Where is the Sahel headed?

Interview with Gilles Yabi of Think Tank Wathi

©United Nations Chad

Alain Boinet: Hello Gilles, could you introduce yourself and the Wathi Think Tank of which you are the founder?

Gilles Yabi: Hello and thank you for the invitation. I run Wathi, a West African citizen Think Tank, which provides part of the African continent (the 15 countries of the Economic Community of West African States – ECOWAS – and the neighboring countries that link it to the other regions of the continent) with a platform for collective reflection on the challenges of the present and the future.

Wathi was born of the conviction that all societies need a critical mass of men and women who, beyond their own areas of expertise and activity, are interested in issues of general interest. Since its creation in 2014 (the website was opened to the public in September 2015), Wathi has been a rather atypical think tank, due to its civic commitment and the fact that it does not specialize in any particular theme or themes, on economic, security, educational, health or political issues for example. We believe that our societies need to be informed about all these issues at the same time. They are all linked, and the future of our region will depend on both the commitment and the level of knowledge embedded in each and every one of us. This is Wathi’s mission.

Where did the idea for Wathi come from? The main motivation is to make a specific and useful contribution to all the efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for improving collective well-being in my part of the world. When you’re from the African continent and move to another part of the world to study, you quickly come up against a series of questions about how others perceive the continent, about understanding the political, geopolitical and economic dynamics that shape the world, and about the particular responsibility you have when you’re actually part of the minority that is lucky enough to be able to travel, learn and observe different regions of the world. This forces us to make a contribution beyond our own personal and professional fulfillment.

I’m an economist by training, and I worked for 7 years in two spells for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a global conflict analysis organization. I specialized in conflicts and political and security crises in West Africa. The idea for Wathi was not born out of my experience at Crisis Group, but it was strongly informed by that experience, which in particular reinforced my conviction that all regions of the African continent needed spaces for the production and dissemination of knowledge, and a platform for public debate.

Dr Gilles Yabi during a conference at the western african citizen Think Tank Wathi

Alain Boinet: In the Sahel region, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are facing a general and lasting deterioration in security. In your opinion, what are the “macro” reasons for this deterioration in three nearby countries? Could it be spreading? Do you think that what’s happening in the Sahel is the expression of a global process or a unique specific situation?

Gilles Yabi: That’s obviously a difficult question. We need to situate the security crisis in the Sahel over time, and resist the temptation to look only at recent events and focus only on the geopolitical dimensions (which are real and to which I’ll return). I believe that in situations of this type, there is always a combination of factors that explain the deterioration of the security situation. What has happened is a meeting between countries with structural fragilities rooted in their history (particularly since their creation as independent states within their current borders) and globalization in all its aspects: both as a source of opportunities and as a source of major threats. Globalization means the rapid circulation of ideas, ideologies, legal and illegal goods, including weapons, means of violence and financial resources. It is an encounter between states and societies engaged in a delicate process of construction, and external factors that have highlighted their vulnerability. This combination of external and internal factors can be seen in every country, and countries such as Mali and Niger have experienced armed rebellions and military coups d’état for decades. In the case of Mali, the first Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country began in 1963, just three years after independence. It’s important to remember that when the current crisis began in Mali in 2012, it didn’t start with groups claiming to be armed jihadists, but with the MNLA, the Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad, which instead claimed independence for northern Mali. The MNLA’s political agenda includes long-standing demands, and the movement’s elites are sometimes direct descendants of the Tuareg leaders of previous rebellions. We need to remember history, these few decades post-independence, so as not to focus solely on more recent events, which are important but only add to problems that have long been unresolved.

Alain Boinet: These crises, in these three countries and beyond, reflect a deterioration in their relationship with France. How did this come about?

Gilles Yabi: There are historical elements to this question, as well as more recent ones, which depend on the actions of the current leaders of France and these countries. We can’t ignore colonization, the conditions of decolonization and the political, military and economic influence that France maintained in most of its former colonies in West and Central Africa after their respective independence. Obviously, there are enormous variations in the relations France has maintained with the various countries in the region, but it’s clear that this is not “old history”, a colonial and post-colonial past that no longer matters and has ceased to have an impact. It’s perfectly normal for there to have been a desire to change relations with France, when it’s felt that they have remained marked by the colonial imprint and a disproportionate post-colonial influence. This is a first element that is general and linked to historical relations of domination. The second factor is specific to the Sahel countries. The deterioration of the security situation, particularly in Mali, was the gateway to a new, strong French influence in one of the countries where there was no military presence. Historically, France had wanted to maintain military positions in a country like Mali, but this had been rejected by the Malian authorities at the time. It should also be remembered that, since independence, Mali had maintained strong relations with the Soviet Union, particularly in terms of military cooperation, and had never been one of France’s close allies in the region. Starting with the Malian crisis in 2012, a request for French intervention was made by the transitional government in Mali installed after a coup d’état.

France then stepped in, initially welcomed by the Malian people. Part of the territory was in fact in the hands of rebel groups. If the security situation had improved in ten years thanks to the French military presence and the political influence that goes with it, I think we’d be in a very different situation today. France intervened militarily and exerted a very significant influence on the process that was to resolve the crisis in Mali. The initial military results were satisfactory, putting an end to the armed groups’ control of the north of the country. We remember François Hollande’s almost triumphant visit. But then security deteriorated rapidly in central Mali, and gradually in the regions bordering Burkina Faso, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire. Ten years on, the assessment of international security interventions, led by France as a major player, is not a positive one, even if there is of course a great deal of internal responsibility as well. From that point onwards, there was a turnaround in political opinion in Mali, and in the political and military players, who had themselves changed after two successive coups d’état. A radical change in the situation and in the perception of France’s role took place in Mali. This will have an impact on public opinion in Niger and Burkina Faso too, where France has deployed Operation Barkhane after Operation Serval, which was a one-off military success in Mali.

MNLA fighters in Kidal, 2013. © MINUSMA / Blagoje Grujic

Alain Boinet: In Burkina Faso today, around 40% of the territory is outside state control. Towns like Djibo and others are encircled by armed groups practicing a strategy of asphyxiation. Is France responsible for the deterioration of this situation? Recently, the ruling power has formed an alliance with Russia in a number of areas: security, culture, humanitarian aid and even nuclear power. How can we understand this reversal of alliances? What could all this lead to? With armed groups controlling 40% of the country, what is the way out of this situation?

Gilles Yabi: It’s important not to look at individual countries in isolation to understand what’s going on in the region. Burkina Faso’s main problem, at least at the start of the security deterioration, was that there were armed groups close to its territory, on the Malian side. When we analyze the deterioration of the security situation in these countries, there are factors of fragility that can be found in many Sahelian and coastal countries. This does not lead to armed violence and a humanitarian crisis if there are no other elements to explode the situation, in particular by providing significant means of violence. Proximity to irregular armed groups that can move from one national territory to another is an essential factor. It should not be forgotten that Burkina Faso is a country that has experienced a great deal of political instability and coups d’état in its history, but never armed conflict pitting one part of the population against another or against the State. The deterioration in the security situation has been very brutal, and was initially closely linked to the situation in neighboring Mali. If there had been no armed groups in Mali and no geographical expansion of these groups into Niger and Burkina Faso, I don’t think we would have seen such an expansion of armed violence. That’s not to say that internal fragility factors weren’t important in Burkina Faso and didn’t play a role. Blaise Compaoré, who had been in power for almost 30 years, was overthrown by a popular uprising in 2014, and this led to the disorganization of the defense and security sector, which had long been focused on protecting the regime rather than securing the territory and borders. Burkina Faso was disorganized, divided and in the early stages of political transition, and was easily destabilized by the push of armed groups based in Mali, with connections to local players in the north and east of Burkina Faso who had their own reasons for challenging the central state. I repeat: we must not isolate what is happening in one country from what is happening in neighbouring countries, nor must we overlook internal factors of vulnerability, in particular the feelings of political, economic, social and cultural marginalization of populations living in rural areas that have benefited little from state action for decades.

The takeover of parts of the country by armed groups took place under an elected civilian political authority, which, although it might appear to have democratic legitimacy, was unable to respond to the security situation. It was both the pretext and one of the fundamental reasons for the first coup d’état in Burkina Faso. It’s easy to see how the security situation creates political instability and, in the case of Burkina Faso, brings a military regime to power. This regime believes it is there to confront these challenges and to provide an effective security response. In the wake of the second coup d’état, the message from Captain Ibrahim Traoré’s regime is clear: the priority is the fight against terrorism, and state resources will be devoted to this as a matter of priority. The question is whether this strategy will produce results. I’m not among those who believe that these states don’t need to strengthen their armies and their security systems more generally. I do think that states need to have capabilities that provide some deterrent to irregular armed groups, whoever they may be. The fact that there has been an increase in manpower and arms purchases is not a problem in principle. The question is whether there is a strategy beyond military action against armed groups. And an offensive military approach that does not distinguish between terrorist elements and the civilian populations of the regions where the groups operate poses a serious problem, because it is neither effective nor respectful of human rights, and it creates the conditions for a lasting and profound weakening of a country like Burkina Faso. I am therefore cautious and very reserved about the choices made by the current authorities in Burkina Faso, all the more so as those who express doubts and criticisms are quickly considered traitors to their country. In Burkina Faso as elsewhere, I believe that we must not shy away from open collective reflection to find the best approaches to gradually emerge from a deep-rooted security, political, social and even moral crisis. The military response is part of this, but it cannot be “the solution”.

Kidal, july 29, 2013 – Aerial view of Kidal one day after the elections. © MINUSMA, Blagoje Grujic

Alain Boinet: As far as Mali is concerned, the current government has asked for the French Barkane force to leave, followed by the United Nations mission, which is no mean feat. It has just retaken the town of Kidal, which had been out of its control for ten years, with the help of the Russian group Wagner. Is this an isolated coup or a reversal of trend? Colonel Assimi Goïta has said “our mission is not over”, and from his point of view it’s a victory to have taken Kidal, but what happens next? Do the Algiers agreements still exist?

Gilles Yabi: Even in Mali, everyone’s wondering what the aftermath of the recapture of Kidal will be like. There have been a lot of announcements from the Malian government, which says it has thought about the aftermath. There’s talk of the deployment of police officers and state security representatives, but not only that, to encourage a return to normality for the population. For the moment, we’re still involved in military action, and it would be astonishing if there were no reaction from the armed groups, who have not been neutralized despite occasional battles with Malian forces. We’re in an area very close to the border with Algeria, and these groups know these territories well, so they could hold out for a while and come back later. This is the most likely scenario, perhaps not of a reconquest against the Malian army, but of a harassment of its positions. The question of Kidal also takes us back to the beginning of the crisis in Mali and relations with France.

This question arose very quickly during the reconquest of the three main towns: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. There was a major misunderstanding between France and the Malian authorities, because Kidal remained under the control of the armed groups, then the United Nations, but the Malian authorities were denied access to it by French decision, which was never understood by the authorities and public opinion in Mali. It is for these reasons that in the relationship with France, there are clear indications of initial misunderstandings as to the objectives of both parties. Today, Kidal is a symbolic prize for the Malian government, and raises the question of the political dimension. The Malian army’s military reinforcement, backed by Russian forces, enabled it to retake Kidal. We can criticize the use of mercenary-like foreign fighters, but we cannot criticize the fact that the Malian state wants to regain control of its entire territory. But the authorities in Bamako must show that they are concerned with bringing lasting peace to the region, while respecting all the cultural identities represented there.

Alain Boinet: After the experience of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, if we take the case of the Islamic Support Group for Muslims and the Islamic State in the Sahara, how can we understand the appeal that these groups can have for those who join them, despite the losses they have suffered? What motivates these young people to risk their lives?

Gilles Yabi: The recruitment of combatants by armed groups is an important subject, but one that is not always addressed from the perspective of people in rural areas. We often forget to ask ourselves what we would do if armed groups were to arrive one day in our village or town, making it clear that they would not hesitate to use their weapons to inflict death. When there are no state security forces in the locality concerned to protect the population by opposing the armed groups, the options are very limited. They can try to flee at their peril. Or they can stay and adapt to the new situation, bowing to the conditions imposed by the armed groups, who become the de facto authorities. Before embarking on complex analyses of the reasons why young and not-so-young people join jihadist or other armed groups, I think we need to start by imagining the concrete situation in which populations who used to live more or less peacefully from farming, herding and small-scale commercial activities find themselves, with a very limited state presence and virtually non-existent access to public services, including the provision of security. It’s all too easy to see people as accomplices of armed groups, when in fact they are forced to come to terms with the reality they face, and to deal with these groups by integrating themselves into their economic and logistical systems.

Displaced people in Burkina Faso have taken refuge in a camp in the town of Pissila in the north-east of the country. © PAM/Marwa Awad

Other factors behind the recruitment of armed groups in the Sahel have been clearly highlighted by some very interesting field studies. The Institute for Security Studies, for example, has interviewed many former fighters who have been arrested and detained in prisons in Sahelian countries. Listening to their accounts enables us to understand the diversity of reasons why these young people end up in these groups. In particular, there are protection reasons. People join armed groups not out of ideological conviction, but because they find that membership and access to weapons and training in their use are a means of protecting themselves, their families and their property, which is particularly true for herders who are victims of cattle rustling by bandits. Armed groups know how to act as protectors of marginalized communities threatened by other communities or by local representatives of the state, who are often also accused of predation. Research also confirms that the very precarious economic conditions in rural areas in these regions make young people available for recruitment by groups that offer them an occupation, a job, money, motorcycles, the possibility of having a social status, of giving meaning to their lives by being part of a group that claims to propose a radical break with the existing social and political order. In local contexts where there have been too few signs of benevolent action by central states for decades, where children who have become young adults have benefited from few or no years of education and social supervision giving them prospects of a better life than that of their parents, where populations have essentially always fended for themselves, it’s not very surprising that armed groups don’t have much trouble recruiting.

Alain Boinet: Some observers speak of the spread of these armed groups to countries in the Gulf of Guinea region. Do you think there is a real dynamic of further spread?

Gilles Yabi: The concern is legitimate. Factually, there is already a deterioration in security in the northern coastal countries of the Gulf of Guinea, which justifies this concern. A few years ago, there were no terrorist attacks in Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Ghana or Benin. Over the past 2-3 years, more so in Côte d’Ivoire, there have been attacks in northern Benin and Togo. These facts testify to an increase in the activities of these groups in these countries. Yes, this may continue. The countries concerned and international players have already realized that we need to strengthen the resilience of these countries to the expansion of attacks by armed groups. This ties in with my previous point: as soon as irregular armed groups (jihadist or otherwise) are close to a territory, there is a danger of expansion. And that’s what’s happening. However, the socio-economic and religious configuration, the relative strength of political institutions and the degree of state presence are important factors that vary from one country to another. I think that, generally speaking, the countries of the Gulf of Guinea are less exposed than those of the Sahel. This is simply due to the size of their territory. The State’s ability to monitor events on Togolese or Beninese territory is stronger than Mali’s or Niger’s ability to control or be present on their respective territories. Another important factor is economic capacity. Côte d’Ivoire has suffered terrorist attacks in Grand-Bassam, by the sea and far from the Sahel, as well as in the north of its territory, but it has been able to deploy more well-equipped and trained security forces and initiate socio-economic development programs in the country’s northern regions. All this has a bearing on the ability of the Gulf of Guinea countries to cope with the expansion of armed groups on their borders.

Alain Boinet: There’s been a succession of coups d’état in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, as well as in Chad… We’re in a period of transition. Are we going to return, as promised, to elections and democratic governance? Or are we heading for endless periods of transition, justified by the security situation?

Gilles Yabi: It will be difficult for the current military-civilian transitional governments to maintain themselves for many years without elections. There will certainly be an extension of the transition periods initially announced – we’re already in that situation. But none of the current leaders in the Sahel is declaring that there will be no elections, or proposing a complete change in the form of government and the abandonment of elections. All are talking about a new democratic constitution. In Mali, a new constitution has already been put to referendum and adopted, with democratic principles and values. In Burkina Faso, even if the current leader is more explicit in his choice to consider security as the priority well before the organization of elections, the project is also to have a new constitution. In Niger, the situation is still very uncertain, as there is as yet no transition mechanism accepted by the regional organization. The situations are different, but nowhere is there any articulate discourse questioning the choice of a democratic regime with elections. Does the end of this transition mean that we will achieve democratic civil governance? Obviously, that’s another question, but we have to remember that the conditions for coups d’état were created by political and economic governance under civilian powers.We can’t pretend that the formally democratic regimes we have in these countries are producing results that correspond to what we expect from democratic regimes.

Alain Boinet: According to statistics, in 2022 there will be 1 billion 427 million inhabitants in Africa, and 2 billion 485 million are expected in 2050. In less than 28 years, the continent will gain a billion inhabitants. If we take Niger as an example, its population will rise from 26 million to 67, Mali’s from 22 to 47, and the same increase will also be seen in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana… This is a veritable demographic revolution, the likes of which humanity has never experienced anywhere else in such proportions and over such a short period of time. It’s a colossal challenge, but are most countries in a position to prepare for the shock? More schools, more structures, more jobs are needed every year… How is the issue being addressed? Is it part of the public debate, or are immediate problems taking over?

Gilles Yabi: The demographic question is central, and increasingly present in public debate. Are today’s leaders taking the full measure of the implications of the pace of population growth and the changes it must bring about in public policies and investments? I don’t really think so. The main reason is the short-termism induced by the political system organized around elections. This is not specific to the context of African countries, but the consequences are more serious in Africa given the scale of the challenges, which call for medium- and long-term commitments and efforts. Politicians at the highest level – and their entourages – are obsessed with staying in power, and therefore with the forthcoming elections. There is no obvious political interest in focusing on demographic issues and the necessary adjustments in terms of resource allocation. As a citizens’ think tank, we’re trying to put these issues on the table to force political players and our societies as a whole to think about what needs to be done now to have concrete, noteworthy results in ten, twenty and thirty years’ time, and not just before the next election. At Wathi, we believe that we need to innovate in institutional terms, and design institutions specifically dedicated to long-term priorities alongside the traditional political institutions resulting from elections at various levels.

It’s also important to bear in mind that Africa’s demographic growth represents a historic turning point for the continent. Over the coming decades, Africa will play an increasingly important role on the world stage. And this is a positive turning point for a continent that has been dominated, marginalized and – it has to be said – particularly exploited – for two centuries. The youthfulness of the continent’s population, compared to the aging trend almost everywhere else, means that the majority of the world’s workforce growth over the next few decades will come from the continent. In fact, the African continent is set to become the main driver of value creation. We must therefore look beyond the immensity of the challenges resulting from youth and demographic growth in African countries, without losing sight of the differences within the continent itself. The characteristics of the African population are also a powerful factor of dynamism and creativity for the entire planet. Of course, we must not overlook the effects of climate change and all the threats facing the African continent. We should be able to avoid any simplistic vision that would see African demographics either as a threat of major catastrophe for the continent and the planet, or as a guarantee of a radiant future for African populations.

Alain Boinet: Your comments echo those of Jean-Michel Sévérino, former Director of the Agence Française de Développement. In a recent interview, he points out that population growth is an undeniable growth factor in the long term, but a problem in the short term, especially in the post-Covid context, with the impact of the war in Ukraine and the financial shock of rising interest rates. He says that Africa’s growth depends on the creation of new businesses, citing examples such as Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, which have growth rates of 7 to 8%. That’s what’s needed, he says. In fact, he has set up a company to invest in and support SMEs in Africa, believing that this is a major factor in the solution to many of the problems we discussed earlier. What do you think about this?

Gilles Yabi: I agree with him. I studied development economics, and during those years I had the opportunity to listen to Jean-Michel Sévérino on several occasions. He already had a nuanced and realistic vision of African trajectories, quite different from that of many players in the French development world. I’m also familiar with Sévérino’s work, as he went on to create the Investisseurs et Partenaires fund, which supports the growth of numerous companies on the continent. As part of the many discussions we organize at Wathi, we recently hosted the founder of Jokkolabs, one of the pioneers of social entrepreneurship, which promotes the spirit of cooperation in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, during Global Entrepreneurship Week. Business creation is a fundamental axis of economic growth in African countries, but beyond growth, it is an engine of economic, social and even political transformation.

School in Nankorola. UNICEF/UNI367892/Keita

I don’t think we only need economic growth, in the sense of what is traditionally measured in economics. Now that we are aware of the effects of intensive human economic activity on the state of the planet, our primary objective should not be to maximize short-term economic growth, but rather to improve the living conditions of current and future populations, while taking into account the preservation of our planet and showing greater respect for the fabulous nature that is the source of all our activity.

Support for business creation and development is important, but a fundamental constraint is the availability of well-trained human resources, and this brings us to the question of education and training systems. There’s a need to maintain a focus on issues that are not just short-term. At Wathi, we see education in the broadest sense of the term as a priority among priorities. We’ll be devoting a lot of discussion to it in 2024.

Alain Boinet: How would you like to conclude these projections?

Gilles Yabi: I’d like to reiterate the importance of serious, moderate, constructive public debate on the many issues of general interest, in Africa as elsewhere in the world. No one has the superior intelligence to find the most appropriate solutions and approaches in today’s complex, interconnected world. In my part of the world, West Africa in particular, we cannot afford to give in to the temptation of resignation in the face of worrying security and political developments. We must not forget that we are not alone in facing difficult situations, violence, war, poverty, rising inequality and signs of crumbling social bonds. It is perhaps from Africa that a different vision of the economy and social progress can emerge. Against a backdrop of increasing conflict and trivialized violence, it is extremely important to remain confident in the future and in our collective ability to shape it.

Alain Boinet: Thank you Gilles for a great overview, which ends on a positive note that we share!

Gilles Yabi

Founder and President of the think tank citoyen de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (WATHI) Former Director of the International Crisis Group’s West Africa Project.

Gilles Olakounlé Yabi is the founder and president of the think tank citoyen de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (WATHI). Gilles Yabi worked as Senior Political Analyst and then Director of the West Africa Office of the International Crisis Group, an international non-governmental organization dedicated to the prevention and resolution of armed conflict. He led and coordinated Crisis Group’s research, recommendations, advocacy and communications in the region, with a particular focus on Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria and Mali. Holder of a PhD in development economics from the University of Clermont-Ferrand (France), Gilles has also worked as a journalist for the weekly Jeune Afrique. Dr. Yabi is the author of several publications on African political and economic issues. He hosts the weekly column “Ça fait débat avec WATHI” on Radio France Internationale (RFI). Gilles Yabi is also a non-resident researcher with the Africa Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank based in Washington DC, USA.


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Humanitarian aid and development: what synergies for people?

Coordination Humanitaire et Développement’s (CHD) 40th anniversary Grand Débat.

On the occasion of CHD’s 40th anniversary, the big debate was held in front of a full house. Photo CHD / Besnard

This Grand Débat was held on September 21 at the Apprentis d’Auteuil association in Paris, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Coordination Humanitaire et Développement (CHD), which brings together 55 NGOs and is a member of Coordination Sud.

CHD, which brings together NGOs in the field, is particularly keen to ensure that they complement each other, especially between humanitarians and developers, which is the focus of this major debate.

Introducing the panelists:

Justine Muzik Piquemal, Regional Director, Solidarités International (SI)

Anne Panel, Director of Fert

Olivier Routeau, Director of Operations, Première Urgence Internationale (PUI)

Nathalie de Sousa Santos, Deputy Managing Director, La Chaîne de l’Espoir

Alain le Roy, keynote speaker, former ambassador, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations

Alain Boinet, moderator, Founder and former Managing Director of Solidarités International, President of the online magazine Défis Humanitaires.

Alain Boinet: As former co-chairman of the CHD, I’m delighted to be moderating this debate today, which will focus on three major issues for our action:

The challenges of access to aid for the most vulnerable populations
Humanitarian and development actions, and how they complement each other to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in different contexts
Future prospects for the humanitarian and development sectors.

I must also introduce myself, Alain Boinet, founder of Solidarités International, represented here by its Managing Director Kevin Goldberg. I was its Managing Director for 35 years, and am now President of the online magazine Défis Humanitaires. The magazine has just published a long interview with Xavier Boutin and Thierry Mauricet, co-presidents of CHD, on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary.

Let’s start with the contexts and conditions in which we operate. The first question is for PUI’s Olivier Routeau: how do the challenges of access characterize your day-to-day work in the 25 missions of Première Urgence Internationale?

Olivier Routeau: Thank you Alain for your question. In preparing this debate, we did indeed ask ourselves how we could reach the most vulnerable populations to implement our programs. One of the first questions we asked was that we were dealing with particularly complex crises. Why do we insist on calling them complex? What characterizes this complexity? Haven’t contexts always been complex? Can we describe complexity more precisely?

Three notions seem important to me:

First of all, there has been an increase in the number of crises. Looking back over my humanitarian history, I remember a time when we spoke of the “Haiti generation”, the “Darfur generation”, etc. Today, in 2023, we wouldn’t be able to pick a particular crisis to describe our generation. If only for the last six months of the year, our teams in the field were particularly mobilized for a few weeks around the earthquake in Syria, then the emergency exploded in Sudan, we passed through Gaza, there was the crisis in the Sahel this summer… I would be quite unable to define the current generation. This inability to define a crisis because of their multiplication is an undeniable factor of complexity.

The second element is the variability or changing nature of the same crisis. This may be linked to its duration, as the crisis in Afghanistan, for example, has been going on for over 40 years. It has gone through different eras, faced different challenges, and we have had to respond in different ways. Recently, we have seen the return of emergency operations, which were very different from what we were doing there a few years ago. I’m also thinking of the Congo, where we had multiple missions for one and the same country, with the challenge of constantly reinventing ourselves and closing areas to open up new ones. Contexts make it imperative to reinvent ourselves very quickly in the same country. PUI had been working in Libya for 7-8 years on conflict-related humanitarian issues, in a political crisis zone, and this week a natural disaster struck. Teams on the ground had to reinvent themselves to bring relief to the unprepared flood victims. At the time of the Libya 2023 strategy, we had never imagined that we would have to develop an emergency response for this reason. This changing nature, which prevents us from summing up a crisis by the name of the country in which it is taking place (as we too often do), seems to me to be a major factor of complexity.

The third dimension is that of the environment and ecosystems in which we operate. For a variety of reasons, including politicization (in the Sahel, for example) and compliance issues, more factors and players need to be integrated to provide an emergency response. This brings us to the all-important issue of access, which can be conditioned by logistical or security issues, but not exclusively.

Anne Panel, Olivier Routeau, Alain Le Roy, Photo CHD / Besnard

Alain Boinet: Thank you, the word complexity comes up several times in Olivier Routeau’s comments. Justine, as you are in daily contact with the teams in Mozambique, Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, how do you see this question of access?

Justine Muzik-Piquemal: I could pick up on what Olivier said, because we agree and have the same approach, SI and PUI, to accessing aid in increasingly complex areas. For example, before April 15 in Sudan, SI was running development programs in the east. We were responding to the needs of refugees in Eritrean and Ethiopian camps, but we were also working on agricultural recovery, monitoring acute malnutrition in hospitals and boosting food security. So when the coup d’état happened on April 15, nobody had foreseen it, and we ended up with a country divided in two. Today, there are two new “entrances” that involve real risks. Real internal discussions at the NGO are going all the way up to the Board of Directors concerning access. Indeed, crossing through Darfur via Chad confers no official humanitarian access, no visas and no authorization, as Darfur is not recognized as an autonomous state. For those of us from the “Syria generation”, as Olivier put it, this unfortunately reminds us of north-eastern Syria, when we were the first to enter by boat and were given a piece of paper at customs that we couldn’t lose: it was our visa. We knew that if we went that way, it would be more complicated to go through Damascus. So these were real discussions, some of us entered via North-East Syria, others via Damascus, and depending on where we entered, we couldn’t go to the other. In Darfur today, it’s the same thing: the stakes are enormous. The Darfur crisis was swept away this weekend by Libya… last Friday Olivier and I were talking about Sudan as the latest crisis, and in three days Morocco and Libya have once again brought new urgencies and concerns…

I’d like to emphasize the human aspect. We work with people on the ground, our national teams of course, who are the first victims of what is happening in their country. So the approach is enormously complex. You have to be able to stand back and work across ethnic lines (Darfur, Syria, Afghanistan). These people are on the front line of their country’s tragedy. I’m also thinking of our expatriates, who have to adapt on a daily basis to difficult and changing contexts, and constantly relearn. In today’s humanitarian and development world, it’s important to constantly ask ourselves: where do we stand? What do we want to achieve? How should we work, and with whom? How can we effectively help vulnerable populations?

Alain Boinet: Thank you Justine. Nathalie, for a healthcare NGO, how do you approach the question of access?

Nathalie de Sousa Santos: I’m going to speak on behalf of a so-called “development” NGO, although we’ll come back to that later, but I think the separatist vision of humanitarianism and development is a thing of the past. La Chaîne de l’Espoir provides training for local surgical teams in highly complex child and women’s pathologies, and also builds hospitals. Our actions are therefore often carried out in the city, in the capital. In comparison with PUI and SI, we’re faced with the opposite problem: how can we ensure that populations have access to the services and care that our NGO provides? In many countries, there are huge barriers preventing people from reaching us.

There are obviously security issues (Mali, Burkina etc…): how do you move around safely in a complex context? We have to find ways of getting people to come. There are also economic issues: in Lebanon, for example, covering transport costs often poses problems, as petrol is expensive, etc. In Afghanistan, we operate on 400 children a month free of charge, but that’s only because we cover their transport costs, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to come. Administrative barriers also exist in Lebanon and Jordan, where Syrian refugees have great difficulty moving around because of their status. In Afghanistan, for example, certain ethnic groups are more vulnerable and receive less support from the authorities in power. In terms of gender, women who come for surgery or to give birth must be accompanied by a man of legal age, which does not facilitate access to the services offered by NGOs. We also work in countries where the state is very fragile, such as Iraq, where the central power is in Baghdad, but there are contested areas with local powers in total opposition. For example, we work in the Nineveh plain, a region that has been particularly destroyed by Daesh, and where the central and local authorities are at odds on certain issues related to our action. So we have to constantly find ways of enabling people to access our services and care while overcoming these obstacles.

Nathalie de Sousa Santos, Photo CHD / Besnard

Alain Boinet: Thank you, Anne Panel, you represent an association for international cooperation in agricultural development. How does this question arise for development NGOs?

Anne Panel: Fert is indeed a development NGO, and an agricultural development NGO at that, working in a very rural context. Let me take the example of Burkina Faso, where many of us work. It was a very quiet area where we could move around easily. Fert was carrying out development activities with farmers there. Then in 2015-2016, despite rising insecurity, our organization’s board of directors wanted to continue supporting farmers. The issue and the leitmotiv here were not to put ourselves in danger and to protect everyone, as much the association’s staff as the technicians and local farmers. The technicians who went out into the field were particularly targeted, so we reversed our approach and asked the farmers to come along. Farmers had to travel a lot to come to training courses, and we still put their lives in danger, as there are more road accidents involving farmers on motorcycles than before. But it was the most effective way of continuing to work with them. We have continued to innovate, in particular with digital technology for agricultural development, using WhatsApp for training.

A new difficulty has recently arisen. The coup d’état in Niger led to the suspension of French official development assistance to Niger and Burkina Faso. It may not seem like much, but the consequences are the same: just when Fert wanted to adapt to these territories and these new challenges, the means provided by public funds are being withdrawn. Once again, the NGO has to show adaptability and turn to private funds to be able to continue its development actions. It’s new for a development NGO like Fert, which operates in “quiet” countries, to have to adapt so much. We also saw other players like PUI arrive in the areas where we were working, which was not our usual practice. In this sense, CHD was a great help, as the network enabled us to communicate with our peers in the same situation, and to cooperate with humanitarian actors arriving in the area. In this way, we were able to collaborate, knowing that Fert had developed know-how and knowledge in these territories that was useful to humanitarian actors.

Alain Boinet, Justine Muzik Piquemal, Nathalie de Sousa Santos, Photo CHD / BesnardAlain Boinet: Thank you, Nathalie. Anne, we’re now going to move on to the topic of humanitarian Nexus development. How can we achieve greater complementarity between different organizations? The case of Burkina Faso is a good example, as some NGOs there have “humanitarian development Nexus” programs with budgets of 5 million euros, in conjunction with international partners. Following the coup d’état in Niger, the AFD decided to suspend funding for an ongoing program… So the Nexus, which was intended to support populations from the emergency phase through to the resumption of income-generating activities, has been weakened. The serious deterioration in the situation, and the actions of armed groups intent on overthrowing the government, are making the population’s living conditions dangerously fragile. The complexity of the situation means that we must always fight for access, with risks not only in the field in terms of the safety of our teams, but also in terms of the possible withdrawal of funding.

In this type of context, how can we build complementarity between humanitarian aid and development, and what links can we forge with local populations and local players (local NGOs-CSOs, public services, businesses) in the field?

Justine Muzik-Piquemal: First of all, I come from the LLRD generation (emergency-rehabilitation-development link), which predates the humanitarian-development Nexus. In the case of SI, we always arrive in a country at a time of imminent or ongoing shock, in an emergency situation. We don’t arrive with a view to working in emergency situations over the long term; we’re perhaps more emergency-oriented than other NGOs. We believe that the long-term response must be thought out from the outset. So the term Nexus is not often used, because the NGO makes the link as soon as we arrive. In fact, we’ve been in Afghanistan for almost 40 years… since our creation. We’ve been in the DRC for 22 years, and when we arrived in this crisis, we stayed. Sometimes, the crisis persists, gets bogged down and can become a long-lasting crisis with development issues, particularly in IDP or refugee camps. After 2 or 3 years, you don’t move people who have only just resettled. The term Nexus serves us more in terms of marketing to donors than in our day-to-day work. When we respond to Ebola with PUI in the DRC, if SI intervenes to rebuild a water network, as we did 3 years ago, we are designing infrastructures that will last much longer than 6 months beyond the emergency. Wherever possible, SI implements sustainable activities, which can sometimes be more akin to development than emergency. For example, a water network was built for the Ebola crisis, using materials and water capacities adapted to be sustainable, with the support of the DRC water authority. Once the crisis is over, the networks remain operational. This is also the case in Sudan, where our emergency teams are distributing buckets and soap for the time being, but are already negotiating to send seeds to avoid a level 5 famine, which could still happen, but we are already working with farmers and the armed forces to ask them not to destroy our installations again, because people need them.

As for working with civil society, we don’t enter a country without telling anyone, so we obviously work with them. ECHO has just issued a new guideline telling us to work with local NGOs, and the Americans are recommending the same thing… Honestly, we’ve been working with local NGOs since our creation. In Afghanistan, we worked with local NGOs and governments, whether Taliban or not. I reiterate the importance of working with local NGOs and authorities, because they are the ones who express the needs – we don’t impose our idea of what the needs are – and they are the ones who provide us with access.

We are obliged to work with local NGOs, but in terms of pure emergency, to be very honest, when I returned to Darfur in mid-June, we were two French women from SI who went in. We talked to our colleagues from the local NGOs we’d been working with before to tell them we were coming in, and they told us to go in without them first, before they committed to coming in with us or not later on. This is perfectly normal, as the local teams are direct victims who fear the armed groups in their area. So, for the pure emergency, it’s sometimes complicated to leave with local NGOs and work directly with them, but they need to be involved quickly afterwards. Emergency response is more often provided by international NGOs or local NGOs who are not direct victims. Of course, we work very quickly with farmers’ groups, hospitals, community groups, and so on. Of course, we work very quickly with farmers’ groups, hospitals, fishing groups (in Mozambique, for example)… The idea is always to have a global vision and not to help one person at the expense of others.

I’m part of the generation that thinks the United Nations should stop coming up with new terms every three years: LLRD, Nexus, the term will certainly change again soon… we’re already talking about the “continuum”. Above all, it’s important to keep thinking about humanitarian action and its implementation: what will it look like in 10 years’ time? 15 years’ time? 30 years’ time? The principle of neutrality of international NGOs already requires them to work with all players, so we’re bound to work with the people in front of us, whether they’re imans, priests, evangelists… we’re going to listen to them and work with everyone.

Justine Musik Piquemal, Alain Boinet, Photo CHD / Besnard

Alain Boinet: Thank you Justine. Olivier, echoing Justine’s words, what is your experience and your mode of action?

Olivier Routeau: The question of the humanitarian continuum towards development is also present at PUI, but I would also like to talk about the fact that we sometimes have to think about the reverse Nexus. I think of areas that, as Anne mentioned, were very calm and in which it is sometimes necessary to return to emergency logic. We spend our time doing that. For PUI the gateway to a country or an area is necessarily emergency, but you must always have a relevant approach as soon as possible. We know that the first emergency response will not last, we try to place them in more sustainable contexts. But this rapid search for sustainability is sometimes complicated by certain issues that NGOs face and that go beyond them. For example, in Afghanistan PUI would like, as it does in most territories, to register its mobile medical units in the health system and at the same time contribute to directly strengthen this system. Depending on the funders who finance us we are more or less encouraged to do fixed or mobile. The problem is that mobile structures are very relevant when fixed health structures are inaccessible, remote etc… But it is not sustainable not to register these mobile units in the system. We try to use the various available counters to offer the most consistent answer.

Second example, on the other hand, there are also places where the question of the presence of humanitarian NGOs arises. We stay in areas where it was very difficult for us to gain access. PUI is present in Gaza, an area that can be at times rather quiet. Why is there an emergency NGO in Gaza? We even develop programs that may seem extremely paradoxical, even if we are quite proud of it, on the conservation of the heritage of a site called Saint Hilarion, which allow us to do training, professional reintegration, tourism etc… What is PUI doing there? In reality, there are several logics because these territories are very complicated. These programs allow us to be in contact with young people on site and especially to be present on the ground and to intervene quickly when emergency cycles occur again (NB: and the news made us a screaming demonstration). We know that there are massive bombings every 3 years and we are then present. Our emergency units, whether medical or otherwise, can respond in a timeframe that would be impossible to sustain if we left as soon as the situation stabilized.

Olivier Routeau, Photo CHD / BesnardAlain Boinet:

Thank you, Anne with Fert you develop 22 projects in ten countries. You took the example of Burkina but there are also States in peace, calmer where the notion of accompaniment, project and partnership is essential, how does the question arise in this relationship with the humanitarian and especially with local actors?

Anne Panel: To make a long story short, 5 themes are to be addressed in relation to Fert’s action with local actors. The first is initiative, SMB is a strong advocate. What is initiative? I think we all share the vision that this is not the initiative of NGOs. It is that of families, populations, farmers who have a need that NGOs will meet and accompany them.

Then comes the notion of project. What project are we talking about? Projects from Fert, Chaîne de l’Espoir or PUI? We do not think about this, we think to accompany the project of these same actors who have had initiatives and who at some point are organizing to build a hospital, an agricultural cooperative or even for access to education of their children. For example in Madagascar, we have been working there for 40 years and it is the Malagasy peasants who had the training of their children as a project. There, we accompany them.

The third is the notion of partnership. Our interventions are only in partnership because it is the very essence of the support of these actors. The partnership goes further than just supporting these projects, it is the exchange of peers with trades. The IECD does this: seek professional skills to support other professional skills, like Apiflordev, beekeeping. This notion of partnership is as much in the exchange North-South, South-South as South-North and the actors enrich each other of these exchanges.

The fourth concept is that of duration, which may be specific to the original development, but which also concerns the humanitarian to hear you. Indeed, the partnership must be able to last because development takes time and is not linear. How many times have we gone back and forth because of the changing context?

Finally the last theme is the location of the help, the latest theme in fashion. I’m not sure I fully understood it but for me it’s an injunction to help people directly because it’s more efficient. But if we look at the topics discussed above, it is to ignore the partnership, the duration, the exchanges, the sharing of knowledge and the mutual enrichment allowed by the partnership. So I am not opposed to localization which may be relevant but which must be designed on a case-by-case basis. The challenges of climate change, for example, are global. It is not by locating aid in one country that the global problem that we collectively must address will be solved.

Alain Boinet: Thank you Anne. The question of location finally raises the question of partnership and complementarity between local and international actors. This is at the heart of a debate that must not exclude international solidarity and the contribution of expertise. In the countries where we operate we are not at home and the purpose of our intervention is to help these populations, whether with humanitarian or development. It is in the service of this that we are. But we have responsibilities to include in our actions. Nathalie, for a health NGO that sometimes builds hospitals, how does the situation present itself between the management in the emergency of war wounded and the situations of development, or even the construction of hospital infrastructure, how does this happenwith local contacts and the authories in place ?

Nathalie de Sousa Santos: Before talking about the construction of hospitals, I would like to talk about a subject that seems to me to be at the heart of our debates: the question of time. When I started working in international solidarity, it was said that emergency interventions had to respond to an earthquake, a war, for projects from 6 months to a year, when, on the other hand, development programs are there for at least 4 to 5 years.

You told us Justine, things have changed: emergency NGOs have been on the ground for sometimes 40 years. As NGOs working on long-term projects such as training in complex paediatric surgery and on construction projects, the idea is not to intervene in countries that were initially totally unstable. Your gateway (in an emergency) is the time of crisis; we, our natural gateway is possible when things are stable and we can develop long-term, development projects. We can thus develop pediatric surgery, cardiac surgery, it takes 5 to 10 years. We also do hospital management: we transfer hospital management skills, and we estimate that we will complete the process in 10 years. However, as contexts are highly changeable, these 10 years of stability are rarely achievable. They are dotted with health crises due to earthquakes, coups, etc. So we never have this long-term stability of the project.

When I arrived at the Chaîne de l’Espoir, I remember that before the Syrian crisis in Lebanon, we sent Iraqi heart surgeons to be trained in Lebanon. We had a partnership with the Lebanese hospitals for that, but when the Syrian crisis started, we were told that Iraqi surgeons were no longer the priority because we had to take care of the Syrians. The Lebanese had to refocus on their internal problems. Then came the Lebanese crisis, where priority had to be given to financing access to care for the Lebanese themselves, because of the increase in transport prices. We are constantly adapting in projects. What I am calling for is not to work for a development NGO, but for a health NGO, which provides the most effective response possible, within the framework of our mandate and with what we know how to do, to the needs of the day and the period. We therefore adapt to the development needs or more urgent needs.

I will also take the example of Afghanistan. We built a pediatric and maternal health hospital in 2005 and we are still managing it, after having done a lot of training and developed very high-level surgery in this hospital for fifteen years. Then came the Taliban. We wondered what to do. It should be noted that the board of directors of the hospital is managed by 4 administrators: the Chaîne de l’Espoir, the Agha Khan network, the French state and the Afghan state. So overnight, on August 15, 2021, two partners within the Board: the French State and the Afghan State, were unable to work together officially. We, on the other hand, wondered if we could work with the new local authorities. We then had a big development project for an adult hospital, larger and with other equipment, for a budget of 50 million euros: it was put on hold. Eventually, we decided to stay in Afghanistan because the local doctors and nurses asked us to stay. The French presence is very symbolic and important to protect them and allow them to work. Then we had an influx of many patients who were able to move from the provinces to Kabul (thanks to improved road safety) and arrived en masse needing surgery and care, but not enough money to pay. Instead of training in hospital management or transferring skills, it was necessary to finance operations. In this situation, we went from funding from the French Development Agency (AFD) to funding from the Crisis and Support Centre (CDCS). We have adapted to the priorities of the moment. We even opened a nutrition centre in the hospital, and when Éric Cheysson and I told the board that we needed to open this unit, it seemed incredible in this tertiary level hospital. However, the people who arrived were so malnourished that they could not even be operated on, so we absolutely needed this nutrition unit. Women and children must be turned away before they are operated on, which shows that we are constantly navigating between emergency and development.

As for collaboration with local actors, we find associations that work upstream and downstream of our field of action: on screening, prevention, patient follow-up. However in the field of training surgeons, we have not found many organizations similar to ours. In Mali, we met a Malian plastic surgeon who works on hare beaks and who created his association. The donors told us that in this case, rather than finance the Chaîne de l’Espoir, they would finance this association. Why not? This association has high-level surgical expertise, which is already very good, but no expertise in project management, funding management etc… So the Malian association ended up asking us for a technical service to help them in project management.

For me, the situation is always about urgency, development, all kinds of crises… Finally, in front of us, we have vulnerable populations and we all do, I think, the same job.

Alain Boinet, Justine Muzik Piquemal, Nathalie de Sousa Santos, Anne Panel, Photo CHD / Besnard

Alain Boinet: Thank you Nathalie, this is a nice transition to our third sequence which is that of the tracks. Do you have solutions to address these challenges? They are today’s challenges but also future challenges. Are we ready for the challenges? How?

Olivier, in a recent article you talked about the double injunctions of donors that are contradictory and quite paralyzing. How can we overcome or resolve these contradictory injunctions, some of which were expressed in this round table?

Olivier Routeau: First there is an engine: to return to the very essence of our profession. Why do we carry out these actions, in relation to our stories and our paths? Indeed, these injunctions are often «indignant», sometimes exhausting but what can lead us to exceed them is to find the meaning of the action. We are in a new form of crossing borders. There are always more barriers, whether it’s reports, contradictions, the elimination of development aid…. Humanitarian aid must always reinvent the front door to respond to a crisis, even if funding is withdrawn, even if donors put barriers… that is the very essence of our profession. We must continue to look for partnerships, to illustrate our work. Often these injunctions are coated with a so-called ethical virtue: compliance serves accountability, transparency.

However, it is not the number of reports that strengthens the proper use of funds. Our job is to return to mandates and principles: to deliver assistance to people who need it. There is a disappearance of action, one day we will not even be asked to make projects but only reports on projects. This is caricature, but having done hundreds of audits and reports I did not see many donors come to see what we had done on the ground, for many reasons obviously, such as security. So we need to talk more about it. The number of people who really work with the people who receive the shares is decreasing. We should bring back to the forefront all the actions, all the projects that we have carried out over the past 40 years on the occasion of the anniversary of SMB. That’s what will save us.

Alain Boinet: Anne, in agricultural development, how does the question of the duration of the action arise?

Anne Panel: I had a president, a farmer of course, who said that agricultural development is particularly long because a farmer who is 60 years old has only made 30 or 40 major decisions in his life. He sowed and then he harvested; a long time passes before seeing the consequences of his choices. Agricultural development takes time. We therefore need continuity and the duration to which funding (private or public) must adapt. We are lucky that AFD has changed its reference framework, at least for the CSO division because before we had only 3-year projects, now it is 3 times 3 years, which allows us to think about things longer. It must be encouraged with all partners. On the other hand, as soon as something is better, we add constraints: more complex procedures, more audits and reports without interest. How would a foreign auditor be more effective than a local auditor, who knows perfectly the «scheming» of the country? However, we are being asked to have a global auditor and not to conduct separate audits. As actors on the ground we know the realities, what works or not but we do not have a possible dialogue on these subjects, to make the action more relevant.

Alain Boinet, Nathalie de Sousa Santos, Anne Panel, Olivier Routeau, Photo CHD / BesnardAlain Boinet: Thank you for your comments on audits because we all know about this epidemic. Beyond the indisputable need for good management, the more difficult the situation on the ground, the more difficult the donors complicate the task, which ultimately goes against efficiency. It’s a real subject. Obviously, since donors fund the programs we offer, it is complicated and our report is biased. Moreover, they scrupulously apply the precautionary principle to protect themselves, the great philosophy of our time, while we take the necessary risks to rescue populations in danger. So it’s not the same job and it’s not easy to be understood either.

Nathalie, do you see ways to overcome difficulties, do better and be more efficient?

Nathalie de Sousa Santos: I do not pretend to have solutions to bring, I am like you. I think that on a daily basis, we all try to have ease of access, agility, flexibility. Indeed, donors, as you have all said, and the French authorities in particular, must hear us on these issues and support humanitarians in these initiatives.

Administrative constraints are very heavy. For example, there is a new debate on screening beneficiaries, which is not a simple issue and which we keep in mind. Yes, we in Afghanistan care for the Taliban, their children and their wives. These are not simple situations, but that is what we must do. Tomorrow, we must be able to give these people access to care. The weight of these administrative constraints must stop weighing. The humanitarian-development paradigm must also be questioned. Funding should no longer be thought of according to this distinction but be articulated in a much more flexible and agile way. For example, AFD’s funding, which is no longer possible in Afghanistan today because France does not support Afghanistan’s development, is being replaced today by that of the CDCS. However, on “comet tails” of AFD funding that we would like to use, we are told that this may be possible but according to complex procedures, through the CDCS which redistributes… There are obviously political and diplomatic reasons that escape us, but it takes us a year to negotiate the use of funding, which is already in our coffers.

However, I think that CHD should be able to help us by representing a lot of NGOs, because it has a strike force. It must work on the flexibility of donors and perhaps ask for pools of funds like the United Nations and OCHA with somewhat mixed funding for different sectors because one day we are in development, the next day in emergency, one day we work with PUI, the next with Fert, but on the same populations.

I also think, you may have the same feeling, that we are actors of NGOs and that when NGOs are attacked or in difficult situations, we are in solidarity and all in fragility. When, in Mali, French NGOs are perceived with a certain colour, when there are press campaigns in Jordan against NGOs, when in Afghanistan education NGOs are hit hard, we all want to be in solidarity, regardless of our NGO. We know that if our neighbour is targeted, we will be targeted tomorrow. Even if we work on one aspect of people’s lives, in any case, if the beneficiaries lack food, agricultural development, we do not need to care for them. So donors need to look at us together and have much more flexible funding.

Alain Boinet: Thank you Nathalie, Justine you have the privilege but also the heavy task to conclude.

Justine Muzik Piquemal: I just have to point out one major missing from the discussion today. It’s the United Nations (UN). The UN Funds play an important role with regard to the issues at stake. For example, the audits of international funding are often very heavy, for small candles, the support costs (cars, houses, salaries, etc.) are very poorly funded. The same goes for national employees, who cannot be financed. They also raise issues of humanitarian access, when we talked about the complexity of countries, In Darfur, for example, they are told not to go there with an armed escort because they have been making the same mistake for thirty years and it does not send the right message. However, UN personnel come to Darfur with armed escorts! Paid twice as much because of inflation during the war…

I am very bad on the UN because I meet fewer and fewer people who want to advance the system, but more and more who block NGOs on humanitarian access, on development. When you go to FAO for seeds and you get expired seeds, with weevils, hearing “they can eat them if they want to”… One of the topics that SMB needs to raise is that we all have problems with at least one of the UN offices. They are not at the center of the world, neither we nor they, we must return the beneficiaries to the center.

My second point is to remember that we work for human beings. People forget that in offices in Paris, in New York. I think we have to remember all the time that the people who are in front of us are human beings, regardless of whether they are Taliban, Arab, Masalit, Jewish, Muslim, non-religious… the priority is to meet their development needs or initiatives.

My last point concerns solidarity between us, the international and national NGOs we work with and transparency in the actions we take. We have the right to make mistakes, a local NGO can make as many mistakes as an international NGO. The most important thing is to support each other and be transparent with each other. All the activities that all NGOs do in the world necessarily have an impact on others. Already because we all work with human beings but also because our reputation always hangs by a thread. We are always expected at the turn so we must always be transparent, learn from our mistakes, transmit them, make points when working in a country, warn each other, as in your example, Anne, in Burkina when emergency doctors arrive. It is true that we are used to doing this ourselves, with sister NGOs like ACF. We have an appetite, it is also very human because we know them, but it is not because we do not know each other that we cannot exchange. Recently, in Mozambique, I was «scolded» by a French NGO for the protection of turtles because I was relaunching fishing locally… I had a moment of solitude on the phone then we found how to both protect turtles and allow people to fish, eat fish. It’s a real question: rather than the projects getting together, it’s better to call each other and find a solution: that’s coordination!

Alain Boinet: Thank you Justine for coming back to the purpose and the means to achieve it in the very concrete framework you presented us!

Now it is time for a synthesis. It will be proposed to us by our friend Alain le Roy. You were Ambassador of France to Madagascar and Italy, Under-Secretary-General of the UN, in charge of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Secretary-General of the European External Action Service (EEAS). I also knew Alain Le Roy in his operational duties when he was in charge of the reconstruction of Sarajevo, then in Kosovo in Pech when the goal was to save people. He represented the European Union in Macedonia when it threatened to fall into the war after that of Kosovo.   He has worked extensively with humanitarian NGOs and development issues, and is a member of the Humanitarian Challenges Expert Panel. As you can see, it is not by chance, thank you Alain for being with us.

All the speakers of the Grand Debate, Photo CHD / Besnard

Alain le Roy: Thank you Alain, I think the first thing I have to do is to defend the UN and the EU. I am speaking personally because I no longer hold a position in these institutions. The UN has thousands of flaws but it is irreplaceable and still remains the most legitimate organization. There are many places where UNHCR is very effective, in Ukraine or elsewhere. The WFP, with which many of you work, is still doing well, same for UNICEF etc… For my own chapel, when there is a peacekeeping operation in a state, it is often criticized as today in the DRC or elsewhere. It’s never perfect, but you also see what it looks like when it stops. When MINUSTAH stopped in Haiti, a year and a half later, the President of the Republic was assassinated and there was total chaos. Nobody goes there anymore and there are major security problems. When MINUSTAH was there, it was criticized, when it left, it became a hundred times worse. It would be the same thing in the DRC, I think, and in Darfur, the same thing, there was UNAMID, which protected a certain number of populations.

With regard to today’s remarks, a number of evidences have been mentioned: the complexity of crises, the need for more flexibility on the part of donors, I heard that message. Hats off to the work of CHD in terms of professionalization I have nothing to add on that, it’s beautiful.

It seems to me that a dimension could be further developed: it is clear that your primary role is to make the people benefit from your support, but you could also make the public authorities benefit more, whether they are French, UN, European, see public opinion through the media, your experience irreplaceable field. You are the only ones on the ground so close to the people. I see many areas where you could do even more.

You are the only ones who can access certain areas for various reasons, often political. In Afghanistan this is the case, in the Sahel: Mali, Burkina Faso these are places where the representatives of the States no longer go for political reasons. You can share your experience with governments. On the issue of shutting down a number of public funding in the Sahel, you could more show the impact that it has on people in terms of education. I often hear that people in Mali and Burkina Faso are increasingly out of school. We have to bear this in mind. Make the authorities think more about this decision to stop funding to countries that we «do not like».

On security, it is true that, on the part of the public authorities or the UN, we have had this discourse for many years, as in Darfur, which consists in offering NGOs when they go to very dangerous areas to escort them. We understand very well the refusal of NGOs to show their independence, but we must see how this can be done on a case-by-case basis.

You can also help public authorities in the field of health through your field experience. One of the great debates that I hear among donors and in France with the public authorities, is that which resides between those who defend vertical funds, Gates Foundation, global fund AIDS-tuberculosis-malaria and those, like the policy of the French government, who understand the usefulness of vertical funds, but rather want to develop basic health infrastructure. Your expertise on this would be welcome to determine what works best.

In education too, you could benefit more from what you see. We see this in Lebanon with the Syrian refugees whose enrolment rate is extremely low. We see this in Lebanon with the Syrian refugees whose enrolment rate is extremely low. We see it in the Sahel, where, as I said, the dropout rate is very important. You see the needs every day.

Alain Le Roy, Photo CHD / Besnard

Another debate on what is called substitution: there I feel that there have been many changes and that you are at the forefront of this fight. Fert here is a very good example, it is no longer «doing instead» it is making farmers more autonomous. What you are doing in Madagascar, I was talking to Denis Castaing earlier, is a very good project. By your adaptability you can no longer tell us what works or not.

On the financing aspect, the last CICID on 18 July said that we would reach the target of one billion euros in 2025 for humanitarian aid support, which is a real step forward from where we were. But as a percentage of ODA it remains very low, I discussed it with Alain Boinet, we remain at 5-7% where the European average is at 13%. On this domain you can make known the importance of the percentage increase.

Finally, we come to Coordination Sud, which is well known by the public authorities and plays an irreplaceable role. As operational NGOs on the ground, I understand that you want Coordination Sud to advocate for operational NGOs, but Coordination Sud must also do so on other aspects. She could do more general advocacy, some of you have the fear that this will be done at the expense of advocacy for operational NGOs, so we need to strengthen its resources. Do not hesitate to strengthen the means of Coordination Sud so that it has an even greater strike force.

You also talked about youth employment, which is a very important topic. Governments are also aware of that. For example, in Africa there will be 450 million young people who will enter the job market by 2050. The IMF estimates that only 250 million jobs will be filled at this time. Hence the great challenge of vocational training. Are the responses that major donors are trying to put in place, such as the Alliance for Entrepreneurship that we launched to help VSEs in Africa working? We launched this with the IFC, the World Bank’s private sector subsidiary. There is a return to government.

The European Union is not only asking for audit reports, it has also developed the Investing Business Union in Africa initiative to help young entrepreneurs in Africa, it is up to you to tell us if it works or if it does not work. Ski lifts are essential, especially through CHD. What you do is admirable, you find solutions by your adaptation, on the ground, on the management of donors, your ability to adapt is remarkable. The more you share your experiences, the more valuable it will be for the public authorities and not only for AFD but also for ECHO and others. They are not monsters that can never change. They are able to adapt even though we know that the major public donors are bound by parliaments, the Courts of Auditors etc… it’s easier for foundations like Gates to be flexible. But even these large public donors could benefit even more from the extraordinary field experience you have.

CHD Members at the 40th anniversary, Photo CHD / Besnard

Alain Boinet: Thank you Alain, you mentioned the fact that the Crisis and Support Center of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs will have in 2025 a budget of one billion euros for humanitarian aid. In 2009 it was 9 million euros! it did not happen alone. It is 15 years of continuous advocacy on the part of NGOs, towards the public authorities as well as elsewhere, that has made it possible to reach this point. We played a major role. I am thinking in particular of the Boinet-Miribel report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner.

I believe that in all the issues we have discussed together today, one of our weaknesses is the weakness of effective advocacy for results. We need to reinforce this aspect without falling into mere posture or marketing.  We must produce a plea that starts from the needs of the populations, which is convincing, but also technical and argued: we must bring solutions, proposals, to people who decide and are often in offices. They may think that what we are doing is right, but we must provide them with arguments, figures and proof. You have to push, you have to pull, you have to act. It is necessary to relay the action on the ground but not only for the financing, also on the modalities of partnership. We are honest people and we can make ourselves understood by honest people and in good faith, even if they want to protect themselves.

On your behalf, I would like to thank our four witnesses for their testimony, their reflection and their proposal. This shows a real level of experience and maturity of our organizations. I would also like to thank Alain Le Roy for his comments and recommendations.

Now we can move on to the discussion with the public.

Nicolas Petit, CEO of Bioport: Hello, I would like to talk about the intervention. We talked about accessibility, taking initiative, reinventing ourselves, but I would like to remind you of a joint initiative of some NGOs here: the humanitarian airlift, which was named Olivier Mouzay, who left us and who was executive secretary of CHD just before Alexia Tafanelli. A number of NGOs managed to convince donors and public opinion to set up an airlift when there were no planes flying. A little positive we still have some spring and I am hopeful that the humanitarian will continue to adapt and find solutions despite the turbulence. I will just draw attention to the fact that today we are a little focused on donors that we already know but we should perhaps think about multiplying donors, getting money from foundations, of Europe, the United States and make a mix of all that with which we can perhaps move certain lines.

Alain Boinet:

Bioport is a platform installed on the airport of Saint-Exupéry in Lyon, which does air logistics on behalf of humanitarian associations, by calling on people in reintegration. To continue on this very good example, when there was Covid, there was no more air travel: you could not send cargo, you could not send personnel, you could not repatriate… There are humanitarian officials who went to the Crisis and Support Centre of the Quai d’Osay and said «We need a solution, it is necessary». With the support of the CSCS we were able to convince ECHO and finance 45 flights to as many destinations with 1,000 to 1,200 people, 1,000 tonnes of basic necessities. We were waiting for PAM, a big machine that had not included us in the logistics response process… What is important to remember is that we found an alternative solution, ECHO recognized us and today there is a structure called Hulo. It is a cooperative, led by NGOs and partner of CDCS and ECHO on the implementation of humanitarian aid, complementing what WFP and the UN are doing. Because it is more flexible, faster, it is complementary and it has been made possible! So we are not only trailing behind donors and agencies, we can take initiatives and make humanitarian work better. Hulo is a great example! In addition, it is a structure that now makes group purchases in all the areas necessary to reduce costs (computers, radios, vehicles, etc.). This was created by NGOs in France and the internationalisation of the structure is gradual. We have to take that kind of initiative, as Anne said, we’re not passive people waiting for grants.

Yolaine Guérif, Executive Director of the association Partage avec les enfants du monde: I think that to find solutions the question of the involvement of national and local civil society is essential, crucial, central. It’s not just “working with” but really sharing power, resources and decisions. I think that there, humanitarians and developers we have a big job to do, a lot to learn and we must question our ways of doing as French and international NGOs on these topics. One of the solutions to face these multiple and complex crises, which are everywhere, all the time is not to stay between us, French NGOs.

Alain Boinet: Does one of the panelists want to rule on this point?

Nathalie de Sousa Santos: I am willing to testify. I remember Hurricane Mitch in Honduras in 1998. At the time Groupe URD was being created, I was working with Partage, and a local NGO based in Honduras. URD called me and said, “There are not many emergency NGOs that know Honduras, it’s not a priority area for France and its NGOs, and you have a partner there.” At the time, we had been working with a local Honduran association for some time, which itself had a network of very important partners. So the idea was that this Honduran NGO would be the interlocutor of all French emergency doctors who wanted to provide a response to Hurricane Mitch. It worked very well. Our local partner was an education partner, so he wasn’t armed on hurricane response either, but he had knowledge of the territory, language and people. It completely matched and the benefit was huge.

Alain Boinet: Thank you Nathalie.

Anne-Charlotte Dommartin, delegate from the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs: Today, several of you addressed the issue of screening. It is true that it has been a sensitive subject in recent years. I just wanted to say that the AFD Board of Directors today adopted a decision that defines new mechanisms based on a risk-based approach taking into account the principle of proportionality. This should make it possible to move forward in a way more adapted to the realities of the field, taking into account both the nature of the projects and the countries in which they are taking place. I wanted to share this element related to a problem mentioned several times to tell you that we are trying to propose another approach and another way to move forward to better take into account your ways of doing things. We will be attentive to how AFD will implement this mechanism knowing that it does so with the idea of being aligned with the CSDC procedures that many of you already know. We are trying to harmonize and have aligned procedures. We hope to make it a little easier for you.

Justine Muzik-Piquemal: Thank you very much, so I have a question because I followed this point closely. It was on CSO funds, civil society and not on MINKA operational funds, long-term funds?

Anne-Charlotte Dommartin: No, it applies to both funds. It is for the whole, it is a decision that was taken in the Board of Directors of AFD for all financing.

Alain Boinet:

Thank you for this clarification, which proves that we can progress together!

Esther Bitjorka, Human Resources Manager at AMAP Humanitaire: I have two comments. In terms of human resources, first of all, I have a personal plea to make: we should put a little more budget for the administrative. We need more leeway to support our staff who are working on the ground to help people. We are sometimes very limited to provide them with financial support. It’s a question of compensation as well and benefits, to be able to rescue, to survive. Secondly, I want to go back to the importance of local partners, we sometimes hear that they do not have the management skills of certain things, resources, they do not have the way of working that is expected in terms of project management. To really work with them, you have to involve them at every step and learn to work like them. In the end, when we leave, they have to stay with the projects and this is all the more important if we want to get out of the assistantship. I see many projects in Cameroon for example that stop and I think that millions of euros have been buried there…

Alain Boinet: Thank you for your testimony, we will have to conclude, it’s cocktail time and we will be able to continue to exchange between us.

Thank you to the panel members and Alain le Roy. I would like to conclude by saying that we are in a time of change, which will affect us all as humanitarian actors. The Germans call it Zeitenwande, which is a change of era. Ukraine illustrates it very well, not to mention the Sahel countries. The break with Russia and China is sustainable. It will last a long time, there is a potential conflict. Not to mention the BRICS which are strengthening and want to have more influence, which will change international relations. We have enormous problems in front of us, such as climate change and its consequences. We have huge problems, as Alain said earlier, of the 450 million young Africans who will need jobs, Africa will double in population in less than thirty years. We’re a lot involved in Africa. When you go from one billion 300 million to two billion 500 million by 2050…it’s 2023— how do they do it? And we, how will we do with them to accompany them in the face of a change of scale such as humanity has never known? We may be concerned that this is not always going very well. All the more reason to act. When we see the situation in Lampedusa, which is only the beginning of a movement that will grow, believe me, it will be destabilizing for many. We have a real responsibility, as actors on the ground, to anticipate what is happening to be the most effective in terms of response. Knowing that we are not alone, there are many actors who must coordinate together to collectively respond to these immense challenges.

In closing I would like to thank our friend Patrick Edel, founder of the Guild, the Agen Forum and the Agen Coordination, without whom we would not be here today. I would also like to thank, of course, Xavier Boutin and Thierry Mauricet, co-chairs of the CHD, and all of you who are here because the CHD is you! The future is you, it is us, and this debate must be able to help us all to do better in the service of vulnerable or endangered populations. Thank you Patrick, thank you all!

Nathalie De Sousa Santos 

After studying finance in business school and a few years in an audit firm in Paris, Nathalie moved to Rwanda and then to Tanzania with MSF, at the time of the 1994 genocide.

This expatriation at such a tragic time will determine his commitment to international solidarity.

Back in France, she worked for more than fifteen years in a French NGO on education issues, then joined the Chaîne de l’Espoir in 2012, an NGO active in strengthening hospital systems and access to care for children and women. Nathalie is the Deputy Director General.

In addition, she is a member of the Board of Directors of the FMIC, the French hospital in Kabul; also administrator of the Dominique Ouattara Mother-Child Hospital in Bingerville, Côte d’Ivoire; and administrator of the F3E in Paris.

Issues of child health education remain its priorities.

Justine Muzik-Piquemal

Regional Director Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique

Justine Muzik Piquemal, a lawyer in religious law, is in constant training. She began her career in negotiation for humanitarian access to the state or de facto military. She is now Regional Director at Solidarités International and currently follows RCA, DRC, Sudan and Mozambique. From one country to another, crisis after crisis, each road travelled allows it to support teams in reaching the most vulnerable people.

Read more about Justine Muzik Piquemal on Défis Humanitaire: https://defishumanitaires.com/2023/03/31/etre-responsable-geographique-en-2023/

Read more about Justine Muzik Piquemal on Solidarités International’s website: https://www.solidarites.org/fr/en-direct-du-terrain/soudan-cest-un-des-conflits-les-plus-sales-que-jai-vu-de-ma-vie/

Anne Panel

After training as an engineer at the Ecole Supérieure d’Agriculture in Angers, Anne Panel began her career in France, working for a professional agricultural organization and then a design office.

In 2001 she joined the Fert association for a two-year mission in Madagascar, then as a project manager for sub-Saharan Africa, before taking over the management of the association in 2007.

Fert is an agri-agency created in 1981 at the initiative of leaders of French agricultural professional organizations and other personalities concerned with the agri-food problems of developing countries. It has been supported for 40 years by grain organizations and is a member of the international AgriCord alliance that brings together 12 agri-agencies from 10 countries.

Anne Panel is Secretary General of Humanitarian and Development Coordination.

She is also a member, as a qualified person, of the Board of the Pole Tropics and Mediterranean of the Agro Institute.

Olivier Routeau 

After a university career in law and political science, Olivier trained in humanitarian project management at the Bioforce Institute. Graduated in 2007, he is engaged in humanitarian missions in different countries (Central African Republic, Lebanon, Congo Brazzaville, Tunisia), in particular with the NGO Triangle Génération Humanitaire, before joining the headquarters of Première Urgence Internationale in Paris in 2011. He was initially in charge of the NGO’s African missions as a Desk Manager (DRC, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, South Sudan), then headed the Emergency and Operational Development Service from 2015 to 2018, responding to some of the most acute crisis contexts of the period (Guinea, Ukraine, Balkans, Nigeria, Libya, Haiti, Bangladesh, Burundi, Niger). Since 2018, he has been the Director of Operations of the association. In parallel with these functions, he has been collaborating with the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) since 2017, as pedagogical manager of the training «Manager of International Programs».

Alain Le Roy

Alain Le Roy is Ambassador of France and Honorary Master Advisor at the Court of Auditors. He was Ambassador of France to Madagascar and Italy, as well as Under-Secretary-General of the UN, in charge of peacekeeping operations, and Secretary-General of the European External Action Service.


Alain Boinet

Alain Boinet is the president of the online journal Défis Humanitaires http://www.defishumanitaires.com and the founder of the humanitarian association Solidarités Humanitaires, of which he was executive director for 35 years. In addition, he is a member of the Humanitarian Consultation Group at the Crisis and Support Centre of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, a member of the Board of Directors of Solidarités International, the French Water Partnership (PFE), the Véolia Foundation, the Think Tank (re)sources.