Workers carry the aid provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) for distribution in Pissila, Burkina Faso January 24, 2020…
FILE - Workers carry the aid provided by the World Food Program (WFP) for distribution in Pissila, Burkina Faso, January 24, 2020.

NEW YORK - The United Nations said Tuesday it has received preliminary pledges of about $1.7 billion for the central Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger at a donors’ conference in Copenhagen.   

“This represents substantial success,” U.N. Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock told reporters. “Not least given the context we are working in, with so many crises around the world and COVID.”  

Overall, the U.N. needs $1.4 billion for the strife-plagued region this year. About $550 million has been received so far – just under 40% of what is needed. A further $1.56 billion is projected to meet 2021 humanitarian needs.  

Lowcock said a full total would come at the end of the day, but that he anticipates about $980 million in pledges for this year and about $700 million for 2021-2022, which is critical to humanitarian planning.  

The U.N. has warned that Africa’s Sahel is facing a confluence of factors that are pushing the region deeper into poverty, hunger and the hands of extremists, and if the international community does not invest attention and money to stop it now, could see the consequences spread beyond the region in the coming years.

The Sahel Region

“The central Sahel region is at a breaking point,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the conference in a video message.   

He said the downward spiral could be reversed with a renewed push for peace and reconciliation among warring factions, as well as investments in development and people.   

“The Sahel is a microcosm of cascading global risks converging in one region,” Guterres said. “It is a warning sign for us all requiring urgent attention and resolution.”  

The U.N. has urged the international community to take a holistic approach and address root causes as well as immediate humanitarian needs, and to do it on a sufficient and long-term scale.  

Germany, a co-host along with the U.N., Denmark and the European Union of the meeting, urged states to better link humanitarian aid and development funding, as well as more investments in conflict resolution and peace building.   

“Therefore, it is important that today’s humanitarian conference will be followed by meetings of the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel and the Coalition for the Sahel,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted.   

FILE - A man walks along a path in the Hamdallaye refugee camp amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Niger, July 29, 2020. (UNHCR/Selim Meddeb/Handout via Reuters)

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have plunged into humanitarian crises. They are coping with unprecedented levels of displacement – 5 million people have been uprooted across the central Sahel region – a million more than just 18 months ago. More than 14 million people are food insecure, and 31 million need humanitarian assistance.   

Ministers from Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger on Tuesday gave an overview of the situation their governments face and urged international support for their efforts.   

The World Food Program (WFP) warns that Burkina Faso is facing famine in two northern provinces, where at least 11,000 people are at risk. The country also has the fastest-growing displacement crisis on the planet. WFP Executive Director David Beasley said that 12 months ago his organization was assisting 300,000 people each month in Burkina, but that number has now skyrocketed to 1.2 million per month.  

“Time is not on our side, but we have solutions,” Beasley told donors.   

He said current funding for Burkina Faso would run out next month and in Mali it would dry up by January. Beasley said $135 million is needed for the next six months to cover critical needs. Without it, he warned the people of the Sahel would be more vulnerable to famine, destabilization, migration and extremists.   

“It’s a desperate situation,” Beasley said.   

The Sahel is rife with challenges – extremist and terrorist groups roam freely, people, guns and drugs are trafficked, the population is exploding, and the region is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet causing droughts and floods that are hurting farmers and pastoralists. Hundreds of thousands of children are out of school because of insecurity and poverty, making them vulnerable to recruitment and sexual exploitation.