Understanding the Sahelian Challenge through demographic data
By Mabingue Ngom
Demographic data drives and defines the core functions of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The primacy of data is of great importance to any nation as it defines and sets the parameters of economic and social development planning. Data plays a central role in the population variable in sectoral policies.
It is significant to note that the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic occurred just as UNFPA and regional governments in West and Central Africa were preparing for the 2020 round of population and housing census. While the pandemic slowed and led to the postponement of the 2020 Round of census, it has unveiled new opportunities, unfurled a new frontier for the integration of demographic health data in humanitarian settings, and stratified its importance.
All of UNFPA’s previous interventions in humanitarian situations in the Sahel, Mano and Niger Rivers riparian bowls, Liptarko Gourma area and the Lake Chad Basins whether from conflict or Ebola Virus Disease and COVID-19 pandemics were data-driven. This is because when one unpacks the figures and crunches the numbers they can be able to illustrate a needs-assessment position accurately using the various demographic clusters and patterns. This information is suitable to apprise decision-making, define resource mobilization and measure the impact of involvement in precise terms.
The dynamics around population information, including geographical spread, are crucial statistical sources informing political management decisions, and influencing administrative and governance interventions.
Demographic indicators remain the only tool with which economic planners evaluate, monitor, intervene and quantify national progress. They serve as benchmarking advancement yardsticks in fulfilling continental and global development goals as captured in the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
By breaking down the numbers, development planning can easily identify sectoral progress and challenges in education, health, financial, labour, housing, communications, transport, agriculture, trade and security, among others. Demographic data not only provides authorities with all this information for proper development planning scenarios, but also serves as an early warning system. The ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Sahel, which has impacted negatively on national and regional development and compromised public safety did not come as a surprise to the UNFPA who had forecasted on the impending predicament. In its 2018 Annual Report, UNFPA-WCARO noted that “high population growth rates, maintained by some of the highest fertility rates in the world, will be the most pressing challenge in the near future. “
UNFPA is fully conversant and engaged in alleviating the volatile crises within the Sahel. It has for the last five years gathered information covering all aspects of demographics meta-data even in complex humanitarian crises settings stretching from preparedness to the post-crisis phases continues to monitor and evaluate the same in the entire region.
In recent years’ UNFPA and development partners invested heavily in retooling data disaggregation on population spread, health access and universal education suffrage by refining methodologies to combine the enhancement of regional and national demographic data-collection systems. The modernization of information gathering systems is not isolated as a stand-alone aspect; instead, it is insulated by upgrades of rapid data analysis and swift interpretation capacities for complementarity.
Will economic development automatically lead to lower fertility? Will lower fertility automatically lead to higher economic growth? These two fundamental questions informed UNFPA’s direction and with the support of the Regional Centre of Excellence in Generational Economics (CREG) and the Thiès Applied Finance and Economics Research Centre (Centre de Recherche en Economie et Finance Appliquées de Thiès- CREFAT) to push for the establishment of National Demographic Dividend Observatories (NDDO).
The observatories continuously monitor social trends, economic sectors activities and technological fads among others to inform and guide the choices of the relevant decision-makers such as governments and development partners.
The observatories are pursuing five objectives which include data collection, storage, analysis, modelling, exchange advocacy and decision-making support. Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal, and have established fully functional observatories and other countries are soon embracing the same.
Integration of emerging metadata collection methodologies, incorporation of evolving information communication technologies such as tablets and all the observatories in the quest to increase data capture, improve data analysis and fast-track the decision making process by enabling easier demographic information access, retrieval and storage.
Like in the past UNFPA issues alerts and scenario projections in good time and directly works with partners and regional governments on appropriate intervention strategies forestall the pitfalls associated with demographic dependence.
The regional UNFPA office latest intervention was the commissioning of multiple data collecting studies on the demographic dynamics in the Central Sahel region in late 2019 and early 2020. These studies covering the humanitarian crises epicenter in the Liptarko Gourma region straddling Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger went beyond the Sahel for comparative analysis.
One of the studies was primarily devoted to crosschecking and verifying expenditure in health, spending on education and budgetary allocations on security alongside other public outlay obligations within the Sahel. The research also factored in immediate causes, which include migration, food insecurity, a rise of Jihadist movements, politically instigated coups and socio-economic deprivation.
The information assembled had examined the evolution of health disbursements, education spending, military expenditure, general demographic trends and other components of public-funded demands. The findings of the research are insightful.
The data gleaned from these studies serve as revelations on previous assumptions about the Sahel. For instance, data collected by the Peace and Research Institute, of Oslo (PRIO) indicates that pressing security challenges are compelling countries to increase military spending significantly. Interestingly, the research data is crucial to all of Africa given the recent incidents in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Mali.
Coincidentally in the just-released studies, three vital elements stand out as core strands in all the countries in the Sahel experiencing low-level security. These were; higher demographic dependency – 75 per cent compared to the general average of 47 per cent; youth unemployment rate of 10 points higher than the general average of 27.7 per cent compared to 17.9 per cent and level of secondary school enrolment was half the general average of 36.9 percent compared to 72.1 percent. Statistical modelling shows a correspondence of the increase in demographic dependency to lax security status in the Sahel.
Simulations in these studies further illustrate indicators denoting that high population growth, poverty and low educational enrollment plus attainment are associated with an increased risk of conflict.
The studies took a broad-based approach in outlook, as they are not entirely for theoretical academic purposes but chiefly meant for practical implementation. These studies are informing and managing our soon-to-be-launched demography, peace and security initiative, which is one of our core intervention strategies in the Sahel and across the continent.
According to the Dakar-based National School of Statistics and Economic Analysis (ENSAE), one of the top research think-tanks co-opted for the Sahel study, “Knowledge of the factors that explain insecurity in the Sahel is of paramount importance in designing development programmes and policies.”
These evidence-based statistical studies geared towards the general assessment of the variables determining the Sahelian crisis evolution and development went a step further by defining possible pathways of intervention.
The data that the latest studies have generated is now under rigorous scrutiny, analysis and deduction to guide UNFPA’s latest involvements. The deployment indicators contained in the data collected are fundamental going forward as they will be essential mapping out intervention strategies in the Sahel.
Accurate and timely data on population are an imperative not just for the Sahel but also for African policymakers. They highlight the trends, help in building demographic profiles, offer insights on responses, chart out interventions, give room for socio-economic management planning and set the stage for future political forecasting.
These numerical tenets are essential to calibrate effective multi-agencies responses. They will promote demographic dividend through healthy families as societal cornerstones, cushion women and children by advocating family health and contain the spread of extremism by increasing the democratic space. They will extend opportunities to the youth by including them in governance and development projects.
Mabingue Ngom is the Regional Director of the UNFPA-West and Central African Regional Office (UNFPA-WCARO) overseeing 23 countries.