Featured in the Internet Editorial for the Disaster Prevention & Management journal (vol.8, issue 1)

A conference and technical meeting held at the Royal Geographical Society in London, UK on May 13th-14th 1998

Conference and workshop report
Simon Batterbury

Simon Batterbury, Lecturer,
SAGES, University of Melbourne

Professor Andrew Warren
Department of Geography
University College London


Supported by
the West and North Africa Department of the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and the Drylands programme of the International Institute for Environment and Development.


Objectives 1
Resumé of conference presentations 1
Discussion 6
Rethinking research agendas 7
What have we learned ? 7
1) The research process
2) Different intellectual traditions
3) Complexity
4) Transformation or continuity?
5) Research orientation and focii
Three key issues for research and policy 10
1) Rural agrarian issues
2) Institutional change and decentralization
3) Urban issues
Development partnerships 12
Concluding comments 13
Further information 14
Appendix 1: Attendees
Appendix 2: Research details

Conference Web Site for further information and links:


Grateful thanks to Thea Hilhorst, Judy Longbottom, Felicity Proctor, Camilla Toulmin and Andrew Warren for commenting on this conference report, and for the numerous comments received from the participants and from those unable to attend the meeting.

The opinions and viewpoints expressed in this document are those of the the author and the individual participants and should in no way be taken as official policy of the funders of this meeting, nor of the parent bodies of those individuals present.


A conference and a workshop was held at the Royal Geographical Society in London, UK on 13-14th May 1998. It was sponsored by the Department for International Development (DFID), and the Drylands programme of International Institute for Environment and Development. Additional support was obtained from the RGS's Developing Areas Research Group, and British Airways.

It had three major objectives:

€to present to a British audience the dynamics of the West African Sahel since the major environmental crises of the 1970s, and to assess its future prospects

€to allow researchers and policymakers (primarily from Europe) to meet in a workshop, to discuss key issues, and to forge new alliances

€to move towards a clearer understanding of the ways in which research activity in the Sahel may learn from the past, and make positive progress.

The meeting brought together a number of specialists from Britain, other parts of Europe, and West Africa (see Appendix 1). Six conference presentations outlined the economic fortunes of the Sahel and the growth of its cities; changes in development assistance over the period; the record of climatic instability; the mixed fortunes of agricultural and pastoral groups, and the dynamism of Sahelian land use and livelihood systems. Workshop discussions then touched on the mixed record of research initiatives and development interventions in the region during this time, outlined the key issues for the future development of responsive initiatives to support agricultural growth and intensification; good governance and decentralisation; and further urban and economic growth.

Résumé of conference presentations

It is now twenty-five years since the major droughts of the 1970s struck the Sahel of West Africa. Their impacts were not uniform, for the Sahel is a region with a great diversity of soils, climates, livelihood systems, and ethnic groups. It has a legacy of francophone, anglophone and lusophone culture and administration dating from the years of colonial rule. For many, the droughts were grim historical markers, because of their disturbing effects on food supply and human welfare in a semi-arid region so dependent on rainfall. Yet they followed a much longer period of droughts and desiccation, to which Sahelian populations have become well accustomed. The droughts of the 1970s were significant not only because of their particular harsh effects, which severely challenged local adaptive strategies, but also because they prompted profound post-colonial economic and political reforms, as well as widespread international development assistance to the Sahelian nation states. A quarter of a century later, it is time to assess the record of these interventions, and other changes that have affected this region.

It is also time to think about future capacities to cope with drought. What has been learned over the last quarter of a century about the human ability to adapt to, respond, and fight against natural and human-induced changes in marginal environments like the Sahel? What effects have been felt from changing geopolitical alignments and national political structures, which have included the increasing influence of democratic political regimes supported in part by international finance, and 'tied' aid through structural adjustment programmes? Have the latter helped to increase market trading, migration, and the spread of western values? If we look back in another 25 years, will a generation of research studies, policy generation, and eco-regional and national initiatives be seen as progressive and positive, or as wasted opportunities?

Dr Gaoussou Traoré, a Malian researcher at the Institut du Sahel in Bamako, Mali, opened the conference with an assessment of the changes experienced in the nine countries that comprise the CILSS grouping (the Permanent Interstate Committee for the Fight against Drought in Sahelian Countries, founded in 1973 and now comprising Senegal, Cape Verde, Gambia, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Guinea-Bissau). He showed how the first response to the image of a 'dying Sahel', and its food deficits of the 1970s, focussed on altering food production and distribution systems. Technical interventions were designed to boost agricultural and rangeland productivity and to usher in 'modern' resource use techniques, including resettlement of formerly disease-prone river valleys, mechanization, and Green Revolution-style experimentation with higher yielding foodgrains and pulses. These interventions were supported by international agencies. There was a "a lot of aid, but a lot of aid mismanaged" because it was either technically inappropriate, or poorly used.

In contrast, development thinking has now evolved to include measured economic reforms, respect for cultural tradition and ethnic pluralism, obtaining more value from better-targeted aid, and support to local institutions to which state power is being increasingly devolved (as in decentralization programmes). Local political authorities are being offered a greater share in national decision-making. Traoré believed that Sahelian populations today are better placed to "know their interests" vis-a-vis governments and development organizations. The key challenges today for policy-makers included poverty alleviation, particularly in the growing urban centres; better methods for management of conflicts over land, water, and other resources; realistic rather than draconian population policies, and coming to terms with aggressive global markets that consistently disadvantage Sahelian products. Traoré outlined the 'Sahel 21' initiative, coordinated by CILSS, which involves a re-visioning of development priorities for the next century. It envisages a region which will continue to rely on its primary commercial and subsistence sectors, but one that will be intensified and diversified. The aim is to create a federal system of states with a 'common market', shared agricultural policies, and even a Sahelian passport. Although Guinea-Bissau has recently joined CILSS, the old colonial borders continue to pose problems for regional coordination. CILSS, based on cooperation between nation-states, cannot include northern Nigeria, which has important economic influence and a substantial dryland population.

Claude Raynaut of the Society, Health and Development group at the University of Bordeaux II and CNRS (France's national scientific research centre), provided a different viewpoint on the history of the last quarter century in the Sahel. Drawing from 25 years of research in Niger and other countries, he emphasised that the disagreements and tensions created by the droughts were partially to do with images and ideas (even though they had real impacts). They initiated a debate that has continued to this day over whether there had been a climatic crisis, one driven by human misuse of a fragile environment and overpopulation, or a failure of governance, worsened by an adverse political economy and colonial legacy.

He stressed that the diversity of the Sahelian landscape, and the global factors that affect it, should not be simplified or tackled with broad-brush policies. The social actors of the Sahel are its people, who are not only responding to social and environmental change, but creating this change through their own actions. They are not "passive toys" or recipients of processed they cannot control. It was true, however, that environmental, economic and political constraints have structured many aspects of social life. For example, regulatory institutions that have previously been adequate to insure human welfare and survival have been altered out of all recognition by the changing Sahelian political economy (the downturn of Niger's economic fortunes in the 1980s and 1990s, or the levelling of social hierarchies initiated by Sankara's socialist regime in Burkina Faso in the 1980s are examples). Raynaut saw the expanding population of the region as a potential resource, but also as a possible constraint if tied to inappropriate technologies. A geographical analysis shows that population is concentrated in 'poles of attraction' and 'zones of saturation' (where there were out-movements of people), separated by peripheral sectors and 'pioneer zones' of in-movement. The location of these zones are as much influenced by politics, history, transport networks and the growth of cities as by the potential of the natural environment to support human life. Generalizations about 'overpopulation' and environmental degradation are, therefore, inaccurate and misleading. While population patterns are not closely tied to natural variations, food production systems mirror them more closely. The more arid landscapes are dominated by herding, while farming takes a variety of forms depending on soil type and slope, and access to water.

There are, then, "not one Sahel but many Sahels". Local responses to these varied conditions have been predominantly a rural affair, despite the growth of cities. Technical knowledge has increasingly involved selective (rather than wholesale) adoption of modern tools and inputs. Most individuals participate in regional or local trading networks for agricultural products or non-farm items, and their social systems are in the midst of profound social reconstruction and change. The growing monetary value attached to land, and its increased privatisation, is important as a driving force of social change. It provides an increasing opportunity to urban based speculators able to invest in livestock and farming. The gradual disappearance of tribute systems and strong kinship networks in many Sahelian societies might help to challenge the basis of oppressive regimes, but is weaking 'social capital' in rural areas. Raynaut saw the Sahelian 'crisis' as both the manifestation and the cause of profound social changes. Sahelian people are active human agents operating within multiple institutions and acting within a diversity of constraints (and opportunities). Much can be gained by promoting an 'enabling environment' to support these local responses, buttressed by the sorts of frameworks and policies provided by national governments, aid agencies, and by organizations like CILSS. This requires negotiation; recognition of diversity; and an enabling role for the state.

The meeting made many references to the role of climate as a strong influence on patterns of movement, economic activity, and food supply. Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia described Sahelian climate as "perhaps the most dramatic example of climatic variability that we have quantitatively measured anywhere in the world." The most alarming manifestation of this variability is the 20-30% net decline in rainfall occurring in the latter part of the 20th century. He structured his account around a series of scientific views of drought and desiccation, taken over the last few decades. He showed how scientists in Africa and the West have persistently misunderstood the evolving climatic situation and have failed to predict the extent of the drought years, variously over-estimating or minimising the extent of the 'crisis' as it deepened. Several scientific models of likely future changes to the Sahelian environment have been developed but almost all have now been discounted. Despite improvements to climatic modelling, the ability to predict the rainfall pattern is still in doubt. Hulme showed that, in global terms, the recent droughts were unique in their severity. He suggested that natural climatic variability, coupled with the known effects of changes in land cover and land uses, explains more variability than global climatic changes and global warming effects alone. Faced with an inability to accurately predict the onset of a future drought or its impacts, and given the varied capacities to adapt described by Raynaut, scientific understanding appears limited in the Sahel region. The need is for a) better science and b) building better adaptive mechanisms in these complex systems.

This pattern of climatic instability was the starting point for two presentations on the future of agriculture in the region. Rob Groot of the Research Institute for Agrobiology and Soil Fertility (AB-DLO, Wageningen), presenting a joint paper co-authored with Henk Breman and Herman van Keulen, first explored the significant 'resource limitations' acting on Sahelian farming. Drawing on published data and general trends, they argued that the gap between aggregate food production and aggregate population growth has grown since the 1970s, but the prime factor in explaining these trends has not been low rainfall, since considerable adaptation to drought conditions could be demonstrated. Rather, it has been variability in rainfall, between and within the short cropping season, and the resulting effects on crop yields. The task at hand, then, is to help reduce the impacts of this variability through use of more intensive farming methods, inputs of inorganic fertilizers, and improved farming techniques. The work of researchers at the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) and at Wageningen Agricultural University on soil fertility has calculated that some 40% of income from farming in the region results from the 'mining' of soil nutrients, as farmers have been forced to extensify agriculture onto less suitable soils, and then to intensify production with reduced fallows. While history shows us that adaptation to this kind of resource constraint has occured, Groot and his colleagues feel that the rapid pace of resource depletion in the Sahel - which has been concentrated in the late 20th century and in its period of demographic takeoff - has left coping systems unable to respond quickly enough. Indicators of concern for the long-term sustainability of current agrarian systems include an increase in resource competition between farmers and herders. If some long-term forecasts of climate change are to be believed, aridity might increase in future, even in the southerly, more humid Sudano-Sahelian fringe. Most importantly for this analysis, Groot and his colleagues' work on soil nutrients highlights the insidious nature of overall nutrient depletion in cropped areas; soil fertility decline is a 'time bomb' for Sahelian agriculture that has not yet proved as visible as climatic change. The paper explores some examples of successful investment in soils - for example in the cotton producing areas of southern Mali - while concluding that subsistence agricultural systems would require, at the very least, localized low-grade applications of inorganic fertilizer to sustain productive potential. The enabling policy environment will then need to include mechanisms to deliver fertilizer more widely, and to make it affordable for the majority.

Mike Mortimore (Drylands Research) was based in northern Nigeria at the time of the 1970s droughts. In his presentation, he stressed his belief that the apocalyptic visions of famine and starvation, though real at the time, have lured many policymakers into undue pessimism about the plight of Sahelian agriculture. At the time of the major droughts, regular coping strategies like migration, asset sales, and off-farm income generation were well-developed and rational, but were viewed by international observers as last-ditch measures. International support did help farmers who were in real crisis, but the effect was patchy. Yet, today, without the same level of support, "Sahelian farmers are still in business" and there are ample signs of recovery, adaptation, and innovation in farming systems. Mortimore's work with the farmers of Northern Nigeria, especially around Kano - which had the most successful record of agricultural intensification of any Sahelian city - has identified a wide range of strategies to cope with climatic perturbation and diminishing returns from agriculture. These can be represented by a simple model of economic diversification starting from a farming-only system, to inclusion of animal ownership, off-farm income sources, and then migration and remittances. Indigenous technical change - embedded in the culture of dryland farming communities but deemed to change at too slow a pace in Groot's study sites - has been adequate to meet the new challenges, even in areas of high population densities. These adaptations have included indigenous forms of soil and water conservation, exploitation of wetter sites, cautious expansion and retraction of cultivated area, and maintenance of distinct seed stocks suited to variable conditions. Increased ownership by farmers of goats, sheep and cattle has increased livelihood opportunities, and minimises the risks that drought poses to rainfed agriculture (although as Brigitte Thébaud later noted, as farmers take on more animals, there may be increased conflicts with herders for pasture if these groups are living in close proximity). Markets for agricultural products, in Mortimore's view, should be seen as "benign rather than malignant" features of the 'structural adjusted' Sahelian countries. Their importance is increasing, even in subsistence-oriented households and they provide positive inputs to livelihood security. Market trading, and livestock ownership, constitute indigenous adjustments to climatic risk, especially in areas where the technical assistance provided by development projects or government has had little impact. Mortimore believed that the severe drought should be seen as a historical episode, not as a continuing crisis. Sahelian ecologies and economies have developed their own adaptations to variability in rainfall and opportunities.

Brigitte Thébaud (consultant researcher) sees the situation of pastoralists as precarious. Pastoralism is the dominant productive activity in the 'northern' Sahel and Saharan fringe, where large settlements are few, and mobility is vital to maintain access to water and fodder. Even here, but with much greater intensity in the south, pastoral and agro-pastoral groups are increasingly in conflict over resources with agriculturalists. Pastoralists are sometimes also in conflict amongst themselves. But at the same time as Sahelian farmers are increasing their livestock holdings, pastoralists and agropastoral groups are diversifying into farming, although often with less secure tenure than the farmers. Thébaud did not see drought as the main cause of the present difficulties facing pastoral groups (although it has influenced rangeland quality), laying much of the blame with other factors including longstanding negative views of pastoralists in society as a whole, agricultural expansion northward into drier zones and into riverine and lacustrine environments, and the lack of commonly-agreed or legal security over the rangeland commons. Borehole projects, and other technical interventions, have weakened customary forms of negotiation over access to traditional wells and other water sources, creating additional social and resource use pressures. Before the capacity of grassland ecosystems to regenerate was understood by the scientific community in the last decade, accusations that pastoralists were largely responsible for degradation circulated in governing circles and have blocked understanding of the importance of herd mobility and thus freedom of movement across 'patchy' landscapes. For the future, the ongoing discussion about land tenure rules and law in the Sahel needs to recognise the dynamism of common property regimes based on mobility (particularly as decentralization of political power is proceeding), and this requires more forums for negotiation, as Raynaut had stressed. Thébaud believes that pastoralism could also be supported by enabling the efficient sale and movement of livestock to markets. This is particularly evident following devaluation of the francophone CFA currency in 1994, from which the herders have benefitted in their marketing.

Jean Marie Cour, a researcher at the OECD's Club du Sahel in Paris and the coordinator of the WALTPS (West Africa long term perspective) study wanted to provide a challenge to doom laden predictions of economic and environmental crisis. For him, it was vital to see the Sahel in its regional context; as part of the West African economy, which is by-and-large following a realistic path of economic development, and is increasingly linked to the global economic marketplace. He asserted that research needed to focus on wealth creation, not on poverty reduction - a counter to the current focus of DFID and other international aid agencies, and perhaps more akin to the World Bank's economic reform agenda. Wealth creation could be accomplished by a) increasing regional inter-linkages, for example through facilitating migration to zones of economic 'attractiveness' and urban centres, rather than by developing the Saharan edge; b) giving especial attention to increasing the vigour of trade and marketing around the emerging and still-developing population centres and cities; c) reorienting the international view away from crisis myths and poverty alleviation, to a more realistic view of Sahelian vitality and economic prospects. Cour reminded the meeting that it is cities, not rural areas, that are absorbing the largest percentage of West Africa's population growth at present, because of jobs, markets and other opportunities. A Sahelian population of 80 million was forecast by 2020, almost balanced between rural and urban. Some 40% of the region's inhabitants already live away from the birthplaces of their parents. Migration is a solution to land degradation, as well as a reaction to it.

Cour's view of agrarian change was broadly consistent with Mortimore's. He talked of a "silent agricultural revolution" of increased cash crop production and sales, particularly for specialised markets near to urban centres with significant demand. That said, his account of social and economic change points more to the accessible and richer environments and regions of west Africa, than to the true Sahel, as the locii for future growth and investment. Within the Sahel belt the coastal nations of the Gambia, Senegal and Mauritania have greater growth possibilities than the inland countries. Rural producers in the Sahel, nonetheless, should be organised to protect their market share, and the dangers of environmental degradation and civil strife could not be ignored in increasingly market-oriented farming systems.


These five presentations raised fascinating questions about aggregate trends and prospects in the Sahel region, as well as setting in context the authors' own detailed research. The different findings, and scales of investigation, of these presenters led them to be variously optimistic, pessimistic or neutral about population-resource relationships, economic prospects, human adaptibility, and particular development policies. Since each presenter repeatedly stressed the inherent variability found in the Sahel, the lack of agreement over 'future trends' was understandable. In closing the meeting, Camilla Toulmin of the International Institute for Environment and Development stressed that, nonetheless, a quarter century of rapid change had left observers with a much clearer view of the driving forces of change in the region, and a more realistic vision of its future prospects and constraints. In her summing up and in questions raised throughout the day, a number of issues to take forward from these discussions emerged:

€A narrow definition of the Sahel is based on climatic indicators. This is not an adequate way to define the region. It is more realistic to see the Sahel as a transitional zone where common land uses, and types of land cover, (eg, vegetation and soils) are visible.

€The Sahel has not, and does not, function as an economic entity, although a considerable proportion of trade and investment is carried out within the region. In addition, although the nations of which it is comprised are still peripheral to world geo economic systems, they are strongly linked to regional and global patterns of trade, economic migration, and financial flows.

€Despite its heterogeneous population, and its inheritance of colonial political boundaries, there are substantial benefits to be accrued from increased Sahelian cooperation through eco-regional initiatives (including CILSS), notably in terms of economic agreements and linkages. There is also a need to continue to represent Sahelian interests in West Africa and beyond, through strong and concerted actions.

€Aggregate trends in Sahelian agricultural production and food supply are almost keeping up with a growing population, except during drought periods. An increasing trade in foodstuffs across West Africa, and with world markets, helps minimise the effects of low and unpredictable productivity.

Sahelian agriculture is heterogeneous. Not only are there significant and sometimes startling examples of high yielding traditional systems, but coping mechanisms in years of low productivity are diverse and successful in many zones, even those with high demographic pressures like Northern Nigeria. The 'mining' of soils, and their long term sustainable use, are visible in different localities, and there is now a better understanding of how these processes evolve through 'process-based' and long-term studies.

€Commercial agriculture faces an uncertain future. While intra-regional marketing for crops including groundnuts and horticultural items will endure, Sahelian commodities like cotton suffer price fluctuations on the world market, particularly in free-trade situations. West African coastal producers have already found this to be the case for coffee and cocoa. The record of large-scale resettlement and irrigation schemes has been mixed.

€The pastoral sector in the Sahel continues to be significantly disadvantaged through a combination of land pressures, economic marginality, and stigmatised views. Successful cohabitation of agriculture and pastoralism and the avoidance of damaging land conflicts are major challenges that need to be addressed in current policy.

€Secure access to land, and reconsiderations of the benefits of both customary and legalised land tenure arrangements are needed, and are currently ongoing. Above all, flexibility is required in Sahelian tenure, to respond to diversity of land uses and production systems.

€The growth of Sahelian cities will continue. While urban areas are significant poles of economic attraction and the focus for population movements and Sahelian enterprise, their rapid development poses challenges for social welfare and infrastructure provision.

€Liberal economic reforms in the Sahel region have been far-reaching. Structural adjustment policies have penetrated deeply into economic life. While their record was not assessed at this meeting, the reasons for their uneven success rates might be found in examining the difficulties of imposing standardised conditions in a region with a great complexity of social and economic systems and histories, and greatly varying interlinkages with the wider economy.

Lastly, the work of researchers has advanced an understanding of the basic questions affecting Sahelian peoples, particularly over the last quarter century. It has also exposed the weaknesses of many forms of 'assistance' to the region. But research needs to recognise a wider range of interests and 'clients' - in particular land users, governments, and the policy community, to help broaden its relevance. Better dissemination of a quarter century of West African research must also be a goal, and local research capacity needs better support. The processes driving economic and environmental change occur at multiple scales from local livelihood systems to the world economy; all research needs at least some awareness of the local, regional and global factors influencing particular locations.

Rethinking research agendas

Following the main conference a group of fifty individuals, mainly comprising researchers but with some NGO and donor representation (see Appendix 1), elaborated the major findings from the previous day's talks, and discussed the key issues facing the Sahel and the future contributions of the research community.
The discussions focussed on two key issues. Firstly, what has been learned by Sahelian research since the 1970s, the period of the great droughts? Secondly, what are some of the key issues for research and policy at the present time?

What have we learned from Sahelian rural research since the 1970s ?

1) The research process
The failure by policy-makers to realize the implications of widely accepted research findings, today and in the past, was one concern among many of the participants in the workshop. They acknowleged that the research community had disagreements and produced conflicting evidence and advice, and that this made it difficult for policy-makers to absorb the evidence. However such disagreements were an inevitable part of debate. These disputes aside, a remarkable convergence about development issues in the Sahel has emerged among the research community in the last few years. Yet this consensus had not been transmitted effectively to the policy community.

There was no dissent from the view that the researchers themselves were partly to blame. Among many of their failures were confusions about units of measurement and the conflation of 'variability' with 'long term change'. More precisely, it could now be seen that the understanding of the present 'crisis' in the Sahel, and ways of tackling it, needed to be extensively modified in the research community. Whether the Sahelian 'crisis' was seen as a short-term disaster (as the term is most commonly used in english) or a long-term predicament (as in french), or in different ways in local languages, has been important in forming the consensus views that drive policy formulation, since words and phrases like 'crisis' become institutionalized in the bureaucracies that define agendas. The policy instruments suited to tackling a perceived short-term climatic drought or economic instability have differed considerably from those designed to tackle long-term crises at a regional or national level. The latter have included long-term plans for economic revitalization and safety-net programs for the poor.

2) Intellectual traditions and colonial legacies
Another specific issue is the different intellectual traditions brought to bear on Sahelian problems, with a diversity of African, European and other research programmes and institutions operating in the region. Different styles and practices appear on the ground and in the countries that tend to fund initiatives. In particular, the established colonial legacies of francophone and anglophone cultures have proved pervasive, and still appear in administrative measures, government work, and development circles. European, North American and Asian research and even development programmes have sometimes worked at cross-purposes, and still tend to be defined by their national policies and agendas. Some of these programmes could be significantly improved by working in closer collaboration with their Sahelian partners and governments. The Club du Sahel is keen to see more regional and national coordination between aid donors.

The Sahel attracted large-scale international assistance following the 1970s droughts. The problem of 'fit' to local interests and the duplication of project activities is visible in the NGO sector as well as among bilateral donors. These different cultural and ideological traditions could be strengths as well as weaknesses, of course. But whatever the dominant tradition or goal behind a long-term bilateral programme or a local-level NGO project, the general conclusion was that there was a need for more communication and a greater willingness to listen.

3) Complexity
Third, the sheer complexity of the ecological and social systems of the Sahel has finally been recognised through several decades of research effort. It may well be that local knowledge of diversity and change has always been evident to Sahelians themselves, but it has only been "rediscovered" by scientists in the last few years. As we develop a common, accepted research language for concepts like variability, stability, diversity, vulnerability and so-on, and as new scientific paradigms become more widely accepted - such as those of non-equilibrium ecosystems - there is a growing need to translate them into viable projects, programmes and policies rather than to criticise past ones.

The current interest in 'social capital' and support to local institutions will fail unless the inherent flexibility, dynamism and fluidity of these social forms is fully recognised. Some participants questioned whether certain international donors had yet been able to take on board a truly participatory approach to supporting complex local institutions, and were monitoring their support through 'process' indicators.

In terms of Sahelian ecologies, (now the subject of several long term monitoring experiments like ROSELT and the Desert Margins Initiative, as well as numerous other research efforts), the key need is to understand patterns in complexity, particularly with regard to resilience of the environment to human damage and climatic variability, and its capacity to recover from disturbances. The idea of 'absolute carrying capacity' for humans or livestock is strongly disputed. In addition the creation of complex landscapes is occurring through managed interventions like land restoration and conservation programmes, as well as widespread indigenous practices like the use of fire for soil fertility management and agricultural intensification. The ecological and natural sciences now have the tools to monitor these changes with the aid of more advanced instrumentation and remotely sensed data.

4) Transformation or continuity?
The 'driving forces' of change in the Sahel, both environmental and socio-economic, are highly complex. There was a sense among some of the participants that two main views were now in common circulation.

One is that the Sahel is undergoing, slowly and inevitably, a profound 'transformation' in the way people relate to the environment and to each other. This process of transformation, as Claude Raynaut stressed, is fluid and dynamic. It should be nurtured and indeed celebrated, with development and government policy trying to enhance positive transformative processes (for example by supporting the growth of markets, or new forms of resource management).

The second common viewpoint is that there is a need to maintain continuity with the past. Traditional knowledge and cultures may be changing, but research and development work need not hasten their loss. The maintenance of tradition seems even more necessary in the Sahel as it faces a series of economic shocks and significant political changes. On this view, it is important to ensure cultural survival for minority ethnic groups, and to conserve threatened biotic resources from significent human impacts. Many Sahelian peoples have a rich local tradition to draw on that is able to manage change, better than the kinds of adaptation that are now flowing in rapidly from outside.

5) Research orientation and focii
Different styles of research are needed in the Sahel. Research needs to be well defined, inclusive, sensitive to local interests, and relevant. Results need to be carefully disseminated.

A warning was given. Decades of Sahelian research work are being overlooked, or re-invented in new studies. We are not always acknowledging previous findings and using them, because although we all work in the Sahel, we are constrained in how we work - often in isolated locations, and transmitting information through relatively slow academic media. There are also limitations on how, where and what we can investigate, with some of the most severe limitations being experienced by the region's own universities and research centres. Local researchers, one particicipant noted, are often taken on as junior partners in foreign-led investigations, lacking 'control' over the product. There are 'fads' in research funding and political upsets that can disrupt ongoing research. There is no major repository for knowledge in the Sahel - even colonial records are dispersed. The Club du Sahel is aware of this issue, however, and is considering ways to create better research networks and networking. For the present, personal contacts and experience often determine the success and failure of a research endeavour, and certain locations or countries (Senegal, the Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso) are curently more 'in favour' because research is relatively easy to carry out there.

Several participants highlighted specific research needs. Gaoussou Traoré wanted to see the efficient monitoring of regional trends, to guide eco-regional work. Melissa Leach of IDS supported more research on the policy process itself - we need to study organisations like the World Bank, CILSS, and even small NGOs and bilateral projects, to understand decision making processes better, and how they create policy and implement it. This type of work might be better able to explain failure, and success, on institutional criteria that could be changed. Others pointed out that most investigations still had an unfashionably poor understanding of local cultural realities. Much was made of the need to increase the relevance and timeliness of research for policy formulation. A participant later noted the irrelevance of most development research to the everyday needs of NGOs working in the Sahel. Claude Raynaut and Mike Mortimore both stressed that the researcher's most important partners should be communities, not policymakers. This would avoid the problem of research being 'supply driven' by those who control the funds. If so, research would become more of an aid to indigenous experimentation and reflection, and directed less by international funders. Small-scale examples of this actor-driven form of research are going on in Senegal and other countries, as part of the drive to promote truly 'participatory' action-research initiatives.

4) Resource management issues
Development donors are showing a strong interest in funding 'natural resource management' projects at the present time. This is driven by genuine concerns about ecological degradation and the vital role of natural resources in rural livelihood systems. There was some concern expressed at the meeting that there is evidence, drawing on analysis of numerous projects initiated since the droughts of the 1970s, that support to natural resource management alone will not necessarily permit improvement in 'household viability' unless other structural constraints leading to poverty are also addressed, including income generation, employment, access, conflict, and so-on. Natural resource management is relatively easy to inscribe in the goals and the aims of a short-term project operating on a 3-5 year cycle, and there are many sound examples of projects, particularly in the NGO and state sectors, that have achieved notable successes at environmental improvements with strong local involvement. 'Household viability' is a harder objective for a development programme to focus upon, since it is requires a 'process' approach capable of overcoming a wider range of constraints, some of which may be contentious or political in origin. Such an approach might include the work of organisations like ENDA-Graf in Senegal, where farmers themselves led the research, design and implementation phases of low-key interventions over a long time period and set their own goals for use of external agency funds. Local development projects like these, which require great flexibility and fiscal latitude, are worthy of further exploration and replication in other contexts.

Three key issues for research and policy

Having discussed these themes, study groups divided up to discuss three main areas that emerged as being of prime interest to members of the workshop.

1) Rural agrarian issues
One of the issues that needed to be discussed in future work on agriculture in drylands was the seeming conflict between research studies that showed that indigenous, intensified farming systems are sustainable, and those that showed a serious decline in soil nutrient-status and quality in recent years. This issue has not been not resolved and clearly depends upon the individual context and the type of fertility being measured. One suggestion was that it was the 'scales' of analysis that might be leading to confusion - i.e. pools of nutrients may be being maintained in sites of intensive farming, while the surrounding extensively cultivated areas, or the regional nutrient supply, experiences a net loss of fertility or land quality.

It was agreed that ecological systems, particularly those exploited by pastoralists for grazing, were still not well enough understood for effective intervention, despite the widespread acceptance by researchers that non-equilibrium processes operate in these low-rainfall systems. Pastoral, agropastoral, and agricultural livelihood systems were experiencing extensive change, generated by land struggles, price fluctuations, and the political economy of investment, all of which were generating new kinds of poverty and wealth. The point was again made that better ways to work with farmers and pastoralists were needed that involved them more fully in the research process, building on participatory techniques, scientific analysis, and user-led research. One way to do this would be to develop a forum for discussion of the future of Sahelian rural livelihood systems where indigenous and externally-induced change, population resource relationships, and long term projections of nutrient, erosion and output might be debated in depth.

Work has already begun among members of the group, and others, on a range of issues looking at sustainable livelihoods and the dynamics of social and ecological change among pastoral and agricultural groups. Some current projects are described in Appendix 2. It is necessary to explore the effects of:
€non-equilibrium dynamics
€ resource depletion in agriculture
€the marketing of livestock
€opportunistic herd management and mobility
€ climatic changes and drought
on farmers and herders and their livelihood systems.

2) Institutional change and decentralization
A second group looked at the politics of decentralization in dryland West Africa. The group saw decentralization as one element in a diverse institutional framework, which could bring significant benefits given the ecological and natural diversity found in each Sahelian state. Decentralization is the progressive shift of political and sometimes fiscal responsibility from central government to lower levels of authority. It was seen to be strongly linked to Sahelian political and bureaucratic systems at many levels, so that its progress has been slow. There were comments that it can represent no more than an abdication by the state of its responsibilities, and the imposition of free-market ideologies driven by structural adjustment programmes, rather than a genuine empowerment of civil society to manage its own affairs. On the other hand, its opponents argue that decentralization creates unecessary bureaucracy at local levels. The level to which power is to be decentralized is not clear in most cases. The discussion took the form of raising the key intellectual and practical challenges for a 'decentralization politics', as follows:

€clarification was needed about the real aims of decentralization. Was it about local empowerment and self-determination? Or a reinstatement of modified forms of autonomous political systems? Or about cost-cutting measures through devolution of financial responsibilities?

€decentralized institutions need to be built alongside those of the nation state, not in opposition to it. Equally, they should not be 'led from above' and just reflect state interests. In particular, decentralisation could only work smoothly if governments release their hold over tax collection and the fiscal base to the locality. Otherwise, decentralization will continue to be centrally managed and financed, with inadequate resources and financial autonomy.

€the procedures instituted to enact decentralized management might need to be complex, reflecting the history of the particular society. It was not adequate to simply 'adapt' these local rules (over common property, law, position of chiefs, etc.) at the local level. They need to be simplified but with heed to local norms. Accountability and justice could not be 'assumed' to exist. Local institutions will need to be built with which people were comfortable, and these might not be the same as customary institutions and laws.

€further research therefore needs to be conducted on the 'politics of local management' in terms of how land access and control, financial flows and taxation, and power dynamics are shifting in areas where power is being decentralised or 'devolved'. Existing studies of ongoing decentralization programmes were underway in Mali, Burkina, Ghana and Senegal, but more needs to be learned. Research should anticipate potential problems and opportunities, so that the risks of decentralization could be minimised and to inform debate on possible rules and modes of regulation of finance, common and private property, and services.

€until local communities obtain adequate legal recognition, they will remain powerless. Global agendas, structural adjustment, donor pressures, many national environmental strategies and programmes (such as National Environmental Action Plans, etc.) and gestion des terroirs villageois (village land use management) are strong influences on decentralization politics.

3) Urban issues
The major urban settlements of the Sahel date back hundreds of years. Their religious, political and trading roles were altered during colonial period to serve administrative needs and to act as centres of economic growth. Since the 1960s, cities and small towns have continued to grow significantly, and the group felt their role has not been sufficiently recognized in the prevailing rural-biased 'discourse' of crisis and aid in the region.

€the growth of urban populations requires not only a far better understanding of rural urban linkages - both social and economic - but a new paradigm that recognises the power of urban centres to promote growth, rather than merely to absorb rural populations or to provide administrative functions.

€there are now significant holdings of land, livestock and other resources in rural areas that are owned by urban elites or business people. This factor is not sufficiently recognised, especially when designing 'community' initiatives in rural areas.

Sahelian cities have specific features or functions that require a special form of management or assistance. This results from their location, their colonial legacy, and rapid growth. Only if the positive aspects of their rapid growth are encouraged, and the negative effects of growth (a disaffected and underemployed sector, poor service functions, and environmental and health problems) are tackled effectively will Sahelian cities be able to adjust to these problems and opportunities.

€there is, therefore, a need to develop realistic models of city governance that recognise the specificity of Sahelian city environments.

Development Partnerships

The Club du Sahel and some multilateral donors and NGOs were represented at the meeting, and briefly introduced their work.

Roy Stacy, the president of the Club du Sahel, part of OECD, gave a résumé of current concerns in the region.

€the aid system contains too much duplication. This requires more regional and national coordination - which is already happening in some countries through the efforts of Sahelian government ministries - but perhaps is less evident at the international level.

€the role of the state is changing fast. Post-colonial regimes are giving way to democratically elected and accountable governments, while power is being redistributed to include more non-governmental institutions as well as inter-governmental networks.

€the relationship of the state to civil society institutions like local community groups, NGOs and federations, still contains too many tensions.

€formulation of economic, social and environmental policy at the international and national levels still requires a better grasp of Sahelian realities - despite the positive steps that have been made over the last quarter-century.

The Club du Sahel operates as an intermediary organization to share knowledge and best practice on these issues, and has recently been stressing the need to encourage regional integration and the best use of aid instruments in a time of economic reform and structural adjustment. It could act as a clearing-house for research findings and documents, and will continue to develop this role. Rationalizing economic development initiatives requires a sound knowledge of localities, and of the chain of economic enterprises and activities stretching from localities up to the national level.

Christian Chéron of the French Ministry of Cooperation explained that France's aid policy is currently undergoing a significant restructuring, and this will result in a new set of guidelines later this year and a streamlined disbursement system. The issues being considered include ways to promote economic independence, democratic regimes, and long-term sustainable development for Sahelian countries. Also under consideration are funding for conflict prevention and resolution, more funding for development education in France, and the wider 'promotion' of Sahelian interests in the international arena.

Hélène Marker of DANIDA (Denmark) mentioned the long contact that Denmark has had with CILSS and the Sahelian countries, and DANIDA's desire to see better cooperation between the aid programmes of the Nordic countries as they affect Sahelian nations. Their interests include tackling transboundary issues, including the generation of closer economic ties between Sahelian countries, and enhancing the possibilities for networking between governments and other institutions.

Cary Hendy, Natural Resources Institute, on behalf of DFID (the Department responsible for Britain's development programme), reported on recent changes. In November 1997 Britain produced an official White Paper entitled "Eliminating World Poverty: A Challenge for the 21st Century". This sets out Britain's policies, which guide development expenditure. Currently DFID does not provide direct bilateral assistance to the majority of the countries in the Sahelian region. Hovever, DFID supports a number of West and Central Africa regional initiatives, including support to the work of the Club du Sahel in line with DFID policy objectives.

Through a joint programme with the French Ministry of Cooperation, DFID is working in West and Central Africa in the areas of land tenure and resource access, agricultural policy analysis and capacity building, and on the role of farmer and pastoral organisations in development. It is contributing to the strengthening of the private sector. In the future, DFID will play an enhanced role in the region in partnership with the Club du Sahel, in the framework of the Club's agenda.

Concluding comments

The meeting concluded with a discussion of 'gaps' in existing research work, some of which were thought to require urgent exploration.

€the regional dynamics of the Sahel (explored in particular by Raynaut's and the Club du Sahel studies) were neither fully understood, nor sufficiently considered in new policy formulation. In particular, taking a regional view, it is apparent that the northern Sahelian fringes were unlikely to experience the same levels of urbanisation and population growth as their southern neighbours, and require special consideration in regional thinking and planning.

€the evolution of transport systems. The effects of new roads or railways on communities could include a boost to market potential, a change in livelihood strategies, and increased mobility. More research on these issues would help to direct limited transport infrastructure budgets more effectively.

€new studies are emerging of the effects of structural adjustment and World Bank/IMF policy in the region. As shifts in policy occur, the economic impact of these schemes are also changing. Researchers, NGOs and national governments should influence international economic policy, as opposed to merely responding to it. A 'gap' in this meeting was adequate discussion of these issues, which need to be raised elsewhere.

Niger and Chad, although members of CILSS, are currently experiencing very poor economic conditions and, as a result of recent political developments, there have been some cutbacks in international donor support. Despite its current difficulties, these nations urgently need to be better incorporated into development and eco-regional initiatives.

€lastly, there was a plea to develop and nurture multiple research agendas that improve basic understanding of processes, but which also benefit local communities as well as key policymakers, NGOs and other audiences. The old tensions between 'applied' and 'pure' research seem to remain in place. But given the rapid and unprecedented rates of change being experienced in the Sahel, we need to ask institutions of all types to listen to the research community, and to learn, as well as to create partnerships and to think strategically.

Further Information

The Appendices of this document contain details of current research being conducted by the individuals and organisations represented at the meeting. Outputs from the conference and meeting appeared in a variety of formats. An issue of the journal Global Environmental Change (Human Dimensions) includes the papers presented at the main conference, and appears as volume 11, issue 1, 2001. The meeting was featured on DFID's new information service at in July 1998. The organisers, listed on the cover page of this document, can supply further details and copies.

There was agreement that the creation of an annual forum or conference for discussion of Sahelian research and policy issues would be extremely timely. Unfortunately, a commitment to host this was not forthcoming. In recent years there has been an annual 'Sahel workshop' run by Anette Reenberg of Copenhagen University in Denmark, and this was continued in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002 at Sønderborg, Denmark.

Appendix 1 Attendees at the technical meeting, 14th May 1998

Kojo Amanor
Institute of African Studies
University of Ghana, Legon
Box 25, Legon

tel. +(233) 21500512

Hanne Kirstine Adriansen,
Institute of Geography
University of Copenhagen
DK-1350 Copenhagen K
tel +(45) 3532 2396 (direct) +(45) 3532 2500 (secretary)
Fax: +(45) 3532 2501

Simon Batterbury

University of Melbourne


Aad Blokland
KIT - Royal Tropical Institute
Mauritskade 63
1092 AD Amsterdam
tel. +(31)20 5688485
fax +(31)20 5688444

Simon Bolwig
(now in Uganda)

Mette Bovin
formerly The Nordic Africa Institute
PO Box 1703
SE-751 47 Uppsala

Joost Brouwer,
consultant, formerly Dept. of Crop Science
PO Box 341
6700 AH Wageningen
The Netherlands

Christian Chéron
formerly Bureau de la production agricole, industrielle et des échanges
Ministère des Affaires Etrangères
Secrétariat d'Etat de la Coopération
1 Bis, Avenue de Villars 75700
Paris 07 SP, France
Tel: +(33) 1 53 69 30 66
Fax: +(33) 1 53 69 30 48

Elisabeth Corell,
Swedish Institute of International Affairs


Jean Marie Cour
formery Club du Sahel, Paris

Han van Dijk
Afrika Studie Centrum
PO box 9555
2300 RB Leiden
tel. +(31) 71 5273376
fax +(31) 71 5273344

Richard Graham
Comic Relief
74 New Oxford St
London WC1A 1EF, UK

tel. +(44)(0)171 436 1541
fax + (44)(0)171 436 1541

J.J.Rob Groot
Africa Division, IDFC

Frances Harris
senior lecturer,
School of Earth Sciences and Geography
Kingston University

Penrhyn Road, Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey
020 8547 2000


Leo J. De Haan

Director, Africa Studies Centre, Univ of Leiden


Cary Hendy
Natural Resources Institute
University of Greenwich
Central Avenue

Kent ME4 4TB, UK
tel. +44 (0)1634 883537
Fax +44 (0)1634 883551

Gertie Hesseling, Director,
Afrika Studie Centrum
PO box 9555
2300 RB Leiden
tel. +(31) 71 5273376
fax +(31) 71 5273344

Thea Hilhorst
KIT, Amsterdam

Prof. Katherine Homewood
Anthropology Department
University College London
Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT
Tel. +(44) (0)171 504 2465
Fax. +(44) (0)171 380 7728

Penny Jenden, Judith Sandford,
SOS Sahel International UK
1 Tolpuddle Street
N1 0XT

Tel: +(44)(0)171 837 9129 Fax: +(44)(0)171 837 0856

Dolf Noppen
Nordic Consulting Group
Kirkevej 8
DK-2630 Taastrup
tel. +(45) 43716200

Peter Laban,
ILEIA, Centre for Research and Information on Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture
Kastanjelaan 5, 3830 AB Leusden P.O. Box 64
The Netherlands
Tel.: +(31) (0)33 494 30 86
Fax: +(31) (0)33 495 17 79

Prof. Melissa Leach
Environment Group
Institute for Development Studies
Sussex University
Falmer, Brighton, BN1 9RF, UK
tel. +(44)(0)1273 678667
fax +(44)(0)1273 621202

Marybeth Long

Judy Longbottom
formerly IIED

Dr Aboubacar Mamman
Dept of Geography
University of Sokoto
Sokoto State


Prof. Henrik Secher Marcussen
Department of Geography and Intl. Development Studies
Roskilde University / 5.1
P.O. Box 260, DK-4000 Roskilde,
Phone: +(45) 46 74 23 20 Fax:+(45) 46 74 30 33

Hélène Marker
Asiatisk Plads 2
tel +(45) 33920000

Zoe Marriage
London WC1A 2AE

Prof. Mike Mortimore
Drylands Research
17 Market Sq
Somerset TA18 7LG, UK
Tel/Fax +(44)(0)1460 75363

Prof. Christian Lund
Department of Geography and International Development Studies
Roskilde University
PO Box 260, DK-4000 Roskilde, Denmark
Tel: +(45) 46 75 77 11 Direct +45 46 75 77 81
Fax: +(45) 46 75 37 05

Peter Oksen,
SLUSE (Danish University Consortium on Sustainable Land Use and Natural Resource Management)
Department of Geography and International Development Studies
Roskilde University / 5.1
P.O. Box 260, DK-4000 Roskilde, Denmark
tel. +(45) 46 74 23 20
Fax:+(45) 46 74 30 33

Hubert Ouedraogo
consultant, GRAF, Ouagadougou
Burkina Faso

Sara Claire Randall
Anthropology Department
University College London
Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT
Tel. +(44)(0) 171 504 2465
Fax. +(44)(0) 171 380 7728

Micheline Ravololonarisoa,
A.C.O.R.D. - Agency for Co-operation and Research in Development/Association de Cooperation et de Recherches pour le Developpement
52 Horseferry Road
London SW1P 2AF

Telephone: +(44) (0)171-227 8600
Fax +(44) (0)171 799 1868

Claude Raynaut
Université Bordeaux II
146 rue Léo Saignat
33076 Bordeaux cedex
tel +(33) 556518562
Fax +(33) 556518564

Coen Reijntjes
ILEIA, Centre for Research and Information on Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture
Kastanjelaan 5, 3830 AB Leusden P.O. Box 64
The Netherlands
Tel.: +(31) (0)33 - 494 30 86
Fax: +(31) (0)33 - 495 17 79

Alister Scott
formerly ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme, now PhD student
Mantell Building, University of Sussex
Falmer, Brighton, BN1 9RF, UK
tel. +(44)(0)-1273-678935
Fax: +(44)(0)-1273-604483

Brent M. Simpson
WARDA, Ivory Coast, West Africa

Roy Stacy
formerly director of the Club du Sahel, OECD

Dr Hans-Jurgen Sturm
Programme Special de Recherche 268, Botanisches Institut
Johan-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universitat Frankfurt
60323 Frankfurt
Tel: +(49)69 7982453
Fax: +(49) 69 79824702

Brigitte Thébaud
Skovbovaengets Sidealle 5
4000 Roskilde
Tel +(45) 46320553
Fax +(45) 46320554

Gaoussou Traoré
BP 1530 Bamako
tel +(223) 222148
fax +(223) 222337

Mary Tiffen,
Drylands Research
17 Market Sq, Crewkerne, Somerset TA18 7LG,

Tel & fax: +(44) (0)1460-75363

Camilla Toulmin
4 Hanover St
Edinburgh EH2 2EN UK

tel. +(44)(0)131 624 7040
fax +(44)(0) 131 624 7050

Trond Vedeld
formerly NORAGRIC
PO Box 5001
N-1432 As

Prof. Andrew Warren
emeritus, Department of Geography,
University College London,
London, WC1H 0AP,
tel: +(44) (0)171 504 4291
fax: +(44) (0)171 504 4293

Phil Woodhouse
University of Manchester
Precinct Centre Oxford Rd
Manchester M13 9GH,
tel. +(44)(0)161 275 2801
fax +(44)(0)161 273 8829

Appendix 2 goes here - Photocopies of research and institutional details submitted at the meeting or relevant to the discussions.

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Last modified on 2 Jan 2005.