IIED at 50: be prepared to engage with young activists

Former IIED director Camilla Toulmin talks to IIED trustee Bara Guèye about the biggest environment and development issues facing West Africa and how IIED can respond to future challenges.

Article, 29 November 2021

Bara GueyeCamilla Toulmin (CT) and Bara Guèye (BG) have both spent more than 35 years working on environment and development in West Africa.

During the 1990s they collaborated on IIED’s drylands programme, establishing participatory development initiatives in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Senegal. In 2005, Bara Guèye set up Innovation, Environnement et Développement en Afrique (IED Afrique) in Senegal to take this work forward and headed the organisation until 2019. It continues to work on sustainable development and citizenship with an emphasis on participatory development, governance and climate resilience.

In this conversation, they discuss the importance of participatory development, current challenges facing West Africa and how IIED and IED Afrique can play a part in addressing those challenges.

CT: When I first met you in Dakar, probably in 1989, you were leading the development of participatory approaches in the Sahel. 

At that time, the Sahel needed to find ways to provide livelihoods and incomes for rural populations in drylands areas. Instead of top-down approaches, which had been tried and failed, there was a need to build ways to listen to and work with local people. Is that your assessment?

BG: Yes, that was part of it. I think IIED’s drylands programme was able to explore drylands as very complex systems.

It was also the idea of changing perspective, moving away from seeing drylands as hotspots of problems – which is a widespread but biased policy view, not only in our governments but in international development rhetoric – to seeing them as hotspots of potential.

The whole policy framework was built around a narrative where development programmes were meant to come and solve problems. It did not take into account the complexity of the system and the fact that there was a lot of innovation happening at local level.

I think my engagement with IIED was very instrumental in building this perspective, and eventually, when we set up IED Afrique, we tried also to work around the same perspective.

There is a strong activism developing in the region: local communities, civil society acting as watchdogs to ensure that the right policies are made. And most of the time, it’s the young people who are spearheading this kind of movement.

CT: If you look at the situation today and ahead into the future, what do you think the priorities should be for regions like the Sahel? Is it a continuous battle to try and push the concepts and approaches that we’ve worked with so far?

BG: I think these concepts and approaches are still highly relevant. What we need to do is adapt to new challenges.

Of course, climate change has been always there. People have learned to live with climate variability for many decades, even centuries. But what’s changed is that we have more evidence from science on the trends and the potential impacts, short and long-term, which was perhaps not the case in the late 1980s. We cannot ignore that we have new evidence, and policy can be better informed based on this new evidence.

Another challenge which the Sahel is facing, and which needs to be taken into account in our future, is the issue of insecurity. Insecurity has become a major, major challenge in the region, which stands to write off all the efforts of governments – not only in the countries where you have the crisis – Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Nigeria, but even the surrounding countries, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and others, because of the close social, cultural and economic interdependencies that exist between them.

This is a major issue, not only from a macro policy perspective, but also from a local perspective with the impact on people’s livelihoods, because displacement of people triggered by this crisis will culminate in many conflicts around land and other resources. There are very many other implications around the issue of insecurity. We cannot really look at the future of the region without having that as a central point.

Aerial view of an arid landscape. A group of people walk.

People walking in the Sahel region (Photo: Daniel Tiveau/CIFOR via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A third very important challenge is the natural resource grab. Globally there is a lot of change happening. Africa being the last frontier where you have a natural reserve of land, in the future will have many implications in terms of policy. You are already seeing the implications in our different regions and the type of conflicts that arise from this.

At the same time, which is maybe comforting, we see the emergence of a new type of civic engagement around natural resource management.

There is a strong activism developing in the region: local communities, civil society acting as watchdogs to ensure that the right policies are made. And most of the time, it’s the young people who are spearheading this kind of movement. And I think they will continue to have a major role in this in the future.

COVID-19 has been a key eye-opener on the challenges and limitations of the current policies; ie a lack of genuine understanding on the close interdependence between health and other sectors.

It’s important also to talk about the demographic challenge in Africa in general, but we’re talking about the Sahel, where the population grows rapidly with a large majority of young and more educated people.

In theory, this should translate into a sort of demographic dividend, but the economies are not strong enough to invest in young people and really profit from this opportunity. So instead of there being a dividend, it tends to be a problem for our government because they’re not able to generate the needed scale and type of opportunity for employment. Most of them try to find their way in the informal sector; while others opt for risky routes to international migration via the desert and/or the sea.

I don’t think governments are really taking this seriously or trying to look at an appropriate policy response to accompany this.

All this will have a lot of implications in terms of policy narrative, policy discourse.

Finally, COVID-19 has been a key eye-opener on the challenges and limitations of the current policies; ie a lack of genuine understanding on the close interdependence between health and other sectors. For example, we have seen the implications of COVID-19 in terms of disturbances within agri-food value chains, the tourism sector and prices of primary goods to name a few.

At a more global level, developing countries have experienced during these two years of COVID-19 what ‘multilateralism’ really meant for them. When a global crisis of this scale occurs, developed countries tend to look after themselves first before they look at helping others. And I think African countries should draw lessons from all this.

Indeed, while they should be aware that they are in a global world and have many interactions with other countries, they need at the same time to build their own sovereignty and not depend on others. The emerging narrative around health and food sovereignty in the Sahel is informed by these lessons learned.

CT: You’ve known IIED now for more than 30 years and you’re currently a member of IIED’s board of trustees. What do you think IIED could be doing differently in the coming years?

BG: It’s a very tricky question. I don’t know… I am a bit biased. I think IIED is doing great things!

I think one thing maybe is to ask ourselves what being a global organisation means for us. Is it just around the narrative and the projects you do? Or does it also mean that you translate your perspective into your physical representation or location globally?

Indeed, some constituencies may still see IIED as a Northern organisation, and might like to see it physically represented in one way or another in the critical regions where it operates – for example Africa and Asia where IIED has really a very strong position with many, many programmes.

CT: What else do you think IIED needs to do in order to change and evolve, to meet the way in which the world is changing?

BG: What I see is the emergence of a new web of activism on different issues. I think youth will play a very critical role in the future and particularly in West Africa, and across Africa – and the developing world in general. You have a new generation of young people who are challenging international relations.

I think this is very important for IIED. We are currently debating on decolonising research and it’s important for an organisation to be proactive on this issue. It will be a key area in the development arena going forward and a central issue for young activist movements. Looking ahead, it will be crucial for IIED to engage with these emerging global movements.