Sahel: Against the backdrop of insecurity, official development assistance must amount to more than just empty slogans

By Serge Michailof, Research Fellow, IRIS

The security-development dilemma

The donor community routinely repeats the same mantra over and over again, that there can be no development without security and no security without development. But what is it doing to finance security? In fact, it finds the very idea of financing security deeply distasteful. Some institutions, such as the World Bank, even use their 70-year-old statutes as a pretext for refusing point blank to get involved.  Only the European Union—with a great deal of reticence, caution and bureaucratic red tape—has started very timidly to finance the formation of security forces through the EUTM in Mali, and to pay for a little non-lethal equipment where necessary.

Broadly speaking, the only reason the donor community repeats its now empty slogan is to underline the necessity of combining security measures with development action; a sentiment that of course everyone shares. However, no-one knows how to implement an effective development programme in a situation of severe insecurity. Consequently, a plan is devised to proceed in two phases: First of all, security must be restored, and then the developers will step in. Security ought to be restored by the local security forces, but in this type of situation they are usually incapable of doing so. We therefore bring in the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces (and/or foreign troops in the case of United Nations mandates). Once security has been restored, leading development agencies must take care of putting the economy back on its feet and rebuilding basic and welfare services.

Unfortunately, this approach leads precisely nowhere. The 150,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan have not been able to restore security. The 12,000 MINUSMA troops in Mali are struggling to ensure their own safety. As for Operation Barkhane, it is in serious danger of sinking into the desert sands, since 4,500 troops cannot possibly hope to secure an area four or five times the size of France.

In fact, international experience has shown that the military effectiveness of the United Nations forces is insufficient to maintain security where there is no political agreement between the belligerent parties and where the level of conflict is high, which is most often the case in both Afghanistan and Mali. There are many reasons for this, including imprecise mandates, poor-quality troops, the multinational and therefore disparate nature of the forces, and the understandable lack of enthusiasm on the part of soldiers who are sent far away from home to fight for a cause that means nothing to them. As for the foreign intervention forces, although they are extremely efficient, their numbers and their presence on the ground are insufficient to maintain security on a daily basis once the enemy forces have been pushed back or destroyed. Week after week in Afghanistan, we have seen insecurity returning to regions where Taliban forces have been defeated by NATO. But the worst problem is that foreign troops are soon regarded as an occupying force and, in the end, their presence leads very quickly to political problems. Remember the “US Go Home” messages scrawled on the walls of our towns and cities in the 1950s, even though the Americans had just set our country free. We are already seeing the same kind of hostile reaction to French forces in Mali.

Restoring security requires rebuilding state institutions

In the Sahel, the regular destruction of jihadi katibas by Barkhane forces is by no means sufficient to restore the day-to-day security of citizens. To do so requires the presence of competent, fully trained civilian and military police officers who respect human rights and are attentive to the needs of the population. Yet what do we see in almost every situation: The foreign troops push back the rebel forces; then, either the police are nowhere to be found (we have seen them escape to central Mali as soon as the situation becomes too dangerous), or they return as predators to help pillage the unfortunate villagers.

Both past experience in the Balkans and Afghanistan, and the specialised literature[1], underline the fact that restoring security requires rebuilding serious and efficient state institutions. This means prioritising the reconstruction of multi-ethnic armies under civilian leadership and of fully trained, well-equipped civilian and military police forces who respect human rights, as well as the establishment of a competent territorial administration with sufficient financial resources, and a non-corrupt judicial system able to satisfy the justice needs of the whole country, not just the capital. As well as rebuilding and establishing state institutions, a substantial development effort is of course needed to try and create jobs for young people who have nothing left, revive agriculture and the entire rural economy for that purpose, and better manage both political and ethnic tensions at local level.

In other words, in situations such as these, it is necessary not only to “put out the fires”—as in Operation Serval in Mali—but also and above all to “defuse the powder kegs”. It is clear from what is happening right now around Lake Chad and in north-eastern Nigeria that simply destroying Boko Haram's key military capabilities will by no means put an end to the conflict or restore security.  Underlying issues must be addressed at the same time, whether these are a failure on the part of the state to provide day-to-day security, leadership and justice, youth unemployment, agricultural neglect, or local political and ethnic tensions.

“Defusing” the “powder kegs” certainly requires political agreements to reduce tensions, particularly those between different ethnic groups. But it also means urgently addressing the various challenges facing these regions, through a combination of extensive state reconstruction and robust development actions[2] -

Rebuilding state institutions is a difficult task.

Defusing the powder kegs therefore means taking back control of regions and populations that have partly or completely escaped state authority. This not only requires substantially reinforcing national armed forces, but also consolidating, or in many cases rebuilding as we have seen, all other governmental institutions, such as military and civilian police forces, local justice systems and territorial administrations.  But such measures raise serious problems.

From a technical perspective, taking back control of governmental institutions requires far more than training and equipment programmes. We have tried those in Afghanistan and they have failed spectacularly. The police there have benefited from such programmes for 15 years, and they are just as corrupt now as they were back in 2002. Taking back control actually requires in-depth reform of the way services are organised and maintenance processes are managed; it also requires the introduction of modern human resource management methods, especially for managers.

From a political perspective, this kind of reform is difficult, as it means abandoning the clientelistic practices that are so widespread in these countries, where belonging to such and such a network is generally more important than experience or skill. Experience acquired outside of the government sector shows that it is very difficult to overcome these problems without the resources and conditionalities of a financial backer. Many public institutions, from finance ministries to energy companies, have been effectively rebuilt thanks to the support of a financial backer. However, it is currently impossible to obtain this kind of support in the government sector.

The final and no doubt largest obstacle is that, from a financial point of view, the Sahelian countries are currently incapable of carrying out this kind of reform and reconstruction in the government sector. A few macro-financial figures may inform the debate here. Because these countries are so poor, their tax-to-GDP ratio is around 17 to 18%, and the structural deficit covered by external aid often exceeds 8 to 10% of their GDP. They cannot simultaneously finance their development (for example in the rural sector, which is seriously underfunded), their social expenditure (which is rising dramatically for demographic reasons), and their security expenditure (which has increased three- or fourfold in the past few years). The latter now exceeds 6 to 7% of their GDP[3]. Nonetheless, this level of spending on security is insufficient to tackle the latest threats. These countries are therefore caught in a double bind between funding and security.

Rebuilding state institutions is impossible without the support of financial backers

It is therefore vital that the European Union and/or a group of donor countries at least partially cover the security costs of these countries, to prevent worsening security from paralysing the massive development effort that is so urgently needed at the same time.  Indeed, it is no longer enough just to finance training programmes and donate a little equipment to governmental institutions, as is currently the case. They are going to need help paying their wage bills, meeting their logistics costs, reforming their human resources management processes, and equipping units. Furthermore, only if we provide such financial support will they be able to tackle clientelism at the highest echelons of power, which is undermining the efficiency of governmental institutions. In short, sharing security costs is unavoidable in the Sahel.

As far as the international community is concerned, the problem is not financial. It costs around 15 million dollars to equip, train and finance a military battalion in the Sahel for a year. Operation Barkhane costs over 650 million euro per year; the cost of MINUSMA alone is around 1 billion dollars, and that of the 11th EDF (covering the period from 2014 to 2020) is 30 billion euro... So there is no shortage of cash. But there is no specific budgetary mechanism for mobilising resources for this type of purpose.

Yet such investment would be warranted for three reasons: (i) it would cost infinitely less than military intervention by western powers, which would in any case lead nowhere given the number of troops available and the size of the territories involved[4]; (ii) the security of these vast regions is a regional, indeed global public good, and therefore warrants a joint financial effort; (iii) it is the only credible way to ensure the security of these regions and prevent them from becoming new Afghanistans. But this proposal, although logical, comes up against numerous legal, statutory and political obstacles.

The Sahelian countries are reporting budgetary slippages due to spiralling security costs, and have turned to the IMF for assistance. The IMF has responded by advising “fiscal consolidation”, meaning it has asked them to reduce their overall spending (which is perfectly logical for an institution whose job it is to condemn unfunded deficits). As security expenditure is unavoidable, this approach can only lead to a reduction in social and development spending, which will increase poverty and weaken these countries even further. Yet the situation is not unsolvable; we just need to think outside the box.

“Pooling” the security costs of the Sahelian countries means thinking outside the box

The first solution is to ramp up political pressure so that international donors agree to finance at least the reinforcement of government institutions in the Sahel, in addition to contributing to strictly military expenditure. France has an important role to play in this. They must also agree to finance the strengthening of civilian and military police forces, and of prison, justice and territorial administration systems, just as they invest in educational and healthcare institutions. All of these systems and institutions are public goods, which should be eligible for aid financing.

At the same time, budgets must show the true figures for military and security expenditure, and not the manifestly under-estimated figures shown at present, which create the need for supplementary estimates. Increased deficits must then be funded by increased budget support which, even if allocated to social or development spending, will create budgetary margins of manoeuvre. The main financial backer for this sector in the Sahel should be the European Union, which is clearly reticent considering it has pledged to give 50 million euro for the G5 Sahel Joint Force when the amount actually needed is closer to 450 million...  In fact, the fungibility of budget resources allows for the indirect financing of security spending[5]. However, proceeding as such requires that a number of problems be resolved.

Thus, to reassure external backers, it is important to bring rationality and transparency to the security sector which, rightly or wrongly, is accused of being chaotic and opaque. We therefore need white papers that accurately identify new threats and establish how to deal with them, as well as military planning laws specifying both military and governmental requirements. The quality of this work could be verified by the partners that support the military efforts of Sahelian countries.

The implementation of these recommendations requires negotiations between the countries concerned and their European partners in particular, the goal being to convince the latter that security in these regions is a crucial issue, that budget deficits are bound to increase considering the security efforts required, and that these deficits must be financed by external partners on a multi-annual basis to prevent the development of financial gaps and security deadlocks every year.

Once an agreement has been reached, actual security expenditure must be integrated as transparently as possible into the budgets and flow-of-fund tables used to frame negotiations with the IMF and the World Bank. It should be easy to secure the agreement of these institutions if financial gaps can be filled by bilateral donors or the European Union.

It should be pointed out, however, that such a plan would be pointless unless accompanied by development actions, which are not addressed in this article but must certainly not be overlooked. 


[1] See “Fixing Failed States” by Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockart, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

[2] This article does not discuss development actions, which, in poor countries such as these, must be financed mainly through international aid (the aims and methods of which need to be reviewed in depth).

[3] Compared with less than 2% in OECD countries.

[4] The Sahel covers an area of around 7 million km2—12 times the size of France—and its population will grow to 150 million in the next 10 years. There are 4,500 troops in the Barkhane force...

[5] Thus, the Algerian government was able to ensure that the IMF indirectly financed the budgetary cost of much of the security spending resulting from the outbreak of civil war in 1993-1994.

contribution SAHEL_compressed

Serge Michailof is Associate Research Fellow at IRIS, specialised on the Development of the so-called “fragile countries” and the Post conflict reconstruction.


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