The Sahel is a demographic bomb

Demography is a human geography and the statistics are there. In Africa, in the Sahel in particular, we are witnessing a dizzying change of scale. In 1950, there were 2.5 billion human beings on earth, including 229 million in Africa. Today, there are 7.7 billion inhabitants, including 1.3 billion in Africa. In 30 years, we will be about 10 billion, including 2.5 billion in Africa in 2050.

The G5 Sahel countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad) will have 83.7 million inhabitants in 2019, of which about 50% are under 15 years old, and 196 million in 2050. There is a real urgency to draw the consequences to avoid what always happens in history in case of overpopulation according to demographer Michel Garenne: departures, wars, famines, epidemics, because “there will not be enough space and resources for everyone” he says.

The mission of Humanitarian Challenges is to alert in order to act and build responses that are equal to the risks. The governance of these countries must assume all its responsibilities, development must imperatively integrate demography, and finally, it is essential to closely involve the populations in a reduction of births in a perspective of sustainable improvement of living conditions.

Africa: one in four of the world’s population by 2050.

Share of the African population (in billions and percentage) of the world population. Charts based on United Nations projections

For a long time, Africa was presented as an underpopulated continent due to its geographical characteristics and the poor knowledge of the continent. Since the 1970s, census campaigns have been initiated to enable governments to measure future demographic challenges. Subsequently, the international conference on population in Mexico City in 1984 formalized the importance of demography and the awareness of African leaders on this subject. Cooperative efforts led to the Kilimanjaro Programme of Action, which was composed of non-binding recommendations. The objective was to provide states with a real population policy. Decades have passed and African demography, regularly at the center of discussions at international summits, is now presented as the time bomb of the 21st century.

Nigeria is by far the most eloquent example: by 2050 the country will have 401 million inhabitants, the third most populous country in the world behind India and China. Underlying this exponential demography are the many development challenges. The second characteristic of Niger’s demography is the youthfulness of its population: 50% were under 15 years old in 2017. This is seen both as an economic strength and as a danger, given the structural deficit in public services and the security problems.

It is simplistic to draw a single picture for the entire continent, but it has been shown that Africa has challenged the certainties and patterns of demographic change. It is the continent that has nuanced the alleged universality of the demographic transition model created from the European phenomenon in the 19th century. Until now, the reference model was the following: a significant drop in mortality thanks to an improvement in living conditions, health and education, should mechanically lead to a significant drop in birth rates. Demographers also estimated that it would take about 60 years to achieve fertility control. The sociological logic specific to certain African regions nuances the traditional pattern. In the end, the decline in fertility rates is not just a mechanical process and is not as proportional to the decline in mortality as demographers had predicted. The United Nations has had to revise its forecasts upwards by slowing the decline in the fertility rate per woman.

Demographic trends in the Sahel region

Charts based on United Nations projections.

The first prerequisite for studying the demographics of the Sahel is the definition of the region itself. Geographically, the Sahel extends across the continent, bordered to the north by the Sahara. The countries it covers are Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea. The Sahel is not limited to national borders: it is an area that tends to expand in this period of climate change and desertification. Its future is no longer limited to the six countries mentioned: the investment plan on global warming for the Sahel countries (2019-2030) includes 17 countries, the Inter-State Committee to combat drought in the Sahel includes 13 states. Conversely, the G5 Sahel is referred to only as Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. From a regional and cross-border perspective, the G5 Sahel, created in 2014, has a mandate to restore a security climate conducive to the development of the region. Common characteristics link these countries to each other through climatic (arid or semi-arid), meteorological (alternating rainy and dry seasons), geographic (landlocked countries and low population density with an average of 15 inhabitants/km2), social (transhumance and cross-border ethnicities) and economic (agropastoral system) parameters.

On the scale of the continent, the demographic weight of the Sahel remains relatively stable. The Sahelian population will represent 8.4% of the African population in 2020, 9.6% in 2050 and 11% by 2100. With different volumes, each country follows a similar pattern, with the exception of Niger. In 2019, this country has 21.48 million Nigeriens, the highest growth rate in Africa (3.8% according to the World Bank) and the highest fertility rate with an average of 6.5 children per woman according to UN data.

Charts based on United Nations projections.

Beyond the demographic facts: challenges for the G5 Sahel countries.

In Mali, since 2012, the security crisis has continued to intensify and spread throughout the region. The tri-border area, at the intersection of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, appears to be the epicenter of the crisis. In this asymmetric war, the stalemate in the fighting since August 2014 against the myriad of jihadist groups1 reflects the difficulties of the G5 Sahel. But what links can we really establish between this security deterioration and the demographic explosion? In this crisis, the demographic parameter should be seen as an amplifying element that affects both the roots of the conflict and its consequences. The G5 Sahel countries had structural and security fragilities that existed prior to the demographic explosion; the phenomenon only reinforces the disruptions and dysfunctions of the system.

Summary of the impact of the demographic factor on the various sectors.

**The demographic dividend corresponds to the situation following the rapid decline in high fertility. The proportion of people of working age is favorable: there are few elderly people and few dependent children. This was a period of strong economic stimulation that benefited emerging Asia enormously. In this case, the validity of the phenomenon is questioned. Fertility decline is too slow and employment prospects are poor.

And the humanitarian needs?

The security context is deteriorating, climate change is accelerating, the territorial footprint of states is small and demographic pressure is intensifying: the equation makes humanitarian needs numerous and growing. How can we guarantee access to water and food security for the coming decades in such a fragile context? The question is posed for the 10 billion human beings on earth in 2050, but the answers are even more uncertain in the Sahel. The latest OCHA figures published this November give an overview of humanitarian needs:

  • Displaced persons: victims of violence, there are 4.1 million displaced persons in the Sahel in 2019 with a tenfold increase in just one year for the tri-border area, or 860,000 people including 486,000 Burkinabes. According to USAID, the regions hosting the most refugees are the Sahelian part of Burkina Faso, the Mopti region in Mali and Tillabéri in Niger. The phenomenon of displacement is twofold: temporary or permanent, internal or external, it can be triggered by security instability and by environmental deterioration (water stress and flooding). Climatic migrations are announced as the “migratory bomb” for the next decades.
  • Urgency: The loss of livelihoods as a result of displacement is exacerbating tensions and increasing food needs. 6.1 million people need emergency assistance, including 3.9 million in Mali, 1.5 million in Burkina Faso and 700,000 in western Niger (OCHA). According to the WFP, 2.4 million people need food aid in the central Sahel, including 1.8 million people affected and 400,000 children suffering from malnutrition in the tri-border region. In a region where water is also a source of tension, the NGO Solidarités International is taking action. Through the installation of Improved Pastoral Hydraulic Systems, the distribution of drinking water kits and awareness campaigns, the NGO is mobilizing to provide better access to water, hygiene and sanitation in Mali (Kidal), and in northern Burkina Faso.
  • Needs: To meet the urgent needs of 4.7 million people in the Tri-border area, $717 million is needed. According to the latest figures, less than half of the funds have been received. USAID in its July 2019 report warns of the difficulties in accessing the populations with the greatest needs, which prevents the estimation of needs and the distribution of aid.

The humanitarian situation is alarming as the security situation continues to deteriorate and the population continues to grow. The demographic explosion is underway and if the phenomenon cannot be significantly reduced in the short and medium term, the acceleration of the demographic transition can be made possible through immense development efforts while involving the population in these policies. States seem to be gradually taking the necessary measures to meet the demographic challenge. The most concerned, Niger, has adopted a National Population Policy since August 2019. Governments, NGOs and institutions will have to work together to meet the needs and challenges of this period of demographic transition.

Alicia Piveteau


1 – For a better understanding of the implementation of GATs, the research center “European Council on Foreign Relations” proposes a mapping of the actors:

2 – United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013). Update for the MDG Database: Contraceptive Prevalence & Unmet Need for Family Planning.


For more information:

  • DUMONT Gérard-François, Géographie des populations, Paris, Armand Colin, 2018.
  • GARENNE Michel, « Le Sahel est une bombe démographique », Le Monde, 2017.
  • GUENGANT Jean-Pierre, F. May John, “Les défis démographiques des pays Sahéliens”, Etudes, 2014.
  • PISON Gilles, Atlas de la population mondiale, Paris, Autrement, 2019.
  • SMITH Stephen, La Ruée vers l’Europe. La jeune Afrique en route pour le Vieux Continent, Grasset, Paris, 2018.
  • Rapport d’étude n°6, Prospective Sahel, Observatoire Défense et Climat, 2018.
  • Alternatives Humanitaires, “Démographie : des chiffres et des maux”, n°12, 2019.

The resilience of populations and the importance of (very localised) governance in the Sahel.

The case of center and northern Mali.

Mali is today the epicentre of the great Sahelian crisis around which regional governments, the international community, donors, diplomats, researchers, journalists and humanitarian actors are mobilising. The multi-dimensional crisis, which mainly affects the most vulnerable and most isolated Malian populations, is continuously fuelling the root causes of a withdrawal of the State and an almost total abandonment of the population. These populations are thus left to informal activities and humanitarian assistance as the only “lifeline” in a context where insecurity and criminality are also undermining existing social equilibrium.

Between displacement and resettlement, food and nutrition crises, the closure of schools and health centres, and the flight from official authorities due to the lack of security, the populations of the north of the country, and later those of the centre, have sometimes found themselves in autarky, reinventing their modes of local governance, either under pressure from armed groups, or as a result of a form of freedom regained in the absence of any normative presence of the state.

Such a configuration highlights the tremendous resilience capacity of communities, which it is important to better understand, particularly by clearly identifying the limits at which external assistance becomes vital, while taking into account the continuous changes and developments to which these communities are exposed.

The term “resilience” is used generically according to its most common definition, which refers to “the return to normal of a territory or society following a shock or disruption” (Dauphiné and Provitolo, 2003; Paquet, 1999). The definition used here is that of Groupe URD, which refers more precisely to “the capacity of people to anticipate, adapt to and recover from crises”.

The KEY programme (“being upright” in the Songhaï language) is part of several strategies and visions, including Mali’s priorities established within the framework of the Global Alliance for Resilience Initiative (AGIR) in the Sahel and West Africa. The latter aims to strengthen the resilience of Sahelian and West African countries in the face of recurrent food and nutrition crises, based on the premise that these crises can and must be eradicated.

While emergency responses remain a necessity, the premise of these strategies is that a focus on “the root causes of crises will eventually lead to a reduction in their number and cost”. AGIR defines resilience as “the capacity of vulnerable households, families and systems to cope with uncertainty and the risk of shocks, to withstand and respond effectively to those shocks, and to recover and adapt to them in a sustainable manner”.

©Hamada (Wandey) AG AHMED

Population resilience: a concept that must become a human reality

One of the primary indicators of success is determined by the number of vulnerable people benefiting from access to basic social services (health, education, water, sanitation, hygiene) and by the improvement of their capacity to increase their income.

Sahelian countries and donors have adopted the following principle: food and nutritional security concern induce the necessity to no longer dissociate humanitarian aid in times of crisis from the more structural action aimed at combating endemic poverty and undernutrition.

From a practical point of view, the European Union (through the ETF – Emergency Trust Fund – and the EDF – European Development Fund) has provided resources to the tune of €40 million in the form of funding for the KEY programme with the general objective of contributing to the resilience of vulnerable populations faced with food and nutrition insecurity in the six regions of northern and central Mali by working on 4 pillars combined:

  • Nutritional care focused on children under 5 years old at the community level;
  • Cash transfers to the most vulnerable in connection with the lean season;
  • Reinforcement of household means of economic production;
  • And, finally, governance via support to local authorities (mayors, prefects, technical services and regional bodies) in a context where their presence is so threatened by men-at-arms that many have no choice but to take refuge in the large urban centres.

It is in this context that Groupe URD was asked to support the actors as a “third party” responsible for learning, coordination support and agility or “adaptive management” of the programme as a whole. Contextual monitoring and the analysis of the programme through capitalisation studies and iterative evaluation processes opened up new perspectives for reflection in order to “go further” in improving the relevance of the interventions. Among these, the first is the observation that the resilience of an individual or a community, hitherto measured economically, cannot be dissociated from local governance, participation factors and the quality of social-political relations within and between communities.

If we retain that good resilience is the capacity to withstand a shock by using resources to reach – or even surpass – the previous situation, it should also be noted that part of the population was already subject before the 2012 crisis to repetitive climatic shocks that the security situation simply increased in intensity and recurrence by seriously affecting the capacity of households to consume.

For some authors, resilience is moreover measured by the index of consumption and production of material goods. However, in a context of human and community confrontations, as in northern and central Mali, it also seems to be determined by a factor that is rarely measured: the quality of inter- and intra-community relations and, consequently, the population’s capacity to manage tensions and create a form of stability.

These relations are nevertheless measurable, notably on the basis of the number of incidents between individuals, their nature, the depth of their direct or indirect causes, and also the existence and effectiveness of mechanisms or moral entities legitimately recognised and accepted as such to serve as a lever for mediation and conflict prevention. This should be a direct and concrete link with the “new operational approach” which recommends consolidating the links between humanitarian, development, diplomatic, military and security initiatives, grouped under the expression “triple nexus” in which the Sahel countries are engaged.

©Hamada (Wandey) AG AHMED

Societal decomposition-recomposition and antagonisms linked to limited resources

At the level of the institutional scheme, the decentralisation implemented in the 1990s opened the door to an institutional master plan inspired by the French model where central government, region, circle, sub-prefecture, commune and village (or fraction) are the legally recognised top-down entities representing the descent and ascendancy through which the interaction between development actors and populations should ultimately pass.

The most local scale of this scheme, the scarcity of resources and a lack of vigilance on the part of political actors have led the populations to split up more and more into autonomous ‘sites’. Each initially homogenous geographical entity was registered in several fractions, each holding a legal act of constitution issued by the authorities.

This population strategy aims to reduce the risks of their exclusion in terms of targeting and to limit the impact of misappropriation at higher levels, but at the same time it multiplies the number of sites to be covered and the people to be contacted. It also poses problems with administrative standards and the practices of development actors: a newly constituted extended family settling 10 km from its site of origin thus wants to claim a school, a borehole and a health centre on the same basis as a village of 5,000 people with the sole aim of turning the dividends into a family income-generating activity to the detriment of the rest of the geographical community.

When it comes to targeting the most vulnerable, scales are multiplied and individualities often take precedence over the notion of community: “nobody represents anybody in reality”. Interests and antagonisms’ guide individuals to the detriment of the social ties usually agreed upon as the basis for defining a community.

In addition to these elements, there are criteria for affiliation (or not) to a political party, a wider social group, or even an armed group, which encourage the multiplication of ‘arrangements’ with aid intermediaries (actors, traditional or state authorities, etc.), develop a form of brokering via local actors – intermediaries sometimes created to measure – and revive new competition between communities in terms of access to basic services but also new ambitions for political representativeness.

This connection between political representativeness and instrumentalisation (or appropriation of basic services by individuals or groups of individuals) is not without impact on social relations and the degradation of good local governance. Consequently, it leads to injustice, conflict and instability.

Between the needs of populations to access basic services and their capacity to control their total management at the most decentralised level of the state, other ‘actors’ are trying to infiltrate. The motivations and challenges are in fact multiple: political ambitions of personalities from these communities, lack of vision and sometimes corruption of state agents, armed movements in the race for legitimacy to become significant interlocutors in the framework of the Algiers Agreements (signed between Mali and the armed groups of the North), radical groups seeking support and relays to better establish themselves, etc. The populations have therefore become “actors and victims”, “instrumentalized” and “instrumentalizing” at the same time.

These different elements explain the complexity of the context and the difficulties for international humanitarian and development actors to find an effective formula to achieve the objectives in terms of the resilience of the most vulnerable populations, but also to respect the “do no harm” principle while guaranteeing optimal conditions in terms of accountability.

During our analyses and evaluations, we often identify “weak signals”, including accusations of aid diversion, particularly in relation to cash transfers, school canteens or the salaries of teachers or nurses who are considered by the population to be “fictitious”. These accusations are particularly made against the “intermediaries” who make the decisional link with the populations.

Even if the context is favourable to a form of omerta preventing the production of indisputable evidence, we have nevertheless observed that these charges oscillate between reality and, at times, attempts to discredit “the other”. This logic of competition in terms of access to resources can be coupled with another social strategy for redistributing wealth (distribution according to criteria specific to communities – different from those of humanitarian actors and in their absence) which can be analysed as an “internal reorientation in relation to the objective of the projects” which does not necessarily produce “illicit enrichment”.

Vaccination of herd ©Hamada (Wandey) AG AHMED

Governance and accountability “by” and “for” beneficiary populations

However, most programmes integrate a “governance” dimension as a vertical pillar or cross-cutting activity but take little account of the need for intra-community governance as a starting point and the main factor of success or failure, which is totally independent of the technical expertise deployed.

Complex realities at the heart of this accountability converge individual interests, collective stakes, rigid frameworks and local participation, posing challenges for the integration of people’s visions in local development plans. Why not a “right to good governance” as an inalienable right of the citizen?

Activities related to governance mainly concern traditional development structures and actors: administration, technical services, NGOs, associations, technical and financial partners. At the level of local authorities, there are three types of structures: the Communal Committee for the Orientation, Coordination and Monitoring of Development Actions (CCOCMDA), the Local Committee for the Orientation, Coordination and Monitoring of Development Actions (LCOCMDA), and the Regional Committee for the Orientation, Coordination and Monitoring of Development Actions (RCOCMDA), which constitute the structural framework around which activities to strengthen and support local governance are organised (common, circle and regional levels).

However, in the Malian and more generally Sahelian context, with the major crisis of confidence that exists between the populations and everything that represents the State, we have nevertheless noticed that participation in consultation frameworks and local political bodies (motivation to be a member of the boards) can often be linked to personal agendas with the aim of social, political, security or financial ascension, with the interest of the communities being relegated to the background.

On the one hand, these mechanisms have little reality other than on paper and, when meetings actually take place, the weak capacity of the elected officials and customary chiefs who constitute and lead them, combined with the sometimes self-serving motivations on sub-contracting and procurement (among others) and/or community issues discussed above, quickly compromise dialogue between stakeholders. Solutions are often found on a case-by-case basis to unblock the participation of these so-called “representatives of the populations” but they do not systematically work over time.

It is indeed difficult – even “blocking” – to do things “without the authority” when the financial responsibility for activities such as the convening, holding and monitoring of consultation frameworks does not fall within the remit of NGOs. However, the reports of their deliberations are, in concrete terms, one of the indicators of the achievement of a programme’s objectives. Thus, a large number of activities requiring the full involvement of state and/or local government services exist only because they are financed by NGOs or donors. While the underlying causes are too numerous to be developed here (among them, the limited resources available to the state), the result is ultimately the ‘monetisation’ effect of regalian services transformed into ‘services for the payer’ with a view to their effectiveness. We are therefore sometimes far from the ‘homogenous and constant public service’ whose functionality is the starting point for the budgetary programming of aid actors.

In the decentralisation master plan, each activity must also be integrated into the appropriate framework (regional and local) through the economic, social and cultural development programmes (ESCDP) of the communes, which allow the legitimate concerns of the populations to be taken into account and appropriate responses to be provided.

These programmes are drawn up – in theory – every five years and revised – still in theory – every year. Therefore, for humanitarian actors who operate on a different timeframe (that of needs in the face of crises), a priori programming in the institutions’ calendar conflicts with a posteriori “budgetary” programming linked to the dynamics imposed by donors. As a result, these two often asynchronous processes lead to tensions or result in a form of “forced integration” which is also monetised via dedicated funding so that it can be passed on to donors as effective and successful integration.

This rigidity of the framework and these interplay of interests have an impact on the agility and adaptability of projects and are compromising for stakeholders where the hyper-localized accountability of aid should call for the preservation of a citizen culture and ethics. In a context of absence of the State, characterised by the predominance of informal actors of violence, what strategy should then be adopted to limit these pernicious effects and ensure the achievement of effective and reinforced resilience of the populations most exposed to vulnerability?

All of these factors that fuel intra-community crises and overlap are essential to understand and take into account with better adapted and even more localised responses that integrate the “accountability and governance” binomial within the beneficiary communities as well as in the chain of interlocutors and intermediaries.

If yesterday’s struggles were called, among other things, “the right to humanitarian intervention”, tomorrow’s struggles should not be limited to a theoretical “triple nexus” but should go far beyond this and call for the imperative need to introduce into the corpus of international law and practice the binding notion of the “inalienable right to collective organisation” which respects the relevance of territoriality with and through sufficient control over the public apparatus, always remaining “representative”.

The challenge would be to find the right strategies to support individuals’ capacities to organise themselves, in order to get out of the dynamics of dependency. Supporting this right and encouraging its free exercise rather than trying to establish solutions that are always technocratic in place of individuals affected by crises would be a good course of action.

It is on this condition alone that the framework will probably become conducive in the long term to the sustainability of aid and stabilisation and will therefore make the development of these communities a reality.

Hamada (Wandey) AG AHMED

Who is Hamada (Wandey) AG AHMED?

Wandey is a graduate of the University of Paris 12 (Master’s degree in humanitarian management and development actions) and of the Bioforce school in Lyon.

He has been working for 20 years with several organisations (French Red Cross, Solidarités, ACF, Save the Children, Oxfam among others) and most recently at SIF as Africa Regional Manager based in Paris.

After his first experiences in Central Africa, he held several head of mission positions in the Sahel, with programmes focusing on resilience, health, nutrition and food security before joining Groupe URD in April 2019 as Country Coordinator in Mali. He is in charge of supporting the KEY programme funded by the European Union.

This Franco-Malian with a dual culture is particularly interested in “weak signals” and issues affecting the most vulnerable and most at risk populations as an observer-witness to change and analyst.

He has notably coordinated several studies, the most recent of which focuses on the “forgotten human and environmental heritage” of Lake Faguibine in partnership with AFD.