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Thanks to the Sarraounia project, the percentage of girls passing
exams increased and school drop-outs were prevented. © Enabel
Niger – a country in the Sahel in West Africa – became independent from France in 1960. In the early 1970s, the country was already known as one of the poorest in the world. The first co-operation agreement between Belgium and Niger was signed in Brussels on 10 May 1971. Our country held the view that Niger was in dire need of development assistance.
Initially, the focus was on rural development and the training of senior officials. A catastrophic famine followed soon after in 1972–73 due to prolonged drought. The Belgian Development Cooperation then switched to an integrated approach with the intention of achieving greater food security. Support for agriculture and healthcare, construction of water infrastructure, and technical training were the main lines of action. Humanitarian aid also became a permanent feature.
Picture accompanying an overview article on cooperation with Niger in the late 1980s, in the magazine Dimension 3. © FOD BUZA/SPF AE
However, Niger is a difficult country. In addition to a changeable climate – exacerbated by climate change – the country also has to contend with armed groups. The state is quite weak while the poverty-stricken population is booming (see box).
Nevertheless, Guy Sevrin, Belgian ambassador in Niamey, Niger's capital city, looks back on 50 years of development co-operation with satisfaction 'We've achieved great things that the people are very happy with,' he says. 'We provided technical support to the hospital in Dosso. Health personnel were given scholarships to gain further qualifications in Belgium. Hospitals in four districts were able to greatly improve their health services.'
'Recently, in May 2021, we opened a hospital in the Gothèye district in celebration of 50 years of cooperation. It's in one of the least safe areas of the country, but we don't want to leave the people there to their fate.'
'In the agricultural sector, we supported livestock breeding, pastoral activities, and meat production from cattle, sheep and poultry, including in the form of "kilishi" or dried meat. And thanks to the Sarraounia project, we managed to increase the exam pass rate among girls and prevent school dropout.'
Opening of a hospital in the Gothèye district in May 2021. From left to right: Ambassador Guy Sevrin, Director Enabel Jean Van Wetter, Enabel Niger Manager Sandra Galbusera and Nigerien Minister of Health Maïnassara. © Ambabel Niamey
It is not true that, in a fragile state like Niger, it is very difficult to cooperate with the government. 'We were able to enjoy a privileged, very favourable relationship with the Nigerian authorities,' Sevrin points out. 'Our constructive and candid exchanges allowed us to work closely together to realise the development programmes.'
What is more, Niger is evolving positively in terms of democratisation. 'On 2 April 2021, Mohamed Bazoum became president after being elected on 21 February. He succeeded President Mahamadou Issoufou, of the same party, who had been in power for ten years. A clear sign of greater political stability, although a great many governance challenges remain. Niger has to contend with a great deal of corruption, for example. The new president wants to take action to tackle it, but has too few resources.'
The country is also a reliable partner at the international level. Sevrin: 'Niger is fully devoted to its international commitments on climate and environment, and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It has been a member of the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS) since its creation in 1973 and it actively participates in regional initiatives such as the Great Green Wall.'
In addition, Niger is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2020 and 2021. There was, therefore, a one-year overlap with Belgian membership in 2020. 'We were able to work very effectively with Niger during that period, including on children and armed conflict.'
3 Ds: Diplomacy, Development & Defence
The growing instability in sparsely populated areas (see box) is obviously a cause for concern. That is why the choice of intervention zones of the Belgian Development Cooperation is based on a detailed risk analysis. 'Development is a long process and the context is constantly evolving,' says Sevrin. 'So we need to adopt a flexible approach and always listen to the needs of our partners.’
The security situation also forced Belgium to experiment with a "comprehensive approach", known as a 3 Ds approach. A pilot project in Torodi (2022–2026) will determine the extent to which Foreign Affairs (diplomacy), Development Cooperation (development) and Defence can join forces for the benefit of the population.
The Belgian army has indeed been active in Niger for several years. For example, Operation New Nero (ONN) began in 2017, which increases the capacity of Nigerian special units. Today, about 80 Belgian paratroopers train their Nigerian colleagues in Maradi, while a coordination unit is also active in Niamey. The training of the 5th company of special units was completed at the end of 2020, and the sixth and last will follow this year.
But development co-operation itself can also contribute towards greater security. Sevrin: 'Niger has an extremely young population. If we can offer those young people a future, they will be less inclined to join terrorist groups. That's why we make such an effort to create jobs and improve the living conditions of the most vulnerable people.'
A well in Tibiri to give water to the cattle (project Enabel). © Enabel
A future for Niger
As a founding member of the Club du Sahel (March 1976, Dakar), Belgium has not let Niger go. Sevrin: 'For 2022–2026, we are planning to allocate €50 million to governmental cooperation; the budget for Belgian NGOs active in Niger will be increased; military cooperation will be stepped up; and a substantial part of the thematic portfolio "Sahel climate" will go to Niger.'
'Niger has a future,' Sevrin concludes. 'It's a vast country with a young population, and that's an asset. Its soil is brimming with natural resources. It is a question of giving the country the support it needs so that it can fulfil its enormous human and material potential. Contributing towards a safer environment is undeniably part of that.'
50 years of co-operation in a few figures
In 1971, Belgium invested 9 million Belgian francs in Niger; by 1981 this had already increased to 351.5 million francs.
From 2017 to 2020, Belgium spent 34 million euros on governmental co-operation for healthcare and livestock through the Belgian Development Agency (Enabel). During the same period, non-governmental actors spent between €2.8 and €3.4 million each year. Humanitarian aid was between €2 and €4.3 million per year.
In total, Belgium spent €75.87 million on ODA (official development assistance) in Niger in 2017–2020.
Niger in a nutshell
Niger is a country in the Sahel in West Africa. Its population of 21.5 million (2018 figure) lives across 1.267 million km², an area over 40 times the size of Belgium. Ninety per cent of the population live on one third of the territory, mainly the Sahel in the South, a sparse savannah. To the north lies the Sahara Desert.
Agriculture provides a living for 80% of the population, accounting for 37.8% of the gross national product (GNP). Commodities such as uranium, gold, and petroleum contribute 7.1% of GNP, while the services sector accounts for 39%.
Like other Sahel countries, Niger often suffers from an erratic climate, which is only made worse by climate change. Extreme droughts regularly affect the country, resulting in famine, but heavy flooding also occurs.
The population is growing annually by 3.9% (7.2 children for every woman, a world record). Two out of every five citizens of Niger live below the poverty line (< USD 1.9 per day), 95% of them in rural areas. For many years, Niger has been in last place on the Human Development Index.
The country has had to deal with various armed groups, including Muslim extremists, especially since the Libyan crisis in 2011. The state is too weak to exercise control in the vast, inhospitable areas where the groups operate.