Home Finance The Great Green Wall: An African Sustainable-Development Powerhouse That Is Raising the Economic Hopes of Hundreds of Millions

The Great Green Wall: An African Sustainable-Development Powerhouse That Is Raising the Economic Hopes of Hundreds of Millions

by internationalbanker

By Cary Springfield, International Banker


Existing as a buffer zone between the dry Sahara Desert to the north and the more humid Sudanian savanna to the south, the semi-arid biogeographical African region of the Sahel is home to around 135 million people, spanning more than 7 million square kilometres across 11 countries. What’s more, its population is expected to skyrocket to possibly more than 300 million people over the next 25 years at a time when the region’s land is being markedly degraded by climate change, desertification and poor land-management practices. And with the increasing scarcity of crucial resources such as water and fertile land fuelling many of the recent armed conflicts throughout the western Sahel region, as well as the displacement of millions in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, the need for sustainable land use has never been more critical than it is today.

Enter the Great Green Wall Initiative (GGWI), a flagship initiative from the African Union (AU) that began in 2007. This hugely ambitious project has sought to restore those degraded landscapes and raise the standards of living for millions of affected citizens across the Sahel and even beyond who have been severely impacted by climate-related factors that are making droughts more frequent and severe, causing extreme weather events and fostering overfarming and overgrazing. Desert encroachment has been the most extreme form of degradation, with the Sahara continuing to swallow up the Sahel, affecting up to 500 million people. The waning agricultural production and productivity rates that have resulted, in turn, have proven hugely damaging to the region’s living standards.

The GGWI aims to restore 100 million hectares of currently degraded land, sequester 250 million tons of carbon and create 10 million green jobs by 2030. Although the bulk of the work was initially focused on an expanse of land around 7,775 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide, from Djibouti’s capital city in East Africa to Dakar, Senegal, in the west, the GGWI has since expanded considerably to include more countries across the north and west of the African continent. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the initiative will ultimately help communities living along the Wall to:

  • develop one of humanity’s most precious natural assets: fertile land;
  • create economic opportunities for the world’s youngest population;
  • ensure food security for the millions who go hungry every day;
  • cultivate climate resilience in a region where temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else on Earth;
  • build a new “world wonder” spanning 8,000 kilometres across the entire width of Africa.

Once complete, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living structure on the planet, at an estimated size three times that of the Great Barrier Reef. However, given the complex challenges associated with overcoming the widespread degradation of Sahelian land, much of the GGWI’s work still lies ahead. “In this case, working to combat land degradation is the best way to address both very local issues and improve the global environment,” Jean-Marc Sinnassamy, a senior environmental specialist with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and co-manager of a programme developed under the GGWI, explained to National Geographic. “We are working with the land, which is the basis of livelihood in these communities. We are working with people to improve soil quality, which improves crop yield and, in turn, agricultural production and the overall quality of life in the community. These very local benefits are also a way to generate global benefits for water, land, and nature.”

Indeed, with 17 years having passed since its inception, the GGWI has certainly notched up tangible successes, including around 18 million hectares of degraded land restored and 350,000 jobs created across the GGWI’s 11 participating countries of Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan. As the official GGWI website notes, moreover, the initiative is “already bringing life back to Africa’s degraded landscapes at an unprecedented scale, providing food security, jobs and a reason to stay for the millions who live along its path”. It is also vitally contributing to the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global agenda aiming to achieve a more equitable and sustainable world by 2030.

Moreover, of the countries involved in the GGWI, research by the UNCCD and UN Women (United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women) singled out Burkina Faso and Senegal as the leaders of a “significant shift” towards a sustainable and inclusive future. “The green transition in Burkina Faso and Senegal is a beacon of hope for gender equality and women’s empowerment. It calls for an integrated approach that links green economic goals with gender equality objectives. The Great Green Wall Initiative is a testament to these efforts, combining environmental restoration with economic and social empowerment,” UNCCD’s executive secretary, Ibrahim Thiaw, stated on March 6. “By unlocking green jobs for women in key sectors and advocating for gender-responsive policies, these countries aren’t just building a sustainable future; they’re paving the way for a more just and equitable world.”

The positive knock-on effects of the GGWI also cannot be ignored. Very much inspired by the successes of this initiative, 16 countries within the Southern African Development Community (SADC)—Angola, Botswana, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe—have committed to accelerating multi-sectoral transformation by extending GGWI principles to the Southern African region. Due to the impacts of climate change in some areas of the southern parts of the continent, the SADC has drawn upon the lessons learnt from the initiatives implemented in the Sahara and Sahel.

“Let us get the highest level of policy and political backing. The Sahel went through 15 years of some kind of struggles, but it shouldn’t be so in the SADC Region. Let us get our Heads of State, and our ministers, behind us and the money will come,” Dr. Elvis Tangem, coordinator for the GGWI at the African Union Commission (AUC), stated in November 2022. Dr. Tangem also noted that although the two regions share the common problem of dry lands, the SADC’s version is not simply a copy and paste of its Sahel GGWI counterpart.

Rather, each area has specific conditions, as well as different government systems, historical elements and approaches. “The problem is not the money; the problem is whether we are ready to absorb, whether we are ready to mobilise and with the backing of the AU, UNCCD, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the SADC Secretariat, and Member States in [the] next one to two years, the SADC Region will have the kind of funding required to undertake large-scale mobilisation and transformation,” he added.

The sluggish rate of visible progress during the 17 years since its inception, however, means that the GGWI has also faced its fair share of criticism. A recent UN report on the implementation status of the Great Green Wall highlighted persistent key challenges to the structure of the project, including a lack of consideration for national environmental priorities; weak organisational structures and implementation processes; inadequate mainstreaming of environmental change and action into the respective sector strategies, policies and action plans; and insufficient coordination, exchange and information flows at regional and national levels. The report also estimated that at least $33 billion is needed over the next decade to achieve the GGWI’s lofty ambitions by 2030.

“To date, about 18 million hectares (44 million acres) of degraded land has been restored. Though this represents an area the size of Cambodia, it’s still only 18 percent of the total target,” environmental journalist Spoorthy Raman noted in an August 2023 article for the conservation news publication Mongabay. “Securing the necessary $33 billion to fully fund the ambitious project has faced failed promises, painful delays and poor coordination between stakeholders and financial partners, pushing the initiative off its tracks.”

That said, the One Planet Summit in January 2021 saw France’s President Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders announce the launch of the Great Green Wall Accelerator, along with a pledge of $14.3 billion in new funding. The Accelerator is coordinated through the Pan African Agency of the Great Green Wall (PAAGGW) with support from the UNCCD agency. It aims to facilitate collaboration among donors and stakeholders involved in the GGWI, as well as help all actors better coordinate, monitor and measure the impacts of their actions.

The UNCCD has noted that, to date, multilateral and bilateral organisations have raised more than $19 billion for this initiative, with a decisive uptick in interest and financial support being registered during the last two or three years. As such, this may just be the jumpstart the GGWI needs to achieve its targets over the crucial remaining years of this decade. “The campaign aims to inspire a global popular movement to deliver this urgent African-led dream by 2030,” the UNCCD recently stated. “It centres on the core narrative that the Great Green Wall is a compelling symbol of hope addressing challenges ranging from climate change to food security, migration to resource-driven conflict. It is a concrete example of man and nature working together to create a unique legacy—a new world wonder for the next generation.”


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