Mission Impossible but Necessary: Unpacking Governance Within EU’s Sahel Strategy

Written by | Sunday, January 31st, 2021

The revision of the European Union’s 2011 Sahel strategy takes place against a bleak backdrop: humanitarian emergencies are piling up and 2020 marks the deadliest year in the region since 2012 with violence characterized by abuses against civilians not just by extremist groups and militias, but also by state security forces in counter-terrorism operations. Within the last decade, the EU has dedicated billions to development and military aid in the region. Most of that aid has been driven by the desire to contain migration movements and the will to contribute to counterterrorism and stabilization efforts. Already under scrutiny, the effectiveness and impact of EU policies in the Sahel have been questioned again in the aftermath of the coup in Mali.

A key component of EU strategic failures in the region lies in its understanding of governance. In fact, while Europeans have long recognized governance as a root cause of instability, efforts to tackle it have remained parallel to existing efforts in the realm of security and development. As such, governance is perceived as a stand-alone pillar – that relies predominantly on technical assistance, rather than a cross-cutting issue mainstreamed across all European interventions. The revised Sahel strategy risks being rather meaningless if the EU does not plan to unpack the lessons learned on demanding better guarantees from partners and devising a more political agenda.

Governance challenges have been understood by the EU first and foremost as a lack of national capacity. Development spending was guided by detailed log-frames, theory of change and result-bound frameworks. Yet, this technical approach to governance remains inefficient, as existing EU frameworks have been unable to prevent widespread embezzlement, corruption and misuse of resources on the part of their partners. While the EU has supported the increase of unprecedented levels of external assistance in the region, the lack of efficient oversight on potential mismanagement has had undesired consequences. Due to time and diplomatic pressures constraining donors’ actions, Sahelian stakeholders now orchestrate the utilization of international aid.

In addition, EU foreign policy goals have increasingly sedimented into development programming, made transactional on the containment of migration movements. This has consequences on governance: in northern Niger, a tight focus on migration policies has been to the detriment of local governance needs. Within the frame of security-sector assistance, EU strategy is primarily premised on the notion that re-deploying state actors – starting with the armed forces – to certain insecure regions will bring stability. The rapid re-deployment of undertrained and disinvested state armed forces creates additional backlashes as national armies have regularly been accused of extrajudicial killings and varied exactions against civilians.

EUTM Mali is illustrative of the EU’s predominant prioritization of technical assistance and capacity building. While minor advances have been achieved, this is contrasted by a lack of progress made in matters of governance such as human resources and anti-corruption systems. Indeed, while defense and security budgets are skyrocketing in the region, embezzlement scandals in Sahelian ministries, murky expenditure channels and delays in provision of troops’ salaries continue to weaken national defense and security forces’ performance. The perpetuation of rent seeking government practices, to which corruption is a key pillar, fuels socio-political discontent among Sahel populations – both in civil society and within barracks. If EU governance programs persist in ignoring the problematic functioning of local institutions they support, they could end up causing more harm than good.

‚Unpacking Governance Within the EU’s Sahel Strategy‘ – Article by Guillaume Soto-Mayor, Delina Goxho and Anna Schmauder – Clingendael / The Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

The Article can be downloaded here

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