Pascal Canfin, then Minister of Cooperation, who, on his return from Bamako in 2013, confided to us that development agencies were not able to disburse funds quickly, even though this was a priority. During this conference, one of the speakers from the European Commission noted that today in Bamako, “we are not able to reallocate funds in crisis situations”.

It was then that the “Nexus” was summoned to the rescue. The idea was to develop an integrated strategy involving all actors and all stages from war to peace. In other words, the logic was as follows. In times of crisis, humanitarians support public services and their representatives, humanitarians and developers reach out to each other, while at the same time the military brings security by giving politicians time to do their job. All of this becomes impossible when the famous G5 Sahel does not fulfil its mission, when the governments are not there and when, as a result, security is communitarised.

In the Sahel, the situation for the population is steadily deteriorating in all areas, from physical security to vital needs. The number of refugees in Burkina Faso has risen from 90,000 to 560,000 in 2019. United Nations agencies are sounding the alarm: 3.3 million people are in need of immediate assistance in the central Sahel and 4.8 million are threatened with food insecurity between June and August 2020. We can’t say we don’t know!

In this context of intensification, conflict expansion and confusion of roles and responsibilities, we need to affirm the fundamentals of humanitarian aid. In situations of war, humanitarian aid responds to the consequences that it generates for populations and not to the causes of the conflict.

At its core, the humanitarian objective is human security in emergency situations. To achieve this in a war zone by gaining access to populations in danger, the application of the principles of political neutrality, impartiality of relief and independence of action are key. Let us add the principles of not harming and not substituting, which we should systematically seek to deepen and improve, including through more partnerships. I can testify here that, when humanitarian projects meet the real needs of populations with their full participation, then those projects succeed and the armed groups themselves respect them.

Pending a political solution.

We have to get out of a mirage. No nexus will win peace. This does not mean that humanitarian, security and development are not essential, quite the contrary. It simply means that the solution is political and that it is the responsibility of the governance of these countries.

I would like to add that any rebellion is political and that we must stop underestimating the religious fact, ethnic realities and the diversity of agro-pastoral activities. We have to stop placing Western schemas on societies that are not Western and to which we owe respect for their identity in order to find locally adapted solutions.

Faced with a deterioration in security, decision-makers are divided by a double injunction. To leave at the risk of seeing the situation become chaotic and encourage new actors to take over, as in Libya. Or continue as before at the risk of getting bogged down and unpopular.

Experience teaches us that there is no viable solution without the support and participation of the people, both in aid programmes and in a political solution. This is all the more realistic given that the populations are generally particularly attached to security.

The decision-makers from above invented for us the nexus that could be useful to them to keep us busy and serve them. It is up to us to propose a new nexus to them, the nexus of population, good governance, security and development.

In the meantime, the mission of humanitarian workers is to be at the side of populations in danger and to adapt their action in a pragmatic way according to each situation encountered in order to improve their living conditions whatever the context.


Alain Boinet