In Africa's Haven For Al-Qaeda-Linked Militants, USAID Humanitarian Program Hits A Roadblock

  on August 23 2013 1:24 PM

Humanitarian aid has encountered a setback in the African Sahel, one of the world's most vulnerable regions and a hub for militants linked to al-Qaeda. The Sahel, a belt of semi-arid land just south of the Sahara Desert, spans across several countries including Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. The region is plagued by poverty and instability. A hunger crisis that hit the Sahel in late 2011 has ameliorated somewhat, but food insecurity still affected 18.7 million people there last year and continues to pose a chronic threat.

The Sahel is sparsely populated, which means that its residents are often distanced from their respective national governments and security forces. Separatist groups and Islamist militants have roamed the area for years, and their strength increased in 2011 due to a spillover of weapons from Libya's revolution. Mali was overrun by Islamists linked to al-Qaeda for much of 2012, and French forces swooped in to quash the insurgency in January of this year. But militants remain, and Western security forces have become increasingly focused on the Sahel and its inhabitants.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has also been heavily involved. American assistance to the Sahel exceeded $400 million in fiscal 2012 -- about 85 percent of which came from USAID's budget -- and this year has already seen disbursals of more than $176 million. But an initiative called the Sahel Resiliency Program, or Sarel, is now in trouble. The program is meant to bolster communities so that they can withstand shocks -- anything from drought to violence to political upheaval -- and maintain sustainable, inclusive growth.

The agency last week withdrew a request for contractors to work on Sarel in Burkina Faso and Niger. The solicitation has run out its time limit; it was originally posted online in June, USA Today reported. USAID has since posted another request for contractors "interested in providing technical services" for the project and that solicitation will expire on Sept. 27. Once awarded, the contract will cover five years; USAID estimates that costs will range between $10 million and $13 million.

Humanitarian resilience-building is one of two main prongs of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region; the other is defense, which has involved the opening of an American drone base in Niger and the strengthening of military partnerships with regional forces. Each of these efforts is crucial to ensuring long-term stability in the Sahel, and USAID's difficulties get to the heart of one of the most frequent critiques of U.S. counterterrorism efforts around the world: that development too often falls by the wayside. Without humanitarian aid to strengthen communities and political systems, military initiatives amount to little more than stop-gap measures.

USAID is a partner in the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, which is led by the U.S. State Department. The counterterrorism partnership was initiated in 2005 and includes a military component called Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara, a project of the U.S. Africa Command, or Africom. Though it is led by the U.S. Department of State, the partnership includes several North and West African partners: Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad, Senegal, Nigeria and Mali.

USAID's role in this partnership is to address humanitarian needs and promote the development of civil society. One of USAID's most popular programs to date, for instance, is a radio broadcast offering news in local languages alongside educational programs promoting peace, religious tolerance and healthy gender relations.

The Sarel program may be held up for the moment, but communities in the Sahel need as much outside assistance as they can get. Resilience is difficult to build in a region where militants still roam, poverty is endemic, and agriculture is becoming increasingly difficult as a result of climate change. That kind of vulnerability and isolation makes the Sahel fertile ground for militants, making humanitarian aid essential to any Western counterterrorism efforts.

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