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Protecting the Sahel and beyond: How safeguarding against corruption could make the Great Green Wall a reality

Photo: Leela Channer

In a world grappling with environmental threats, the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel Initiative (GGWI) emerged as an African solution to build a sustainable future across the vast Sahel region.

Launched in 2007, the initiative sought to provide a green shield against advancing desert and preserve fertile land for agriculture and strengthen climate resilience across the area directly below the Sahara - spanning Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Aiming to strike a delicate balance between ecological restoration and the protection of basic human rights, tangible benefits for millions of people across the region would include increased food security, enhanced access to vital natural resources, and job opportunities through land management and restoration efforts.

Today, the initiative traverses an immense expanse of the African continent with more than thirty countries and multiple organisations involved. Its structure is designed to be comprehensive and inclusive, but has inherent complexities given its mammoth scale.

Despite a commitment to good governance, the GGWI has experienced critical implementation and coordination challenges.

For the initiative to be carried out successfully, effective implementation will require more transparency, accountability, and increased participation of civil society organisations and the wider community.

What is the GGWI’s purpose and governance structure?

The GGWI was conceived as a response to the challenges of desertification, poverty, and food insecurity in Africa's Sahel region.

Ultimately, the GGWI aims to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, create 10 million jobs and sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon by 2030 using an integrated land management approach.

The African Union (AU) launched the initiative in 2007 and continues to oversee the project, and has received backing from various organisations, including the United Nations, the World Bank and several donor countries.

The initiative has spread to every geographical region of the African continent and more than thirty countries are engaged in various stages of implementation. The Pan African Agency of the Great Green Wall (PAAGGW) was created in 2010 to coordinate and monitor the implementation of the GGWI and mobilise the necessary resources together with the AU and the 11 countries directly below the Sahara that the wall will span.

These 11 countries have created national agencies or focal points to supervise and coordinate the implementation of national GGWI priority actions. These agencies work closely with local communities, non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders.

At the community level, there are local organisations and groups involved, such as farmers and indigenous communities. Their involvement is crucial because they have valuable knowledge and experience in the local environment.

In 2021, world leaders at the One Planet summit launched the Great Green Wall (GGW) Accelerator, hosted by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which aims to support the PAAGGW to increase the speed at which the GGWI can deliver results. This includes adopting a more structured approach to implementation, scaling up successful initiatives, harmonising impact measurement and reporting, and better integrating the private sector, civil society, research and innovation into GGWI efforts.

What needs to change

A 2020 progress report found the GGWI had collectively restored 4 million hectares of degraded land to date, just 4% of the initial target. However, it's important to note that 17.8 million hectares of land had been restored in the wider GGWI region by 2018. A range of activities were also reported to have had positive environmental and social-economic benefits, including savings from greenhouse gas emissions and job creation.

Nevertheless, 16 years after it was conceived, the GGWI continues to face some critical implementation challenges, including poor mainstreaming of the initiative into national environmental strategies, weak organisational structures and processes, insufficient coordination, and inadequate flows of information at the regional and national levels.

These problems not only hold the initiative back from reaching its ultimate goals, but risk leaving it vulnerable to corruption.

The GGWI must be prepared to address its governance issues and implement changes to ensure funds and opportunities are not squandered.

1. Ensure transparency and availability of information

Limited transparency in the governance of the GGWI has raised concerns about accountability and access to information.

Although GGWI transparency policies exist, they are mostly unpublished and lack detail, and there is no disclosure about the actual procedures to access information or the types of documents that can be accessed. There is also no information available on the procedures to appeal the non-disclosure of information.

The UNCCD GGWI and the PAAGGW websites also provide very limited information, while decentralised project financing processes further hamper public access to information, and key financial documents are not publicly available.

Despite these challenges, there have been recent strides in information sharing. An online multi-purpose platform being developed to present GGWI information holds promise, but the extent of public access to the platform’s contents remains uncertain.

To address these transparency gaps, we recommend the PAAGGW prioritise:

• The launch of the multi-purpose online platform, ensuring that key data on project funding is made accessible to the public.

• Publish all relevant policy, financial, technical and achievement documents on its website in both French and English.

• Publish an annual report that provides a detailed account of the project’s implementation status and financial allocations. We further recommend all national GGWI agencies do the same.

2. Increase public and civil society participation

The GGWI faces challenges ensuring the meaningful participation and engagement of civil society organisations (CSO’s) and grassroot communities. Existing frameworks to encourage participation are informal and lack clarity.

To address these issues, the GGWI has outlined priorities in its Decennial Priority Investment Plan (DPIP) for 2021-2030. These priorities aim to improve local ownership, reduce social conflicts and foster collaboration. The plan also includes direction to establish support centres for resilient local development and strengthen relationships and exchanges between communities.

There are also ongoing initiatives in place. These include the establishment of national coalitions, the annual GGW Youth Green Caravan and Forum, as well as plans for a Women's Green Platform that will feature sessions and activities at both national and regional levels.

Regardless, significant gaps remain in actively facilitating and encouraging participation across the GGWI. To enhance stakeholder and community participation, we recommend that the PAAGGW:

• Consider formalising the consultative role of CSOs in decision-making processes, such as through participation in technical committees and board meetings.

• Create clear criteria and procedures for engagement and define this at local and national levels. National agencies should develop a participation framework to ensure local communities’ involvement in planning and implementation.

• The states belonging to the GGWI should establish national coalitions of state and non-state actors, utilising the support of the GGW Accelerator and Integrated Sustainable Development Units to guide GGWI strategy and implementation.

3. Strengthen accountability and integrity systems

The GGWI significantly lacks enforceable accountability mechanisms and integrity measures. Decision-making processes lack universal frameworks, and no official accountability documents – such as annual reports – are published.

Insufficient reporting has led to serious credibility issues and reduced funding, and monitoring and evaluation systems are fragmented - with various mechanisms involving a mixture of government bodies, national agencies and donors.

The PAAGGW’s governance and ethics charter lacks detail and anti-corruption mechanisms, which puts whistleblowers at serious risk.

To address these issues, we propose the PAAGGW:

• Strengthen and institutionalise a transparent monitoring and evaluation system and publish annual impact reports.

• Develop a code of conduct, and a conflict-of-interest policy for PAAGGW staff.

• Establish accessible complaints mechanisms and whistleblowing protection policies based on global standards.

4. Clarify working relationships

The large size and fragmented nature of the initiative has created inconsistencies and a lack of clarification regarding roles and responsibilities.

This not only tends to slow progress and create confusion around responsibilities but increases the likelihood of funds being mismanaged.

To ensure clarity in working relationships and implementation across the GGWI, we recommend that:

The working relationship between the AU and PAAGGW be clarified.

The AU establish the necessary structures for the GGWI, or merge them with the PAAGGW, to avoid having multiple levels of actors. To ensure that the PAAGGW and the GGWI are managed effectively and consistently, the organisation’s general secretariat needs to have enough staff to be responsible for accountability.

States belonging to the GGWI should have a stronger ownership of it and show a clear alignment with their respective national policies, as well as activating multi-stakeholder national coalitions that include civil society actors.

GGWI partners should fast-track a planned institutional and organisation audit of the PAAGGW and act on its recommendations. A transitional strategy should be established to join the GGW Accelerator and the PAAGGW, which should be treated as an opportunity to enhance participation.

Donors to enhance their coordination and avoid overlapping programming or competition for funding from different governments, CSOs or national agencies. Donors should also learn from previously funded projects and prioritise investing in the governance of the GGWI.

The GGWI presents a bold and transformative vision for tackling environmental and development challenges. The positive impact that a fully realised Great Green Wall across the Sahel could have on the daily lives of those living in the region is monumental.

To complete its ambitions, however, it must be vigilant about corruption risks and put meaningful safeguards in place.

The governance structure of the GGWI needs to prioritise inclusivity, transparency, and accountability, enabling the active engagement of individuals, civil society organisations, and local communities in shaping and driving the initiative forward.

By addressing these challenges directly, the GGWI can become a powerful force for sustainable development in the Sahel region and beyond.

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