Opening statement at Sahel seminar

State Secretary Marianne Hagen's opening statement at the seminar “The Sahel – Food security and the development in the midst of protracted crises” arranged by Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU).

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Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to this important event. Some of the most important voices on the Sahel in Norway are gathered in this room today. The Drylands Coordination Group is  the heart of Norway’s collective competence on climate change, food security and natural resource management in the Sahel region.  This is also why Government ministers from the Sahel countries have found it valuable to visit Noragric and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences when visiting Norway.

Norway’s engagement in the Sahel started nearly 40 years ago. The extreme drought in the wider Sahel region, and the shocking images of starving children, called for a coordinated response. The Norwegian Sahel-Sudan-Ethiopia (SSE) programme was launched in 1985. This programme provided a combination of research and assistance to the region, with the aim of reducing and preventing famine, poverty and conflict. Norwegian research institutions, NGOs and multilateral organisations worked closely together with the affected countries to increase food production and improve food security. The SSE programme was concluded in 1995, but Norwegian assistance to the region continued. In Sudan and Ethiopia, our embassies have been the focal points for development cooperation. In the francophone Sahel region, however, Norwegian NGOs and researchers were the ones who held the Norwegian flag high. You have been excellent representatives of Norway!

At the beginning of this year, I had the pleasure to open Norway’s newest embassy – in Bamako. Although our engagement in the Sahel region has deep roots, this is the first Norwegian diplomatic presence in Mali and in the region. With the establishment of the embassy in Bamako, Norway is seeking to strengthen its relations with all of the five Sahel countries: Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.

Norway’s increased engagement in the Sahel is part of the Government’s efforts to promote conflict prevention, stabilisation and resilience building in countries and regions affected by fragility and conflict. The population in this region has suffered crisis after crisis, as a result of both armed conflict and natural disasters. Conflicts over land and water rights, cattle corridors and limited resources flare up every year. And this year, the problems are more critical and pressing than ever, as the river Niger is reportedly at its lowest level for over 40 years. The World Food Programme and FAO are gravely concerned about food security in a number of regions in Mali. The situation is the same throughout the Sahel belt.

In addition, several of the countries in the region are suffering from weak governance. Food insecurity and local conflicts between farmers and herders are further fuelling the larger conflicts, including the ongoing fight against jihadist groups and radicalisation. These conflicts are having a dramatic impact on efforts to restore land and increase food production – the security situation is affecting every part of daily life in the region.

Norway has two separate, but connected goals in the Sahel:

  • Contribute to security, peace and reconciliation
  • Contribute to long-term, durable and inclusive development

To reach these goals, we need to take a holistic and integrated approach. To start with security: our engagement on the global, regional and national levels aims to re-establish trust in the government structures and foster resilient local communities. The goal is to prevent conflicts and contribute to peace. Norway therefor provides strong political and financial support to the implementation of the Alger peace accord for Mali.

Military, political and financial support

Norway has participated in the UN integrated stabilisation mission Minusma since its inception. We support the mission financially, and have deployed highly qualified military personnel to participate on the ground. In 2016, Norway, together with four partner countries, initiated a rotation scheme for the provision of military transport aircraft to Minusma. Given the number of attacks on Minusma's patrols and logistics convoys, a military transport aircraft is a critical enabler. Last year we decided to prolong the rotation scheme until 2020. This signals our continued commitment to peace and security in Mali and its neighbouring countries. Norway also provides camp facilites and services for all rotation partners.

In addition, Norway has given political and financial support to the security cooperation among the Sahel countries in the G5 Sahel context. It is important that the countries in the region take responsibility for the safety of their people. Through these contributions, Norway is showing its determination to be a long-term partner to the Sahel countries.

Norway supports as well the dialogue and  conflict resolution initiatives that that are beeing conducted by civil society actors in local communities. Norwegian Church Aid has been an important partner in this regard. These efforts complement the broader initiatives to foster stability and peace.

Security is a prerequisite for sustainable development. However, we cannot wait until peace has taken hold before we start creating better living conditions for the people. Therefore, in parallel, we are working to secure inclusive economic, social and political development through our engagement for education, health, food security and climate-based agriculture.

The Norwegian Government is currently drawing up a global action plan on sustainable food systems. The plan will bring together questions related to nutrition, food security, climate smart agriculture and the five Norwegian development priorities: health, education, job creation, renewable energy and climate change, as well as humanitarian aid. A major part of the global action plan will focus on Africa. The Sahel is a region where extensive efforts are needed in all of these areas. To achieve sustainable development by 2030, we need to work in a coordinated manner on all these thematic areas.

I am glad to say that this is exactly what Norway has been doing in the Sahel. Thanks to the early initiatives taken by some of you here today, climate-resilient agriculture and food security remains one of the main pillars of our involvement in the Sahel, particularly in Mali and Niger. Another main pillar is education and health, due to the Government’s strong emphasis on these areas.

Our flagship project in the area of food security and climate-resilient agriculture has been the rehabilitation of the Lac Faguibine natural irrigation system in the Timbuktu region of Mali. This region is severely affected by the conflict, and as a result, agricultural activities have been halted in many areas. By improving the irrigation systems, we will both contribute to increased food production and provide jobs for the local population. We are now working to mobilise the necessary resources and partners to secure the next phase of the project.

Norway is also supporting the research cooperation between the Malian Institute for Rural Economy and Noragric. Through this cooperation, evidence and research-based input is being provided that can help to improve food security and living conditions. The goal is to find ways to adapt agriculture and livestock systems to climate change in central and northern regions of Mali. This research is, for instance, being used to ensure that Lac Faguibine’s resources are used in the best possible manner. And it has inspired the launch of similar cooperation between Noragric, Care, and a Nigerian national agronomic research institute.

Sadly, the security situation in the Sahel is negatively affecting our ability to implement programmes. It is a bit of a Catch 22: without security on the ground, partners and implementing organisations are not able to work as effectively as we would like. But without development efforts, there can be no security in the long term. We need food security, education for children, economic growth and employment opportunities for young people. Security and sustainable development go hand in hand.

Norway will continue to promote peace, stability and sustainable development, as set out in the strategy for our work in the Sahel that is currently being drawn up. I am therefore delighted to see the level of engagement for this region among Norwegian researchers and civil society actors. I look forward to continuing our close collaboration and partnership.