Back to Senegal with Barack Obama

Dakar 2011 – They really liked Obama. A LOT.

I have less than a month left in Montreal!

In mid-July I’m heading to Western Canada to visit family, and then back to West Africa to start implementing my fellowship project over the next year. As the realization that this is actually happening REALLY SOON has crept up on me, I’ve been pondering what to expect this time around. I’ll have the big advantage of a head start on the language and culture that I didn’t get last time, as well as some good connections. But I somehow think things will be different on a larger scale too.

It’s an exciting time to be in Senegal. They have their first new leader in over a decade in Macky Sall, who won the last election with a push from young activists, who led a series of stirring pro-democracy movements. The Senegalese economy maintains a steady upwards trend, rewarding the country’s political stability with rapid growth. Yesterday Barack Obama kicked off his tour of the continent with a much-publicized symbolic visit to Dakar.

However, problems remain. Political instability on the part of most Senegal’s neighbours makes the development of integrated regional markets a challenge. The situation in Northern Mali remains highly volatile and constantly threatens to spill across borders.

At the village level, hunger remains rampant. Coming off two consecutive failed harvest seasons, rice and millet stores are low. Food aid is ubiquitous in some rural areas. Deforestation and soil fertility exhaustion are conspiring to push yields to historic lows for peanut, the main cash crop, and to mitigate crop responses to fertilizer inputs.

None of this, however, is the cause of Mr Obama’s visit. Despite the inevitable platitudes about development and trade, there is no mystery behind his recent interest in West Africa’s hub of stability. There are two key issues in play: the war on terror and the war on drugs. The former officially arrived in the public consciousness with last year’s Malian insurgency and the gas plant hostage crisis in Algeria, while the latter is in response to South American drug traffickers finding a foothold in the region as a stepping stone to Europe.

When I visited Senegal in 2011 I was stamped with a 90-day visitor’s Visa on arrival. Today you must pre-arrange a biometric pass to be glued into your passport, provide a letter from your first hotel’s owner and send scans ahead of your passport, plane ticket, etc., after which you are given 30 days to negotiate an extension. The onward march of progress I suppose.

Surveys show most Senegalese youth do not see farming as a viable future. They have watched their parents struggle to earn a living in a vocation supported by few incentives and scant security. This is already changing; the Senegalese government is investing more and more in agricultural programmes focusing on improving value chains and production methods. However, across West Africa young people are still flocking in droves to overcrowded cities in search of a better life. In many cases their arrival is met with no jobs and no safety net. Too often this frustration boils over into unrest as the disenfranchised engage in more radical pursuits.

My hope is that the international community will recognize the unequaled potential agriculture affords to tackle these issues. In smallholder farmer-based economies, the best way to engage with the citizenry is through the agricultural sector. Working to make these activities viable livelihoods creates a real perennial alternative to restless unemployment. With the number of innovative farmers and agricultural scientists working in Senegal there is real hope for these developments to take place. The domestic political will is also present as Senegal is fiercely proud of its peaceful track record.

It would be naïve to imagine that there’s no need for an evolving security apparatus; the region faces some serious challenges. Nonetheless here’s hoping that the West recognizes that the answers to these challenges lie not just with establishing strong defenses, but also with investments in strengthening the base of livelihoods and food security. Mr Obama, prepare the way; there are lots of eyes on you. I’ll be with the farmers in August.

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