Syria dominates the news cycle and is probably the principal preoccupation of foreign ministries, just as Libya previously was, and is once again following the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Yet UN agencies, especially the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program, have, with only limited success, repeatedly warned of the potential humanitarian catastrophe in the Sahel.
On September 4, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres published a thoughtful analysis of the crisis in Mali in the New York Times. It goes beyond a wake-up call. His central argument is that the current crisis in Mali and the Sahel is the result of an "intersection of trends," including food insecurity and desertification, "incomplete democratization…marked by social exclusion," and rampant youth unemployment. He also places the current radical Islamic groups who control northern Mali in the context of a century of Taureg rebellions and a smuggling trade that ranges from narcotics to weapons. He cites the attraction marginalized and disaffected youth in the region have of Malian radical Islamic groups . The bleak statistics he cites are not surprising, but dire nonetheless: eighteen million Sahelians affected by, or at risk of, food shortages; 266,000 Malian refugees–mostly in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Algeria; and 174,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mali.
Guterres warns that the Mali crisis could morph into an "arc of instability" from Mauritania in the West to the Gulf of Aden in the East, with weak state authorities and active transnational criminals. To forestall this, Guterres urges the international community to support those in the region working for a political settlement.
The high commissioner’s warning is well placed. Once aroused –admittedly often a slow process that is influenced by the degree of media attention– the international community will write the necessary checks, the food will be delivered, and tent cities established. Assisting in achieving an internal political settlement in Mali will be much more difficult than meeting immediate humanitarian needs. For example, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has tried to play a leading role in Mali. But two of Mali’s closest neighbors, Mauritania and Algeria, are not ECOWAS members and are likely to be distinctly unenthusiastic about an ECOWAS military presence in territory adjacent to their borders.