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Minister of Development Cooperation Caroline Gennez meets with Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum (© FPS Foreign Affairs).
On 1 June 2023, Minister of Development Cooperation Caroline Gennez was in Niger to launch a pilot project there using the 3D approach. Development cooperation, diplomacy and defence are joining forces there. This should improve living conditions and restore the population's trust in its government.
The Sahel is an extremely fragile region owing to a variety of factors. These include extreme poverty, an encroaching desert and weak state structures. Moreover, since the early 2010s, jihadist and other armed groups have been active, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamic State (IS) and Boko Haram.
Niger – nonetheless one of the very poorest countries in the Sahel – remains for now a more or less stable island within the turbulent region. Its economic growth is remarkable and its very young Nigerian population has enormous economic potential. Niger is also a reliable partner. The country is evolving favourably in terms of democratisation, and the current civilian president Mohamed Bazoum wants to tackle things thoroughly.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons
In the meantime, there is no shortage of problems and challenges. For example, climate disruption and increasing dehydration are leading to conflicts between itinerant herders and sedentary farmers in the south. Nor is Niger escaping the scourge of armed groups. In the vast, inhospitable areas where they operate, the Nigerien state is too weak to exercise control. Moreover, recent coups in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso brought military juntas to power.
Insecurity is forcing countless Nigeriens to flee within their own country. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 270,000 internally displaced persons are believed to be living there. But Niger is also on one of the main refugee and migration routes in Africa. Thousands of people from Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Mali are seeking protection there. Supported in part by Belgium, UNHCR is providing assistance to the more than 580,000 refugees and internally displaced persons.
Torodi: no security without development (and vice versa)
One of the regions plagued by armed gangs and jihadists is the department of Torodi, located between capital city Niamey and the border with Burkina Faso. In order to somewhat stabilise that rural area, the Nigerien government has requested support from the international community. It is aiming to restore its presence there, strengthen social cohesion and improve public services. This is intended to boost public confidence in its government.
In any case, according to the Nigerien government, it is essential that the battle against terrorism be accompanied by development programmes that improve the living conditions of Torodi's 260,000 residents. After all, there can be no security without development.
Because if young people see no future, they are easy prey for Muslim extremists on recruitment duty, for example. 'Then they join up, not from religious conviction, but from economic motives or from a sense of injustice or discrimination,' Niger's top general Abdou Tarka recently told VRT. The reverse is equally true. When there are continuous attacks being committed, or threats of violence, development projects do not get off the ground.
Africa director Philippe Bronchain visits the national gendarmerie in Niamey (© FPS Foreign Affairs).
Working more efficiently with 3D
In response to this clear demand for support from the Nigerien government, Belgium was one of the first countries to propose what is known as a 3D approach. Diplomacy, defence and development cooperation are joining forces there. This should allow for far more efficient working in a fragile context.
For example, Belgian diplomacy has the advantage of privileged contacts through its ambassador on the ground, both with the central government in Niamey and with the local authorities. This allows it to permanently monitor whether activities are being properly aligned with Niger's priorities. This benefits the sustainability of the results.
Belgian defence is supporting Nigerien forces to make them more autonomous and resilient. This is being done through consulting, training and the provision of 'non-lethal' equipment such as helmets, binoculars, sleeping equipment, vehicles, navigation and communication equipment and so on.
Defence is also closely involved in the construction of a new command post in Torodi. From there, Niger will direct its operations in the area. Along with the presence of other forces of order – police, gendarmerie, national guard – this support should ensure that the Nigerien people regain confidence in their security forces. This, of course, is only possible if they manage to ensure safety. The Belgian Army has been providing training in Niger since 2017.
Finally, the Belgian Development Cooperation – through the Belgian development agency Enabel – has commissioned a thorough analysis of the socio-economic situation in Torodi and the needs of the population. In order to meet these needs, the local government in Torodi then formulated some development and investment plans. Enabel is supporting the implementation of those plans.
For example, the population should have better access to education and healthcare. Children from destroyed schools should be able to go back to school. This will increase social protection and reduce social inequalities.
At the same time, much attention is being paid to the development of agriculture and animal husbandry to produce more food. This includes ensuring access to water for the population and livestock through boreholes. Also, the project aims to encourage young people to become more entrepreneurial.
In addition, there will be awareness campaigns for peace, civility and social cohesion. The private sector and civil society are also closely involved.
The delegation also visited the NigerLait dairy – a Belgian development project – to discuss the challenges facing agropastoralism (© FPS Foreign Affairs).
Niger has the lead
With this project Belgium does not seek the spotlight. 'In order to guarantee maximum chances of success and not to compromise the credibility of the Nigerien administrations, it was expressly requested that the presence of Belgian support be made as invisible as possible,' said Bart De Groof, Special Envoy to the Sahel. 'After all, the goal is to strengthen the presence of the Nigerien government and show the people that the state takes its duties to heart. The Nigeriens have the lead here. They formulate the needs – we step in where deemed useful and necessary.’
Inspiration for fragile environments
This comprehensive, integrated approach looks promising. Either way, it will be an exciting pilot project that may find an application in other fragile environments.
This is all the more important for Belgium because our country gives preference to fragile countries in its development cooperation: vulnerable countries with weak state systems facing internal conflicts and instability. Working in a fragile context is extremely difficult. Yet this country does not want to abandon such countries, which need help the most. The 3D approach can be inspiring.
EU jumps in
In the meantime, the EU has already been won over by the 3D approach. It’s coming along with some additional money to support the Belgian pilot project. These 'European' activities include building a commissariat and supplying equipment such as furniture, computers, bullet-proof vests and transport equipment. This should give the region's security forces some additional clout.
Initially, the plan was for the 3 '3D ministers' to travel to Niger together to officially launch the 3D project: Foreign Minister Lahbib, Defence Minister Dedonder and Development Cooperation Minister Gennez. Due to circumstances, only Minister Gennez was able to attend. That did not prevent it from being a fruitful visit that included an in-depth meeting with President Bazoum. Regardless, the 3D project is in full swing.
Belgium will not abandon Niger and the Sahel
A €60 million governmental collaboration programme is currently underway in Niger for the 2022-2027 period. This is working, among other things, to improve access to healthcare and improve the performance of agriculture and livestock. 4.5 million euros from it will flow to the 3D project in Torodi.
Our country is also working to increase climate resilience in the Sahel and is helping to build the Great Green Wall. Of the €50 million provided, €11.5 million is earmarked for Niger.
In addition, Belgium makes contributions to various international organisations working in Niger. These include the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) received 2 million euros to assist more than 400,000 refugees and internally displaced persons. Numerous Belgian NGOs also have projects in Niger.
National security strategy
But the Belgian Development Cooperation also remains unabated in countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali. Indeed, the Sahel, along with the Great Lakes region, remains a priority area for action in Belgian foreign policy.
Moreover, the focus on the Sahel also fits within Belgium's national security strategy, especially in the battle against international terrorism. As Minister Gennez put it during her visit: ‘It is naïve to think that the increasing insecurity in the Sahel will not have an impact on us here in Europe and in Belgium. Earlier, IS was also the problem of the Middle East and the US. But that did not stop the terrorist organisation from carrying out attacks in Europe. Some problems always seem far away. Until, suddenly, they are on your doorstep.'