Summarized by Jasmin Patenia


Howard Schissel,

“The Sahel’s Uncertain Future” – Africa Report, July – Aug. 1984




From 1968-1973, a great drought ravaged West Africa. In particular, the Sahel region which includes parts of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Chad, suffered immense environmental degradation. The Sahel was once an area of nomadic cattle raising and sedentary agriculture. During the drought, these areas were dried out by advancing sand dunes from the Sahara Desert. As a result, famine swept the region and there was a massive influx of destitute herders and farmers into urban areas.



It is a decade later and the Sahel’s condition has not improved. The root of the problem lies in factors of production in rural areas.


In sum, the last two decades have been marked by the trend of extending production of cereals like millet and sorghum, instead of intensifying output. Thus, neither farmer’s productivity nor the yield per acre has risen in recent years: average millet and sorghum production remains extremely low…The seed varieties utilized have not been renewed, and only a small percentage of total cereals output is farmed with animal traction and fertilizers. Five percent of cereals are produced with irrigation but yields are much lower than in other parts of the Third World, and conversely, production costs are higher. (pg. 12)


As a result, the rural agricultural areas cannot sufficient supply the people who live in the urban areas. The Sahel is becoming more dependent on imported cereals, mostly coming from food aid.


Livestock and groundnuts, both of which once played major roles in the Sahelians’ food supply and exports, have also suffered a great decline. In contrast, the development of cotton cultivation has had spectacular results. Unfortunately, there is not the same incentive to invest in upgrading cereal farming or livestock. 


Sahelian governments have also been criticized because they have chosen to keep grain prices low to satisfy non-producing urban populations. People have recognized the need for better strategies to raise producers’ incentives. One attempt was made by Mali in 1980 to revise its food strategy. Mali turned to the World Bank, whose agricultural experts came up with the plan to liberalize the grain trade in the country by ending the monopoly held by the parastatal authority, OPAM, and by raising producer prices to encourage farmers to grow more. Unfortunately, the plans did not work. It was thought that village cooperatives would replace OPAM’s role by buying grains from farmers at official prices and then reselling them to rural people at a lower price than the one prevailing on the free market. However, cooperatives often lacked the money to buy the grain and private traders took control over the grain market by paying farmers as little as possible for the grain and reselling at its highest demand, at the highest possible price. In sum, the surplus that could be extracted from the rural economy was transferred from the state to the private sector, without any benefits to the rural population.


Even foreign aid has lacked sufficient study and preparation, or has solely served the interests of the donor country. One example was the reafforestation project to plant eucalyptus trees in order to stop the southward spread of the desert. The project was costly and the trees needed cultivation and water that the people in that region lacked. As an example of a misguided development plan, in 1980, France funded a Dire solar energy scheme in Mali which was supposed to pump water from the Niger River to irrigate land. However, the installation never succeeded and costs were over $1 million. Food aid packages by Western donors, usually agricultural surpluses of these industrialized countries, do nothing to encourage the rural economy. In addition, cheap imported grains press market prices in the Sahel and further decrease farmers’ incentives to grow. Though there are numerous donor efforts, new projects have heavy budgetary costs which the Sahelian governments are unable to support.


The Sahelian region is now one of the most heavily indebted countries of the Third World.


Since the Sahel consumes more than it produces and the rate of economic growth is too low to finance new investments, its trade balance and balance of payments have gone permanently into the red. These deficits have been financed by disbursements of foreign aid, capital transfers, and recourse to foreign borrowing. The result has been a steep increase in foreign debt. (pg.14)


All these factors add up to a very fragile Sahelian political system, especially Chad which is in constant state of instability. Also, governments in Upper Volta, Mauritania, and Gambia have been threatened by conflict and dissidents.



The Sahel’s main resource is the capability of its farmers and herders to adapt to harsh environments. However, the needs of the rural communities have been ignored by Sahelian bureaucracies and abroad. Even at times when communities have tried to set up and manage their own institutions of development at a local level, their efforts have been undermined by state administration not wanting to grant them the authority to do so.


The Sahel does not have the geographic advantage of Africa’s other coastal states, however the region still has hope of providing an acceptable way of life for its people. First, Sahelian development must be long term. It must reduce its dependence on foreign aid, and increase its export capabilities. It must include grass-roots ideas like health care, education, village-oriented projects, and the better and more efficient use of local resources. These are the factors necessary to help the Sahel out of its development slump. Abdel Wedoud Ould Cheikh, sociologist at the Mauritania Institute of Scientific Research, notes,


“Unless we mend our ways, the Sahel at the end of the century will, at best, be very similar to what it is today, or in a more pessimistic scenario, the region will become the backwater of Africa.” (pg. 14)