CNA Staff, Oct 1, 2020 / 02:55 pm (CNA).- A new report from Catholic Relief Services has found that growing violence in the Sahel region of West Africa has its foundation in economic inequality, creating one of the fastest growing humanitarian crises in the world.
The study found that religious beliefs are not causing the violence, but rather, religious leaders could have an important role in promoting peace.
“Our report underscores the fact that while the crisis may be painted by some as religious or ethnic in nature, it’s actually a result of perceived inequality and a growing discontent with government,” said Jennifer Overton, West Africa regional director for Catholic Relief Services, in a press release.
On September 30, Catholic Relief Services released a study analyzing the causes of the Sahel conflict, and its effects on communities in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The study, conducted in April, included interviews, surveys and focus groups of local farmers, herders, militias, and religious and social leaders.
“According to the analysis, jihadists and organized crime groups are exploiting the poor and unemployed, small communal grievances and mistrust of national political leadership to recruit fighters to carry out acts of violence,” Catholic Relief Services said.
Recruitment in these groups is driven by poverty and lack of national resources, rather than religious views, the report said. It added that both Christian and Muslim leaders have spoken out against the violence, and have at times faced assassination attempts for doing so.
“Insufficient and inequitable access to wealth, livelihoods, and natural resources is the driving force behind the deterioration of the social fabric and uptick in violent conflict,” the report found, adding that young people often join violent groups to escape the poverty and injustice surrounding them.
There has been a 62% increase in deaths in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger in the last year due to rising violence, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project reported that more than 4,600 people were killed in the violence in the first half of 2020.
Record flooding in recent weeks and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic have added to the crisis in the region.
“The humanitarian needs across the Sahel are staggering, with upward of 1.8 million people displaced from their homes by the violence,” Catholic Relief Services said. “According to the United Nations, more than 20 million people, half of them children, are in need of life-saving assistance and protection – the highest number ever recorded in the region.”
The violence in the area has swelled to such a level that government leaders are no longer able to respond effectively, the new report said. It stressed the importance of a collaborative response including religious and tribal leaders – who are often well respected in local communities – alongside government officials.
In response to the growing crisis, the CRS report offered several recommendations.
“Existing peacebuilding task forces (PBTFs) should bring together religious leaders at national levels to advocate for the adoption of realistic, just and humane policies to overcome the suffering caused by the current crises and to reverse political and religious polarization, violent extremism and social unrest,” it said.
It called for additional development resources to aid poor communities, as well as stronger conflict management mechanisms, including the involvement of young people and women.
“Raising the status of women as peacebuilders must respect local cultural norms and practices, but advances in this traditionally male-dominated domain could significantly improve accountability and strengthen the social fabric in the long run,” it said.
Those interviewed in the study also stressed that security and social stability play an important role in laying the groundwork for lasting peace in the region.
Last year, Catholic Relief Services offered support to the local Church in launching the Sahel Peace Initiative, to provide both immediate assistance to those who have been displaced and peacebuilding efforts to foster the stability necessary for further development.
“The daily atrocities we’re seeing reflect an extremely complex reality that is rooted in despair,” said Patrick Williams, Catholic Relief Services’ program manager for the Sahel Peace Initiative.
“We’re talking about communities where the number of unemployed people far exceeds the number of those able to earn a meaningful living.”
Overton called for changes that will help building lasting peace in the Sahel region.
“Those living in the Sahel deserve good governance, security, access to livelihoods and improved living conditions,” she said.