Building Resilience in the Sahel in an Era of Forced Displacement

Arid soils in Mauritania, 2012. Photo Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

On Thursday, April 8, the Population Institute partnered with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, Maternal Health Initiative, and Africa Program to host an event on the growing regional environmental security risks in the Sahel. During the event entitled “Building Resilience in the Sahel in an Era of Forced Displacement,” panelists engaged on a number of issue areas including the ways in which climate change has exacerbated regional tensions and forced the mobility of communities.

The event began with introductory remarks by Ambassador Mark Green, the President, Director, and CEO of the Wilson Center and was hosted by Lauren Herzer Risi, Project Director for the Environmental Change and Security Program.

Panelists included Ngozi Amu, Team Leader and Head of Research and Analysis, United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel; Elizabeth Ferris, Research Professor at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown Walsh School of Foreign Service; Florian Morier, Head of Stabilization at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Cameroon; Wise Nzikie Ngasa the Justice and Resilience Program Director at Mercy Corps in Mali; and Kayly Ober, Senior Advocate and Program Manager at the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International.

Ambassador Mark Green began the event with a thought-provoking introduction. He explained that issues in the region including poverty, conflict, and human mobility are all compounded by the impact of climate change. Ambassador Green explained that women and girls are disproportionally impacted, noting that there should be a focus on “interventions that build resilience to climate change, foster social cohesion and address gender and other disparities.”

Asked to provide context on the relationship between peace and security in the region, Ms. Amu explained that the last decade in the Sahel has been characterized by increasing tensions and escalating conflicts between farmers and herders, humanitarian and human rights violations, as well as the southward movement of Boko Haram. She explained that these “devastating developments” are exacerbated by climate change and create “challenges and opportunities” in the region. Given that 70 to 80 percent of the region’s population are farmers or herders, as regional temperatures rise at a rate that is 1.5 times faster than other parts of the world, Ms. Amu argued there should be an intergovernmental focus on ways to mitigate the detrimental effects of climate change so people can survive economically in the region.[i]

Ms. Amu said there is potential for global trade and peaceful development, as well as opportunities for solar and wind energy development and natural resource governance in the Sahel. To address challenges, she argued, “we must broaden partnerships horizontally but also vertically,” we must “link with local communities,” and try to “link with local and regional policies.”

Next, the moderator turned to Mr. Ngasa to discuss his perspective on the dynamics at the community level in Central Mali where he supports security programs in Segou. He explained that climate change has marginalized more people in Mali and that government programming should work with communities to identify local and regional climate shocks and drivers that contribute to escalation of conflicts and growing gender issues. Mr. Ngasa highlighted the slow-onset issues he has seen with the rising temperature and its contribution to environmental degradation, low agriculture productivity, and subsequent food insecurity. He explained it is “very difficult to tell more and more when rain is to come.”

Mr. Ngasa said that the limited natural resources in the Sahel, and in Mali in particular, have further divided farmers, especially those of different ethnic groups. There are also tensions between states, security forces, and non-state armed groups. Mr. Ngasa said that past human rights abuses by security forces have led to the proliferation of self-defense groups and widespread distrust and safety concerns in the communities.

Ms. Risi then pivoted to Mr. Morier to discuss the challenges of the UNDP’s regional stabilization work in northern Cameroon. Mr. Morier began by explaining that terrorist groups, including Boko Haram, contribute to growing security issues in Cameroon. He explained that his work focuses on “challenges and adaptive responses” and aims to foster community trust.

The approach to building trust, improving state security, and strengthening governance begins with civil-military cooperation, improving the justice system, and creating systems to hold police accountable for abusive behavior. Interestingly, Mr. Morier mentioned there is confusion between terrorism and organized crime. He mentioned the importance of prosecution and justice training and emphasized that regaining public trust in the state should begin with reshaping the behavior of police officers.

Finally, Mr. Morier argued there is “no new approach” to security and that the goal should be to promote holistic security measures that provide basic services and protections for vulnerable groups. He explained that this method has worked to mitigate the number of displaced people between the Nigerian and Cameroon border.

Ms. Risi then turned to Professor Ferris to discuss displacement, migration, and mobility and “what we are not capturing in our understanding of displacement.”

Dr. Ferris explained that security and peace are challenging when the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) continues to grow. She said “displacement is becoming more and more protracted” as the recent nature of conflict is to have longer, ongoing wars. Notably, from 1970 to the mid-2000s the average length of conflicts increased from 9.6 to 26 years.[ii]

Dr. Ferris said unstable regions and ongoing conflicts make returning home improbable, which constrains humanitarian intervention and solutions.  She explained that a majority refugees and IDPs are coming from regions most impacted by climate change. Professor Ferris concluded that regional governments should work with the international community to reduce the risk of internal and international displacement.

Finally, the moderator turned to Ms. Ober who, like Dr. Ferris, took a macro-approach to her analysis during the event. Ms. Ober began by boldly stating: “We are in the midst of a climate crisis.” She explained that the climate crisis is perpetuating the underlying causes of displacement and forcibly displaces three times more people than conflict.[iii] Given this, Ms. Ober explained the issue should be “tackle[ed] from many angles” since sudden and slow onset climate disasters are complex and “exacerbate the drivers to move, including [the] political, economic, social” causes of migration.

Ms. Ober concluded by highlighting trends she has seen in her extensive climate migration research. She noted that climate-related displacements are seldomly across country borders. The poor and vulnerable will be the first displaced, including those with livelihoods dependent on agriculture and farming.She mentioned this with a caveat that the “poorest of the poor may become trapped” due to limited assets and resources to move. Finally, Ms. Ober noted that climate adaptation is possible, but will require strong regional governance.

The discussion continued with comments from Mr. Ngasa on the importance of inclusive, community-led monitoring programs focused on “building resilience and capacity” supplemented by systemic approaches focused on addressing the shocks and drivers of displacement and regional insecurity. Mr. Ngasa said that programs should work toward fostering peace and bolstering state-wide capacity to resolve intrastate conflicts through strong mechanisms for civil-military relations and enhanced dialogue between humanitarian programs and state governments.

The Wilson Center event was informative and timely, from both micro- and macro-levels of analysis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, much of our international rhetoric and focus has shifted toward pandemic preparedness and response, which is tenable given the gravity of the global crisis. Nevertheless, the global temperature continues to rise, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels continue to increase every decade, and the vulnerable continue to be displaced due to climate-related disasters.[iv]

Further, if we have learned anything during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that the global community seems only to act in response to crises that impact everyone, especially high-income countries which have a louder voice in international institutions. The response of the international community has been inadequate and inequitable, especially with the distribution of global health supplies and COVID-19 vaccine distribution.[v] The international community and high-income countries cannot wait to address the climate crisis in the same way we have waited, and arguably failed, to address the pandemic. If we wait, more lives will be uprooted and lost, especially in low and middle-income countries, which are more dramatically impacted by the effects of climate change.[vi] The international community must invest in infrastructure for climate preparedness and response. If we fail to construct and enforce bold climate regulations to address systemic root causes of warming temperatures and environmental degradation, there will be an immutable shift in our global structure as we know it.


[i] Julie Mayans, “The Sahel in the midst of climate change,” Relief Web, March 17, 2020,,the%20rest%20of%20the%20world.&text=Two%20out%20of%20three%20people,deteriorating%20and%20losing%20its%20fertility.

[ii] “Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict—Main Messages and Emerging Policy Directions,” The World Bank Group, 2017,

[iii] “Global Report on Internal Displacement 2020,” Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Norwegian Refugee Council, 2020,

[iv] Robert McSweeny and Ayesha Tandon, “Global Carbon Project: Coronavirus causes ‘record fall’ in fossil-fuel emissions in 2020,” CarbonBrief, November 12, 2020,

[v] Amanda Glassman and Rachel Silverman, “The International Community has One Job: Getting COVID-19 Under Control,” Center for Global Development, April 23, 2021,

[vi] Isabelle Durant, “The developing world must get ready to adapt its trade to climate change,” UNCTAD, March 3, 2021,

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